Royal Ballet School
La Valse, Bottega, Scottish Dances from Flowers of the Forest, Simple Symphony, Pulse, Swan Lake excerpts, Paquita excerpts and Untied, Undone
London, Opera Holland Park
4 July 2019
The Royal Ballet School are busy – two weeks ago they were performing in the Royal Opera House Linbury Theatre as part of the Young Talent Festival, which brings together many junior companies from around Europe to show their best, and last week they were dancing their annual shows at Holland Park. Today (Sunday 14 July 2019) they give their annual performance on the main stage at the Opera House, which Jann Parry has the joy of covering. All these shows have overlapping repertoire, but they are different and it’s good to have several views on the next generations of dancers coming through the UK’s premiere ballet school.
I haven’t got to a Holland Park performance for a few years, but was reminded of what a pleasant location it is on a warm summer’s night and also how comfortable and spacious is the seating – all with good views of the wide, if not very deep, stage as well. There is no fly tower and the wings aren’t so deep, but overall it remains a great place to see the many works that the school normally put on. In terms of repertoire I thought this year was a pretty good one; and the standard of dancing across the board was generally impressive. This performance was, though, rather odd in that no student or students stood out particularly for me, which is normally very much the case. But strength in depth is no bad thing, of course, and with solid dancing one tends to concentrate on the repertoire – no bad place to be at all.
It’s hard to go wrong opening with Ashton’s La Valse with its initially menacing Ravel score. The Andre Levasseur costumes always look terrific and the Upper Schools years animated them pleasingly well as the steps opens up into swirling abandon. Choreographically it was a come-down to Petal Miller Ashmole’s work (Bottega) to show off Years 10 and 11 from White Lodge (the Lower School). It did, in fact, show off the students’ classical chops well, but squeezed between Ashton and David Bintley’s Scottish Dances from Flowers of the Forest, it looked pretty forlorn as interesting dance. The Bintley is fun and demands a lot of the students dramatically – the boys as drunks and the girls as disapproving wives and girlfriends etc. As in La Valse the action doesn’t let up and it’s a reminder of Bintley’s skill at weaving narrative into classical ballet.
Alastair Marriott’s Simple Symphony for the Upper School 2nd years (one year away from graduating) was created for the School seven years ago and derives much impetus from the Benjamin Britten score of the same name. It’s consciously newer in its partnering than the Ashton and Bintley, but can feel a little awkward at times in chasing different moves that don’t flow so harmoniously. But when it hits its stride it can sparkle with the best and is a good test for the students.
Goyo Montero’s Pulse was danced after the interval and had me in two minds. It was for all three Upper School years and made them all look amazing powerful by treating them as one massive, identically clad, corps de ballet. All the dancers are in steel grey all-in-ones and it starts with all the dancers standing bolt upright, looking like a flock of Antony Gormley Iron Men statues. The group moves in unison, or as sub-groups, like grasses on a prairie, bending and shimmering in the wind. Occasionally a soloist or very small group emerge to do something in opposition to the corps, if it’s not clear what the dramatic arc of the piece is, if any. It was created for the Prix de Lausanne last year and RBS have done well to grab it. The only problem for me is that such an approach to using mass numbers in contemporary ballet is much associated with Crystal Pite. Her Emergence for the National Ballet of Canada and now in the rep of many companies, uses the same composer (Owen Belton), was created 10 years ago and has been hailed a masterpiece – as has much else of what she does including her recent Flight Pattern for the Royal Ballet, which again majored on the corps. I perhaps shouldn’t be so picky – choreographers do all breathe the same contemporary air and this style shows new use of the corps de ballet. The students will see much more of it, I fancy.
Following on the very contemporary theme was some short Swan Lake excerpts from Mats Ek – such a refreshing change to what Schools normally do with Lac. And also a reminder of how little we see of Ek and his cleverness in showing character and motivations and the ridiculousness of the life we sometimes lead. More. Ashley Page’s Untied, Undone, new this year, and to part of Felix Mendelssohn’s 4th Symphony, was delightfully unexpected. Page can often seem drawn to urban contemporary dance, which can sometimes feel depressingly deep and grungy, but this was all light and classical – not in any strict Petipa sense, but with twists, challenges and unexpected diversions. A good and modern acquisition.
The show closed out with an excerpt from Paquita – and this was the time-honoured classism of Petipa (or after him etc). It’s a classical ballet in microcosm with principle roles, soloist, demi soloist and corps de ballet, drawing students from all three Upper School years. And it looked beguilingly good. The show overall gave us a good slice of what ballet is in 2019, and just how adaptable the students need to be these days – exciting times for them and exciting for us in the audience as well. Bravo to all.