Royal Ballet in the Cinema: Royal Ballet Dances Frederick Ashton

Tamara Rojo and Sergei Polunin take final bow from the Covent Garden stage

On a balmy summer’s evening in Belfast with the backdrop of trouble on the outskirts of town, I joined some of the intrepid tourists and of course, ballet fans, who were not, by and large, to be put off by a bit of summer madness to see this exceptional evening of dance.  This was not a live recording, but had been filmed in February and there were many remarkable performances and stunning in their range.  If I’d forgotten why the Royal Ballet’s founding choreographer, Sir Frederick Ashton is revered, this was a great evening to remind myself why and also to see works that I’d not seen before or only on the small screen.

The evening started with, La Valse, capturing the current mood for retro tea dances and sumptuous balls.  The stage is filled with 21 couples waltzing with wide dresses and tails in circular formation or across the stage in rows.  In ways it is familiar to see the Royal’s much lauded corps de ballet in such a spectacle but it is usually in white tutus.  This piece was set to dazzle and look luscious as the dancers whirl and twirl in complete harmony.  There is a lot of arms movement, in perfect timing before three couples  become the focal point, the three ladies and their handsome beaux0, as the women are all romantic arms and showing them off to perfection, the men bound gallantly forth to whisk their ladies into a frenzy but in the most proper way.  The setting is a grand ballroom, complete runway to promenade along, sweeping down red-carpeted steps onto the dance floor.  The soloists were Bennett Gartside, Samantha Raine, Hikaru Kobayashi, Ryoichi Hirano, Helen Crawford, Brian Maloney.  This was Ashton’s homage to a form of dance that, of its time, was scandalous as it enabled men and women to become closer than they’d been before.  Modern audiences love the gentlemanlike and ladylike way social interaction was conducted and the romanticism.

Recently as part of the Royal Ballet’s appearance at the UK City of Culture celebrations in Londonderry, Yuhui Choe and Ryoichi Hirano danced ‘Meditation‘ from Thais, this evening, at the other end of her dancing career, recent retiree Leanne Benjamin danced with Valeri Hristov.  Leanne Benjamin was a fabulous dancer, at the absolute height of her powers and did not look like someone who is nearly entering their 5th decade, what a performer, what a woman.  Although Leanne had not announced her retirement in February, it was nice to share one of her final performances and feel as if we were able to say goodbye to this fine dancer.  This is an unadulterated romantic showpiece but with understated strength.  The male must lift the object of his affection like a prized possession and sacrifice, straight up in the air on outstretched arms.  The female courus around the stage for a long time, conveying indecision, longing and giving the impression of being other-worldly.  The male is more grounded and earthy but none the less romantic as he is the pursuant of his dreams.  The music that accompanies is Meditation from Massenet’s opera Thais, is one of the most gorgeously romantic pieces around that helps to engage you with the story of the piece.

Choe herself then danced ‘Voices of Spring’, a work that is entirely appropriate for her beaming smile and she was ably supported by Alexander Campbell as she is propelled across the stage, at the end of his outstretched arm, leaving a trail of petals as she goes along.  The piece is set to a waltz by Johann Strauss II which gives that fluid, breezy, up-tempo lightness.  Then when they reach the ground, there is a lot of changes of direction and jumping in this work which must sap the energy of the dancers.  This is a work that is purely pleasure-driven and this is what it brings, the costumes are of a pale green, light and floaty too and the girl wears a halo of flowers in her hair.

The next two acts are entitled Monotones I and II, works for three dancers, the first a man and two women and the second, a woman and two men.  Unsurprisingly, given the title of the pieces, the dancers are dressed in single colour body suits.  The only people that can get away with this are athletes and dancers.  Montones I was danced by Akane Takada, as the smallest dancer, at the front Dawid Trzensimiech, another dancer who came over for the City of Culture, is in the middle and Emma Maguire behind.  Monotones has a very modern feel to it though it was choreographed in the 60s.  However, the 60s era may account for the rather odd costumes, or rather, the hat atop the plain coloured body suits looks like a shower cap with nodules for conducting sci-fi experiments on the dancers, although I’m sure a study of the inner workings of a ballet dancer’s brain would reveal many interesting facts about strength and perseverance.

