The Royal Ballet Live: Elite Syncopations
London, Royal Opera House
4 November 2020
Kevin O’Hare, director of the Royal Ballet, came on stage to welcome the return of a paying audience for what turned out to be the opening and closing live performance of the season. The next performance on the stage of the Royal Opera House will be streamed to viewers at home. Like Wednesday’s programme, it will consist of excerpts from the company’s repertoire, concluding with the final section from Christopher Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour.
O’Hare called the pre-closure programme a bittersweet experience. It offered a tantalising menu, whetting the appetite for more performances by dancers revelling in being back on stage. They were enthusiastically applauded by a reduced audience obeying Covid-19 restrictions: masked faces, taped off seats, empty rows and no mingling during a brief interval before Elite Syncopations. Our pleasure at being present once again for a performance in the Opera House was all too brief.
The first half of the 90-minute programme consisted of standard gala fare, combined with less familiar pas de deux and solos. Helpfully, each selection was introduced by projected titles and credits, since there were no programmes or cast sheets – and no need for a perky presenter. The choice of three short works by Frederick Ashton, the company’s founder choreographer, provided blissful moments of calm and consolation in the face of a second lockdown.
The evening opened with the pas de deux from Ashton’s Rhapsody, created in 1980 for Mikhail Baryshnikov and Lesley Collier. Although the male principal role is a showily virtuoso one, the pas de deux reveals him as a tender partner for the ballerina. Alexander Campbell treated Akane Takada with great courtesy, assisting her in low lifts until the heart-stopping one in which she plunged from a high hold, foot extended like a dagger about to pierce the floor. Deceptively delicate, Takada wound herself around him, tucking her head under his outstretched arms in trusting affection.
The contrast with Cathy Marston’s In Our Wishes, also to piano music by Rachmaninoff, couldn’t have been greater. This was a tempestuous affair in which the woman (Fumi Kaneko) had to renounce her imploring lover (Reece Clarke) against her wishes. Apparently the duet depicts the same doomed relationship in Chekov’s The Three Sisters as Kenneth MacMillan’s Farewell pas de deux. In Our Wishes was previously shown in the streamed recording of the first Royal Ballet Back on Stage performance, and again in rehearsal during World Ballet Day. Withers were wrung as Kaneko struggled with herself and Clarke before bidding him depart.
Marston’s dramatic duet followed Ashton’s serene Monotones II to Satie’s orchestrated piano music, Trois Gymnopédies. Though the physiques of Gina Storm-Jensen, David Donnelly and Téo Dubreuil weren’t ideally suited to each other, they maintained their linking as an other-worldly triad, pulsing on the music as though bound by a single thread. (The lighting could have been more atmospheric throughout – technical rehearsal time must have been limited.)
The pas de deux from Swan Lake Act II was a reminder of the ballet the pandemic had disrupted during the spring season. Hayward’s vulnerable Odette was a lonely soul seeking human warmth and reassurance rather than a swooning, etiolated creature, more swan than woman. Hers is an interpretation we look forward to seeing when the ballet is performed again in full. Bracewell had little chance to reveal what he is capable of, other than to show himself a reliable partner.
Claire Calvert gave us her Dying Swan to Saint-Saens’ music, played by pianist Kate Shipway and cellist Tim Hugh. Its justification must have been as a female companion piece to Ashton’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits, performed by Joseph Sissens to Gluck’s flute music, played by Margaret Campbell. The solo was so moving when Vadim Muntagirov danced it during the first ROH concert in an empty auditorium that Sissens couldn’t match its aching poignancy.
The trio from Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works was particularly affecting this time round because of its closeness to Remembrance Day on 11 November. Edward Watson’s agonised shell-shocked soldier relived the death of his comrade, Calvin Richardson, while Akane Takada, helpless in her distress, was unable to console him.
A highlight of the evening was the bedroom pas de deux from Act I of Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon, danced by Laura Morera and Federico Bonelli. Although there was no bed on stage, Morera’s Manon knew exactly what pleasure she wanted from her lover. She convinced us how ecstatic first love can be, almost overwhelming her Des Grieux with her abandon. She was so captivating that it was just as well we didn’t get to see how easily Manon would betray him the moment he left.
Two gala numbers, the bravura pas de deux from Le Corsaire and Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky pas de deux, reveal little about the performers other than their skill and enjoyment in dancing to music. Mayara Magri had a lovely light jump as Medora, with Matthew Ball heavier footed as Ali in the Corsaire duet – a pas de trois in the complete ballet, with Ali as the hero’s sidekick. The dancer is usually outfitted in a pseudo-oriental costume to make him look exotic, which handsome British Ball is not.
The first half concluded on a high note with the Tchaikovsky pas de deux, to music the composer supplied as an alternative solo for Odile in Act III of Swan Lake. Marianela Nunez played extravagantly with music’s rubato phrasing, while Vadim Muntagirov partnered her attentively before launching into spectacular solo variations. However high he soars, he makes not a sound on landing. Joyous though both were in performance, the rehearsal shown during World Ballet Day streaming was even more exhilarating. Do catch it if you can.
Elite Syncopations concluded the evening with a stage packed with dancers in front of the ragtime band, led by Robert Clark from the upright piano. Costumes were doubled up, as they had been in the first gala performance, so that as many of the company as possible had a chance to appear. A few cast changes from the performance on 9 November meant that Sarah Lamb took the role of the star-studded leading lady, with Ryoichi Hirano as her dago-ish partner. Lamb’s speciality is her seemingly innocent sexiness, as in her portrayal of Manon. Here, she let her costume do the provocation, remaining wide-eyed.
Hers was a cleverly calculated under-playing, a contrast to Morera’s scene-stealing raunchy solo to the Calliope Rag by James Scott. Morera, renowned as a supremely musical dancer, made the most of every syncopation in the piano rag to signal her character’s loucheness. This time round, Melissa Hamilton and Paul Kay perfected the timing of the Alaskan Rag to elicit laughter at their mismatched partnership. It’s not easy to make a masked, socially distanced audience laugh, especially one facing a second lockdown.
As we were marshalled out by sympathetic ushers (much friendlier than last time), we heard the company cheering behind the closed curtains. They’ll be back for their next performance on stage, even though we can’t be.