The Royal Ballet
Ashton Bill: La Valse, Meditation from Thais, Voices of Spring, Monotones I & II, Marguerite & Armand
London, Royal Opera House
12 February 2013
Gallery of 36 pictures by Dave Morgan
It’s good to be writing about the first Frederick Ashton evening of Kevin O’Hare’s reign at the Royal Ballet, and better still to be able to report very happily on two thirds of the programme. I do hope, though, that O’Hare will think hard before the next one and schedule a stronger opening section than he offered us this time.
Like Anthony Dowell before him, he chose La Valse as his first Ashton piece; Monica Mason also seemed fond of it, and I assume they all value it as a showcase for the company as a whole. It’s certainly a revealing and exhausting test-piece for the corps de ballet, and its swirling patterns are mildly spectacular – but there’s not much in it beyond that and I find it something of a downer at the start of an evening. It’s also very short – about 13 minutes – and so has to be tacked on to something else to fill in the time till the next interval. The last time we saw it, it was arranged to lead straight into Kim Brandstrup’s Invitus Invitam, an experiment I’d be very happy to see repeated, but in an all-Ashton evening the only option seems to be a selection from his shorter party-pieces: this time, the perfumed ‘Meditation’ from Thais and the cheerfully extravert Voices of Spring pas de deux.
A nicely contrasted pairing, in concept, but unfortunately neither piece made its expected impact. Leanne Benjamin and Valeri Hristov were a touch too prosaic for Thais: it’s written as a lush, romantic dream, and needs to be danced like that – trying to fight it, to ‘man it up’ a bit simply doesn’t work. Voices of Spring, on the other hand, is tongue-in-cheek Ashton, a bit of a romp, best seen with a cast who can put it over with a sophisticated confidence and dash. Yohui Choe and Alexander Campbell made a charming couple but on too small a scale – they might be lovely in something like Bournonville’s Flower Festival at Genzano pas de deux but this piece needs a more outgoing flamboyance, to match the music. The overall result was that this whole section fell rather flat, leaving a scrappy and inconsequential impression – a pity, particularly as there’s no shortage of attractive opening ballets in the Ashton canon.
But that’s the end of the bad news: the rest of the evening was on a different level altogether.
One of the most extraordinary, and to my mind indefensible, aspects of Monica Mason’s programme planning is that she never, in all the years she was running the company, scheduled Ashton’s breathtakingly beautiful Monotones: not once. The RB School showed it occasionally but the company never danced it on its home stage in all that time. It was one of Ashton’s own favourites, and it would come very high on my list too - how could such a jewel be so neglected? Two trios, set to Erik Satie’s Trois Gnossiennes and Trois Gymnopédies, it’s utterly simple, distilled down to an irreducible essence: nothing happens, but it can speak direct to your soul. It’s actually so long since we saw the whole piece that I’d forgotten how lovely the first trio – the ‘green’ one – is. It starts with the three dancers – a man and two women – shading their eyes as if from the setting sun: at once we know that these are people, not gods, and we can see them as searching for human joys and fulfilment, whilst the other trio, in white, are from another world. The lines, the flow, the serenity of that second section – it is one of the most beautiful ballets I know, a truly life-enhancing piece . And, to come down to earth a bit, it was very nicely danced – I’d quibble perhaps with one of two of the casting decisions but I was particularly happy with Marianela Nunez in the white section and Emma Maguire in green. (And coming even further down to earth, what happened to the Phrygian caps the green trio used to wear? – they were attractive in themselves and also set them apart a little from the other three.)
The main selling point of the programme came last, with the return of the wanderers: Tamara Rojo and Sergei Polunin coming back to the company to recreate – we hoped – the wonderful performances of Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand which they gave us at the beginning of last season. A lot of water has flowed under various different bridges since then but I was unequivocally happy to see them both again – our last look at Rojo, I suppose, but surely not at Polunin. He probably had the most riding on the evening and I thought he looked a little tense at times: his usually beautiful line occasionally looked cramped and his electric stage presence a little dimmed. That still left him way ahead of every other pretender to Nureyev’s role, and as his reception at the end of the evening must have banished any doubts about his welcome, his remaining performances could be even more extraordinary. But it was Rojo who really surprised me, with the most emotionally open performance I’ve ever seen from her. In the past I’ve often felt that she was deliberately keeping us at a slight distance, allowing us to watch her but reluctant to bare her soul: for these last appearances she’s finally let us in and the difference was astonishing – a swansong, indeed: what a way to go!