Monotones’ are abstract in feel and mainly concerned with shapes and lines and symmetry, like statues coming to life.   Monotones I, the dancers are in green with sequined bandings complete with green hat.  The dancers are in a line in front of each other, they must be very controlled as there are not a lot of big movements and are totally exposed which may have accounted for a few wobbles.   The whole of the body is used and a lot more arm movement than usual which is beautiful to see.  I have to say that as fascinating as Monotones I was, I could tell that it was choreographed as a secondary work, Monotones II was much more captivating.

Monotones II was danced by three Principal Dancers with a wealth of experience in modern and classical roles, Edward Watson, Marianela Nunez and Nehemiah Kish.  Monotones II involved the dancers being costumed in all-white, this accentuated even more the clean lines of the piece.  Both pieces gave you time to appreciate the fundamental steps of ballet and the strength and poise.  I also enjoyed the non-combative nature between the male and female dancers and especially in Monotones I, it is sometimes difficult to tell which one is which, except for that the women are on pointe.  As opposed to present day modern ballet, for example, Wayne McGregor, the choreographer quite often does not choreograph the work, on pointe.  I personally enjoy seeing a work that is on pointe as I think that the lines are cleaner and much more finished and balletic, although that is probably the intention of the modern-day choreographer, not to be so polished and a bit more incomplete.  Monotones I and II are the epitome of smoothness, the rarefied air that the dancers inhabit, is rarely disturbed.  The work is purposefully androgynous and is meant to be observed for how the dancer’s form can produce such beautiful movements.

The next work could not be more different and had so much significant baggage attached, being a short, narrative work choreographed for ballet’s most famous couple, Fonteyn and Nureyev.  Add to that weight of history, this performance was performed by Tamara Rojo, returning from her Directorship of the English National Ballet to grace the stage of the Royal Ballet for one final time, taking her last bow as a dancer after many years as Principal.  Tamara, one of the finest actor-dancers of her generation was partnered by one of ballet’s most infamous young dancers also returning to the Royal Opera House for one last bow after an-all-to public and dramatic departure, Sergei Polunin.  Polunin obviously has so much passion and if he chooses to direct it into the appropriate role, he has the potential to ignite fireworks with whomever he is dancing, especially being partnered by one of ballet’s sparkiest personalities.

The piece starts with the dying Marguerite lying on her chaise longue, weeping for true love and a life lost.  It then jumps back to the meeting of the courtesan, in full charge of her sexual powers, aristocrats and young men are fighting amongst themselves for her attention as she is at her most alluring in a roaring red dress.  Armand cuts a real dash in a blue hunting jacket and quickly draws her attention away from the wealthier lovers with his dashing prowess.  The characters display their love in a pas-de-deux of romantic coupling set to a dreamy score by Liszt.  This is where the power of the cinema enhanced the experience as we were able to focus on the solo accompaniment on the piano by Robert Clark on the piano, a performance that is as crucial as the dancing.  I loved watching the hands fly over the keys so fast that they became a blur.  This built the atmosphere and the ballet performance would not have been as effective without this music.

The story is familiar having been interpreted in opera and even to Hollywood as Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge is based on this story and borrows many of the key elements, their poor circumstances get in the way of true love.  Even though love seems to have won as they leave their torrid history behind to live out in romance, in the country.  Marguerite’s story is also told through her costumes as she is now dressed in a virginal white costume.  However, she cannot run away from her former life and illness is taking hold of her, she heroically, under the behest of Armand’s father, runs away to give him a better chance of happiness.  She is now dressed in an alluring black dress, to find a wealthy patron, only for Armand to follow her, humiliating her, throwing money at her.  It is only on her death bed that Armand learns of her sacrifice and he rushes to her side to be re-united with her, for it to be too late but the short narrative work packs as much emotion into the piece as we can get, as Armand dances with her to the death.

