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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
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
"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
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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