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Flash Review 2, 2-18: Regally Raw
Mixed Results from the Royal Ballet School

By Susan Yung
Copyright 2003 Susan Yung

NEW YORK -- Students of the Royal Ballet School performed a varied program at the Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse (seen February 11) as part of an exchange program with the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company. While the Royal Ballet has undergone significant turmoil in recent years -- seeing Ross Stretton come and go as director of the company within a span of eighteen months (Monica Mason was officially named his successor last December) -- the quality of the technique demonstrated by the students is a reassuring firm, if static, hand at the company's back.

As might be expected, the women appeared physically and artistically more mature than the men. They possessed a combination of delicacy, strength and poise, with great attention paid to proper epaulement, reflected in a consistency from dancer to dancer in unison parts. They are trained to shape their arms and hands into a soft, pleasing curve which limits energy released (the most notable alternative is the Balanchinean flayed hand). The effect is a coiled containment of adrenaline, which combines with precise head and arm movements to create a robotic aura. At this level, that perceived negative could actually be turned into a big boon: these dancers have an excellent foundation on which to build artistically and technically with the guidance of an artistic visionary.

The women's feet seemed to be their most prominent weakness. None of the women have supremely gifted feet by nature (for the ideal, see those of Sylvie Guillem, currently dancing with the Royal Ballet). For a company that clearly reveres a sweet line (and what ballet company doesn't) this must be somewhat disappointing. Besides the dearth of natural gifts, some of the students fell off of pointe several times, from sustained arabesques on releve as well as in the midst of turns. The pointe shoe is a compromise between support and pliability, and for some, the correct balance remains elusive.

It is not really fair to compare the men's stage presence with the women's, due to the structural divide in ballet's female and male archetypes. Men are usually trained to be in the background, to sacrifice their own grace and personality to showcase that of their partners. In that respect, the Royal Ballet male students largely fit the bill. With time, they may acquire the bulk and musculature necessary for lifts (or they'll learn to disguise their efforts better), and certainly their feet will benefit from good training. After some opening night butterflies that surely accounted for some hastily reduced pirouette revolutions, the dancers relaxed enough to regain confidence for some solid multiple turns.

The program featured choreography by Mark Annear, Stephen Greenston, Petal Miller-Ashmole, Christopher Wheeldon, Kenneth MacMillan, Frederick Ashton, and works after Marius Petipa and August Bournonville. Wheeldon's pieces closed both halves of the program. As an alumnus of RBS and given his current title as resident choreographer at New York City Ballet, Wheeldon's presence neatly melded tradition and newsworthiness (new-worldliness?). He contributed "Souvenirs," a black-tie ballet that builds to a tango between one woman and ten men; and "Le Voyage," performed in sleek green and blue leotards. Here, Balanchine's influence seemed grafted onto RB propriety in an aural and kinetic cacophony -- not Wheeldon's finest moment. Perhaps this work fares better on a larger stage than the Kaye's, which is not nearly big enough for the ensemble.

Annear's "Tchaikovsky Suite" turned out to be the best vehicle for this troupe, a nine-part work that moved through different solos, pairs, and groups. He used very specific epaulements -- a subtle tilt of the head on a specific count, combined with shoulders set at certain angles, arms as well. The other more traditional fare included the Pas de Trois from "Sleeping Beauty" (Petipa), the Pas de Douze from "Swan Lake" (Ashton), and "Flower Festival at Genzano" (Bournonville).

The company handled equally well the "modern" ballets: Greenston's "We Are Here," with Philip Brock-Atkinson lifting Olivia Cowley like a plank, or swooping through the air in a pike position; "Concert Fantasy" (Miller-Ashmole), in which the feisty Momoko Hirata and Martyn Garside clicked as a pair even when faced with repeated turns dropping directly into a penche; and "Concerto Pas de Deux" (MacMillan), a contemplative duet featuring arms sweeping like clock hands, danced by Jenna Roberts and Oliver Speers.

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