However, it was the real, human drama, that brought the greatest tear to my eye, the triumphant return for such a talented but temperamental dancer as Sergei Polunin and as if that wasn’t drama enough, there is probably only one woman that could fill Fonteyn’s shoes at the moment, in Britain, and that is Tamara Rojo and tonight was her final bow on the Covent Garden stage.  Tamara Rojo looked sensational in the roaring red costume and matched the power of Polunin.  She is a dancer and a person that has always been supremely in control of herself or would appear to be.  The stage tonight was hers and it was fitting that it was a triumphant return for her to say thank-you to her adoring fans and to have Sergei at her side to thank-you to Covent Garden for accepting him back after his abrupt departure.  To top it all off, Tamara was joined on stage by Carlos Acosta to give her flowers and acknowledge the many roles that they had danced together.

The success of Event Cinema has been staggering for the Arts.  It started out with theatre, ballet and opera and now pop concerts and museum exhibitions are all being shown on the big screen.  Of course, it will never rival or be a substitute for actually being in the auditorium and I think we are now getting to grips with the awkward, do we clap or not and just clap as if you were there, live.  The focusing in on key moments can actually give you a much enhanced experience and for those of us who cannot travel to London all the time and live in a country that cannot hope to stage such lavish productions on the grand scale of the Royal Opera House, this has been such a phenomenal success.  I do not believe there is any downside to this experience, although, there could be a few more in the cinema and the price, although you get more than a front-row seat, you are right in there amongst the action, amongst the feet of the dancers and hands of the solo musicians, this would cost a considerable amount of money.  Ballet has also been seen by a much larger audience and sometimes at the same time across many countries, than it could possibly have dreamt of.  I have not gone to live ballet performances any less than I would have before cinema, I feel that it enhances the art-form and gives you an appetite for more, it just gives us the option to see performances that previously we could only have read about.  There has also been a company set up that will work, solely, in the digital medium and this will be interesting and a different format to experience ballet, not a substitute and with touring becoming increasingly difficult, this is our opportunity to see the World’s best companies with travelling a few miles to the local cinema.

http://www.roh.org.uk/news/a-tribute-sir-frederick-ashton and for in-training videos, see http://www.roh.org.uk/news/the-royal-ballet-dances-frederick-ashton-in-cinemas-this-summer and more on Sir Frederick Ashton here http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2010/mar/02/dance-frederick-ashton

Ashton, Fonteyn and Nureyev talk about the dance here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DSIz2DWZMbY

Mayerling, Royal Ballet, 10th June 2013

Kenneth MacMillan’s ballets, although very much within the classical tradition, often do not conform to the pink tutu’ed frothiness that classical ballet conjures up.  They often take adult and quite dark themes as their subject.  Mayerling is based on historical figures and who could resist a tale of the downfall of a great European Empire that eventually led to the First World War and changing the course of modern history.  This dynasty had reached the pinnacle of excess, one that wars and media saturation have pretty much put an end to but seen in glimpses still in the modern age, although the new Royalty which is celebrity.  Describing Mayerling, the Royal Opera House tweeter stated that if you don’t like pink ribbons and tutus ballet, then Mayerling is for you, to which someone replied, “I like pink ribbons and tutus”, to which it was rather gallantly conceded, okay, if you like pink ribbons, pointe shoes, Princes, Courtiers and Whores, this is for you!  Corps dancers have delighted in tweeting pictures of their costume box, titled something like ‘Whore No. 1’.  However the person with the remarkable performance, who carries the ballet and a lot of his partner dancers on his not inconsiderable shoulders is the main, focal role, of Crown Prince Rudolf, danced tonight by the appropriately strong with Princely bearing, Rupert Pennefather.

The ballet begins on a dark, foreboding note that does not lift, although there are moments of humour, the whole work is mesmerising and breath-taking.  However, the audience is left in no doubt that this does not end well.  We first witness a rain-lashed, dark hole in the ground and mourners dressed in black.  This bleak scene soon gives way to a regal procession of richly dressed courtly figures in somewhat celebratory mood, although the groom is causing a stir from the start by ignoring his young bride and cavorting with her older sister.

