It is all too easy to assume that the first triple bill of the Royal Ballet’s autumn season celebrates its creative heritage from the 1960s. In fact, two of the ballets were made for other companies: Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto (1966) was choreographed for the Deutsche Oper Ballet in Berlin, and Rudolf Nureyev concocted Raymonda Act III for the Touring Company, also in 1966, after he had mounted the full length ballet for that company two years earlier.
Both one-act ballets have long had their place in the Royal Ballet’s repertoire, as has Frederick Ashton’s Enigma Variations, made for its dancers in 1968. Put together as a triple bill, they are uneasy companions, with Enigma Variations a conundrum in the middle. For anyone who hasn’t mugged up the programme notes in advance, it really is enigmatic, while the other two ballets are self-explanatory.
Ashton set out to personify the ‘friends pictured within’ Elgar’s musical portraits. His ballet follows the order of the variations, which means that some of the character vignettes follow each other rather too rapidly. Tweedy male cronies dash around vigorously, distinguished mainly by their props: a pipe, an ear trumpet, a slip of paper, a bicycle, a tricycle. They look like Edwardian music-hall turns, interrupted by balletic solos for the women in long flowing dresses. The key Nimrod variation doesn’t appear to be danced at all (although it is). Augustus Jaeger and Edward Elgar pace together, ruminating, before being joined by Mrs Elgar.
If you already know the music and the people and events conjured up in the ballet, the choreography is both meaningful and delightful. The dancers know whom they are portraying and do their best to convey what they are thinking about: vital information, however, has to be provided by notes in the cast sheet. Elgar’s dilemma is that his friends were generally discouraging about his musical career, while he, consoled by his wife, hoped for acknowledgement of his work. A telegram is delivered – never a good idea in a ballet – stating that Hans Richter had agreed to conduct the first performance of Enigma Variations. How to disclose good news that isn’t even mentioned in the cast synopsis? The omission is unhelpful for those without an expensive red programme booklet.
Ashton’s achievement was to choreograph degrees of friendship, from tolerated acquaintances to mature companionship, from romantic courtship to marital compassion. His challenge was to show intimacy without eroticism, observing the etiquette of a long-gone Edwardian age. The ballet is set at the end of the 19th century, when Elgar composed Enigma Variations. Feelings are revealed through restrained gestures – a hand on a shoulder, an inclination of the head.
Elgar’s wife, later to become Lady Elgar, kneels at his side, holding his hand to her cheek. Laura Morera imbues the role with sympathy and yearning for her husband’s rightful recognition. In an unusually extravagant lift, Elgar (Christopher Saunders) suspends her above his shoulders, like a protective angel. Saunders remains a cardboard cutout, in contrast to Morera’s generous humanity. Bennet Gartside gives Jaeger an interestingly troubled personality, though we can’t tell what concerns him: Beethoven, according to the programme note, or more likely his old friend’s depression about his future. Does Jaeger have faith in him, as Mrs Elgar does?
All will be well in the finale once the telegram has been delivered. Even the ghostly figure of Lady Mary Lygon (Itziar Mendizabal) has joined the party, having returned from a sea voyage. How to choreograph an absence? With a voluminous veil and drifting pointework: maybe she was Elgar’s elusive muse, not a person at all. There are so many mysteries in this elegiac ballet, despite its happy ending of friends united in a group photograph of congratulation.
The trouble is that placing Ashton’s ballet in this otherwise upbeat triple bill subdues the evening. Concerto is bright and spring-like, Raymonda glittering and snowy, while Enigma Variations is autumnal, haunted by the shades of its original performers, whom Ashton knew so well. In this revival, Francesca Hayward brings Dorabella’s charming impetuosity to life, but otherwise Ashton’s poetic musings, fifty years on, lack vivacity.
In the opening movement of Concerto, the two leads, Anna Rose O’Sullivan and Marcelino Sambé, sparkled jauntily. Feather light Sambé has propulsive power in his leaps that matches the bass notes of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto no 2, while O’Sullivan pounces on the upper register. The supporting couples in red weren’t fully in accord with the orchestra on the opening night in routines demanding military precision.
The andante pas de deux was proficiently danced by Lauren Cuthbertson, using Reece Clarke’s proffered arm as a barre. She doesn’t have the voluptuous line of legs and feet that the role ideally requires, though she makes the most of her upper body fluency. The pas de deux is evenly paced, without a climax: absorbed, the central pair don’t even notice the frieze of couples echoing their movements across the background.
Fumi Kaneko was scintillating as the soloist in the third movement. She etched every dance phrase with the music, confident she could spin as long as she chose, hold a darting arabesque or melt into the next sequence of steps. The yellow-clad corps are drilled as a constantly swivelling unit in rather unimaginative choreography until all the participants unleash flying grands jetés in a thrilling finale. It’s a rush of adrenalin, charged by Kate Shipway’s jubilant execution of the piano concerto, written to test the skill of Shostakovich’s 19-year-old son Maxim.
Alexander Glazunov’s score for Raymonda (1898, the year Elgar wrote Enigma Variations) is the main reason the ballet survives, albeit usually in truncated form. Nureyev extracted the prettiest, trickiest solos from the many acts and combined them into a wedding celebration with other dances in Act III. How much remains of Marius Petipa’s choreography is anyone’s guess, since Nureyev liked to invent and embellish – especially the male roles for himself.
Vadim Muntagirov, replacing injured Steven McRae on the opening night, was in his element as a virtuoso prince with impeccable style and manners. Sarah Lamb was imperious as Raymonda, though rather two-dimensional as a radiant bride. Lamb is so slender that she lacks lushness in her well-prepared responses to the music. She seemed undecided whether to brush her hands past each other in her ‘Hungarian’ variation or to clap her palms together: either is an option but a fudge is pointless.
The Hungarian elements in the wedding divertissement are a pretext because the noble hero served in the retinue of a king of Hungary during the Crusades. Folk dance flourishes are added to classical ballet enchaînements to make them appear exotic: Nureyev added his own touches. He choreographed the pas de trois for three bridesmaids, in which Isabella Gasparini was outstanding. Mayara Magri was the most joyous of the four female soloists, performing the nicest variation with her arms crossed and legs tucked under her jumps. Magri takes to the stage as though she belongs there, with no sign of first night nerves. The Grand Pas of multiple soloists should become tidier in subsequent performances, once they and the orchestra have reached an agreement.
Barry Kay’s white and gold set from 1966 looks magnificent, applauded at first sight by the audience. The wedding appears to be taking place in a Byzantine basilica, filled with icons. The Act III divertissement omits the presence of the White Lady, an apparition who guides Raymonda’s fate in the full-length ballet. Like Lady Mary Lygon in Enigma Variations, she’s a ghost – another of the many ballet mysteries we simply come to accept (or ignore).