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Flash Review, 7-20: Masterpiece Theatre
Royal Serves up Ashton Confections & Classics

By Lisa Kraus
Copyright 2004 Lisa Kraus

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NEW YORK -- For anyone unfamiliar with Frederick Ashton, attending the Royal Ballet's tribute program on July 13 at the Metropolitan Opera House as part of the Lincoln Center Festival was a crash course in his mastery. The dancing was gorgeous, spotlighting the Royal's finest dancers, Alina Cojocaru and Sylvie Guillem among them.

Known as Ashton's love letter to classical dancing, the 1948 "Scenes du Ballet" reveals Ashton's facility with witty detail. Steps are deconstructed, as movements usually chained together are teased apart and repeated many times with subtle variations.

Opening on a men's quintet alternating stillness with shifting arm positions, the study of movement in isolated parts of the body continues as a corps of eleven women gliding through the space in short lines tilt heads, circle wrists and practice passes. The effect is as soothing, mathematical and translucent as a Bach musical structure.

Stravinsky's score has a playful unpredictability with occasional melodic sections or booming brass. The design by Andre Beaureprais, a godson of Jean Cocteau, recalls "Parade"'s cubist cutouts in the miniature black and white shapes appliqued on ladies' bodices and, on a larger scale, on the men's oversize black shirts. Sometimes I thought I was watching a humorous reflection on Diaghilev's time, as when four men, jumping, arc their bodies like four perfectly parallel slivers of moon.

Ashton said he made the work to be seen from all angles and the composite of groupings is indeed staged like a garden with differing clumps, heights and textures, balanced and pleasing.

Remarkable in Ashton is the particularly skillful use of lifts. Never have I witnessed lifts looking so like a slightly exaggerated natural event, a clever augmentation of physics rather than a somewhat cumbersome heave-ho. Here, when Miyako Yoshida walks from one end of the stage to the other, Ivan Putrov suspends her every step, as though it were a stroll on clouds. Delightful! In both body and visage she's sprightly, smiling and joyous, none of which seems in any way ingenuous. In a canary yellow tutu, Yoshida dances with quicksilver delicacy. She's lightning fast. Here I first remark an almost superhuman agility common to several of the evening's ballerinas. Later Yoshida is lifted successively by each of the five men in a kind of relay as they pass stage right. There's another champagne bubble series of lifts of several women, arcing upwards like dolphins.

The curtain comes down on an extended arrangement of all the cast, like a great mass of flowers, as Stravinsky's sound waxes fat with brass.

With its tasty variety, "Divertissements," a series of four pas de deux, is a dessert of a dance.

Darcy Bussell's ethereal Aurora, awakening in the "Sleeping Beauty" pas de deux, delights the audience. Set to the lush Tchaikovsky score, this seems the ultimate romantic fairy tale. Sleeping princess wakes to the charming Roberto Bolle's Prince. She's pliant and ecstatic, caught by the waist and held delicately hovering, horizontal. Later the two walk on opposite legs forward, the symmetry making them two halves of a joined whole. In the end, they stroll diagonally off toward a perpetual happily-ever-after.

"Ondine" is a darker chocolate, with rougher partnering. Tamara Rojo tries turning Inaka Urlezaga's head away from hers. He forcibly grabs her to him and swings her brusquely. Ashton goes in for full on-the-mouth kisses that last a good while. With more tension and the woman more powerful here, "Ondine" is genuinely sexy. Her legs are thrown wildly skyward, he spins her with him as they arch away from each other, breastbones converged. It's different too that, for a change in story ballets, it's the guy that dies.

The "Thais" pas de deux recalls the exotic tastes of a Bakst production through Anthony Dowell's glittery seraglio costumes. Despite Leanne Benjamin and Thiago Soares's competent portrayals, the dance leaves me perplexed, as though something about it never takes hold. They twine about each other as Massenet's familiar score verges on the syrupy. The action is bland, some of it clunky. A fun moment is a simple segmented lowering to the ground in a series of stop-action movements.

It's the Voices of Spring pas de deux from "Die Fledermaus" that is "Divertissements"'s final burst of deliciousness. Alina Cojocaru's transformative ability astonishes -- she's vapor and in the next moment, steel. She enters on the shoulders of Johann Kobborg, trailing rose petals from her fingertips. After a turn around the space a second shower of petals rains down. How tasty is that?!

The partnering is particularly playful. Cojocaru is held while pirouetting, stops on a dime to reverse direction, and repeats this sequence. Kobborg lifts her on the updraught of each of her runs so that she literally bounds across the space. It's all abundantly clever and the perfect match to the lilting mood of Strauss's waltz. The house is wild with cheers as this confection comes to a close.

The evening's final work, "Marguerite and Armand," was created for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in 1963. Here an aside: Fonteyn is the subject of an uplifting exhibit at the Vincent Astor Gallery of the New York Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, "Margot Fonteyn in America," previously covered by DI colleagues Robin Hoffman and Paul Ben-Itzak. The show is a must-see for anyone curious about Fonteyn or the phenomenon that was the Sadler's Wells Ballet. With Fonteyn's costumes, gowns by St. Laurent, and an abundance of videos and wonderful photos, it runs through September 3 and is a perfect complement to the Ashton celebration. Many of Ashton's ballets are represented, including "Marguerite and Armand," in a video clip with the legendary originators of the roles, astonishing for their unmistakable chemistry and the tenderness and transparency of their dancing. When I visited the exhibition, a group of ladies watching the clip before me exclaimed "It doesn't get any better." Quite right.

Given the stellar standard set by the originals, it was clever indeed to cast as Marguerite Sylvie Guillem, a dancer so completely her own person that the ballet is given a fully different incarnation.

We first see Marguerite reclining, wracked with consumption, beneath Cecil Beaton's billowy swag. A black and white projection of Armand extending his hands to her fills the back of the space. As she engages in a series of deathbed recollections of their meeting, their joys and their discord, he returns in time to dance a final pas de deux just before she expires.

Based on Dumas fils's "La Dame aux Camelias," the story is a tragedy about grabbing happiness while one has the chance. Guillem catches all the urgency of the message of dying young and living large. As Helen Keller said, "Life is a daring adventure or it is nothing."

When Guillem first encounters Massimo Murru as Armand, her eyes dart everywhere with excitement, her face alight. Her legs fly effortlessly to her ears, her speed and subtlety operating on many layers at once. She IS Marguerite. I am reminded of the choreographer Meg Stuart and her company Damaged Goods. Stuart shares with Guillem an edginess, a skirting of danger which holds nothing back. Guillem's partner twirls her the same way you spin a child in circles, chest to chest, legs trailing in a swoon of delirious movement.

The central duets of "Marguerite and Armand" don't come close to the power of the ballet's original pairing as seen on film due to Murru's emotional woodenness and physical awkwardness. Is he thinking "Opening night Met Opera" and therefore finding it hard to get a steady purchase on the floor for rising into releve? Lacking fluency, his dancing is unconvincing. Fortunately at the end his grief is effectively broadcast as he kneels, crushed, clutching Marguerite's lifeless hand.

A warm round of applause greets the entrance of former Royal principal Anthony Dowell, who plays Armand's father. Perhaps his presence recalls a great day for the Royal Ballet's leading male dancers. Given the stellar quality of many of the Royal's ballerinas, it's a disappointment that their partners shine so much less brightly. Ivan Putrov was the most stirring with his proud bearing and easy facility. But rather than ending on a note of sour grapes it would be more fitting to raise a glass to toast this most effervescent of evenings, and the great choreographer whose work continues to give such delight.

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