What ballet and Kenneth MacMillan do best, is infuse these characters with emotions, letting us delve into their souls.  When speech is removed and normal body language and gestures, the movement must encapsulate the whole of the what the dancer is expressing,  and the dancers/ choreographers use of the language of ballet is phenomenal.  Partnering is particularly important in Mayerling and Rupert Pennefather and fellow Rudolf’s carry a heavy but ultimately worthwhile burden, on speaking of the role, Edward Watson says,

              “The role’s challenges are enormous, both physically and dramatically, in the first
act alone there’s a huge number of pas de deux, as well as group scenes and solo …       conveying Rudolf’s personality, being that tense, that wired and often aggressive, is a real              demand.  Half-way through, you’re thinking, “I never want to do this again, it’s so hard”,    but by the end you’re thinking, “I never want to do anything else!”’.  Watch Edward Watson learning the role here

This shows the lengths that ballet dancers go to, to bring us this level of performance, limbs are stretched to the outer limits of possibility, bodies intertwine, either willingly or under forcefulness.  The lifts choreographed for this work help to emote this powerful story.  Not only does the male lead have to support five women but he is performing such rigorous partnering with them.  At times, the music stops for a fraction and while the audience sit in stunned silence, you could hear the soft breathing of the dancers as they recovered from a pas-de-deux of such emotional magnitude that this imperceptible peek at their humanity was appreciated and heightened the connection between audience and performers, if this was consciously done, it was superb.

Dynastic and political tensions, are further exacerbated with the more incendiary, sexual liaisons, driving Rudolf into madness.  Illicit and not-so-illicit meetings with Hungarian Separatists, who emerge at every opportunity from behind the floor to ceiling curtains that close off the stage for scene changes, providing adequate cover, the characters emerge from their hiding places, pressurising Rudolf, with their campaign for the separatist cause.  The set and costumes are luscious and dramatic but not opulent or intrusive, they provide a backdrop but then with that many characters and drama, it would be overly fussy to have a lot of scenery.  As well as his intrigues with separatism, the main thrust of the production, is his liaisons with the various women in his life, he wants love and support from his Mother who is complicated with affairs herself, he has a grasping ex-mistress, Countess Larisch, who would do anything to get back into his favour and presents the precocious and very youthful package to him that is his future mistress, Mary Vetsera, Mary’s mother is also rumoured to have been the first mistress.

Rudolf’s only legitimate lover, his young Princess Bride, as well as scaring her half to death with a human skull in one hand and a gun in the other and taking his prize, roughly, on his wedding night, he inexplicably takes her to a brothel frequented by separatists and where the entertainment is orchestrated by Rudolf’s current Mistress, Mitzi Caspar.  Princess Stephanie’s motivation appears to be, to try and exert some control and also do her duty by her husband which becomes increasingly impossible for everyone.  Kenneth MacMillan again does not sanitise the brothel scene, as with the wedding night scene, where his innocent bride chooses a less revealing nightdress, only to be forced into a much flimsier negligee by her attendants who are aware of Rudolf’s more advanced knowledge, the brothel scene has Corps dancers dressed in Prostitute garb: bodices, black tights and ankle boots.  They cavort suggestively with each other as well as any man in the room.  The Royal’s corps is highly praised for their prowess and versatility, going from pure classicism to writhing on the floor with each other, using the extensions of their legs to draw the men in and captivate them.  In contrast, Mitzi Caspar is dressed rather demurely in a knee-length dress, pink tights with pretty ribbons making a kind of apron at the front of her dress.  Her dancing is happy and open, completing turns with his friends, they whip her around, as Rudolf comes under the spell of the temptresses, orchestrated by Mitzi.  Rudolf has little time or inclination for his prudish bride and he rejects her and she leaves with his loyal friend, Bratfisch.  Bratfisch tries to save Rudolf from his worst excesses but this looks like an impossible task.  It is here and to Mitzi, that Rudolf first proposes his grand romantic suicide pact, she is horrified and informs on him to the Prime Minister, whom she leaves with, probably more in a gesture of protection.  The PM becomes increasingly concerned as the future ruler of his country becomes more wild and irresponsible, Prostitutes scatter as a consequence of the raid.

As Rudolf leaves, another chapter of his already complex life enfolds as he meets his nemesis, Mary Vetsera, the child whose development has been warped by the presence of women who are willing to sell themselves or anyone around them for a position at Court.  Mary is tragically obsessed with the Crown Prince and believes herself feverishly in love.  For a young dancer like Melissa Hamilton, to be given a role like Mary Vetsera must be a dream.  A perfect role for a dancer, perhaps on the cusp of stardom, interpreting a multi-layered character such as Mary Vetsera.  Mary holds Rudolf’s picture as we’ve all held the pictures in magazines of our favourite pop-star, however Mary has access to a powerful and sexual icon and she will not entertain any limits to romantic love.  She uses her wiles to become uppermost in the affections of a man, much older and experienced and at the expense of a coterie of ladies who are also looking to be privileged in the affections of the future Emperor.  However, the role of Mary is different from the other females as she is driven, at full throttle, towards Rudolf, out of love, not power-brokering, as well as staring at his picture, she writes love letters and presents herself in his room, dressed only in a black-chiffon negligee.  Where Princess Stephanie appears tentative and a little uninteresting, Mary rushes headlong at Rudolf, she doesn’t just indulge him in his morbid games with the gun and skull but shoots it right back at him and rushes into his arms.  She then uses her youthful, glamorous body to further capture her prey, wrapping her celebrated extended legs round him.

The partnering between Rupert Pennefather and Melissa Hamilton is explosive and so full of charisma.  The two dancers emanate enough heat and chemistry to power the National Grid for a year.  The dancer who performed Princess Stephanie, I feared for her on a number of occasions, that she would be overwhelmed.  There is no such hesitancy with Melissa, who matches his power with spirit and fearlessness.  Her body appears to be limitless but she is just not a dancer who has a fabulous body but she has that special gift of holding the audience in rapt attention.  Rudolf is soon captivated by Mary and in a scene that brings a moment of charm to the ballet, Rudolf and Mary, so enthralled with each other, they ignore Bratfisch as he attempts to entertain them with his dancing.  Typically they see no-one but each other and he playfully dances round and round and performs leaps for his own amusement, although the audience are in on the performance with Bratfisch whose solo gives us a bit of levity and feeling of spontaneity.

The final act of the ballet has an ominous pall of descent into the abyss.  Rudolf starts off with the murder of a court official, narrowly missing killing the Emperor as well.  His unpredictable mood is not helped by drugs and mistresses.  Finally, he is joined by Mary who foolishly agrees to join him in the lovers’ suicide pact.  The final pas-de-deux builds the emotions to a deadly climax when Rudolf is released from his madness and Mary thinks she has written herself into the course of romantic history.  There are parallels between Mary and Juliet,  sacrificing themselves for romantic love, however Juliet was a fictional character with the status of a Princess, Mary was not Royal.  Rudolf and Mary’s double suicide was not seen as a grand gesture towards love and romance but a scandal, details of their very real death were hushed up, they were not lauded as the pinnacle of romance but the pinnacle of folly and excess that helped to bring down an ancient empire.   The final act is so full of emotion and laden with doom, we go from the lovers finally intertwined and consummating their love to the final deadly ringing out of one gun-shot as Rudolf shoots Mary, staggers out from behind the screen to his friends finding him alive but soon he puts the gun to his own head and takes himself into oblivion.

Finally, we see the complete scene that commenced the production, the black hole receives it’s body as a lifeless form is dragged, but not unfeelingly, towards a coffin, the coffin is tragically shut on this youthful, wraithlike figure and it is lowered into the ground.  Only a handful of people are in attendance.  It is a bleak final scene where we all yearn for that force of nature to overcome her doom and dance again.  Mary had Juliet-like principles of love and romance but these principles were warped by women who should have protected and nurtured her finer feelings.  Rudolf should have been a strong leader with his force of personality but again was developmentally warped, rejected by Mother, expectations from Father too high and further surrounded by unsuitable relationships in his friends and lovers.  Kenneth MacMillan has taken a very powerful story and some of the most rich, historical characters since the Court of Henry VIII with a lot of poignancy for our modern times.  Although set in the late 1800’s, this is a particularly pertinent work with many cases of the brutalising and trafficking of young women.  Also, it is pertinent to see how societies based on excess seem to reach a pinnacle and then implode.  This was an extraordinary time and it made for an extraordinary, if complicated ballet.  I may be a little bit biased but for me, there is nothing like ballet to tell such an emotionally-charged story and Kenneth MacMillan was one of ballet’s most extraordinary choreographers.