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Flash Review, 2-16: Winter Tales
From 'Patineurs' to 'Potter' at the Royal

Steven McRae in Frederick Ashton's "Les Patineurs." Tristram Kenton photo courtesy the Royal Ballet.

By Victoria Watts
Copyright 2010 Victoria Watts

LONDON -- One evening in December, the 14th, I walked from my home in south London, past the Royal Festival Hall bedecked with strings of glistening blue Christmas lights, over the Hungerford footbridge through throngs of commuters and tourists. Covent Garden, home of the Royal Opera House where the Royal Ballet was performing that night, glowed with the faces of seasonal revellers. Inside the opera house, the set for "Les Patineurs" -- white trellised arches, wintery branches and jewel-colored lanterns -- seemed to carry the outside world right onto the stage.

Choreographed in 1937, Frederick Ashton's witty one-act shows an array of skaters at play on an ice-rink. It blends the light humor of pratfalls and character mannerisms with a rather more formal exposition of choreographic motif and development. From a limited palette of chassés, gallops, pirouettes and arabesques, Ashton evokes the sense of gliding, twirling and dancing on ice. The company performed it with apparent ease. All the soloists acquitted themselves admirably, not least for the sincerity of their acting.

The stand-out performance, for me and the rest of the house (judging by the ovation), came from Steven McRae as the Blue Boy. He gave us fabulous fleet footwork, dandy gestures, flutteringly agile brisés volés, and boastful pirouettes. Snow begins to fall, the stage slowly darkens and the other skaters scurry away, but the curtain closes on him still spinning insouciantly, enjoying his own audacious virtuosity.

Ricardo Cervera as Johnny Townmouse in the Royal Ballet's production of Frederick Ashton's "Tales of Beatrix Potter." Tristram Kenton photo courtesy the Royal Ballet.

This evening of family entertainment concluded with "Tales of Beatrix Potter," adapted for the stage by Anthony Dowell following Ashton's film from 1971. For me, when this ballet of cutesy English countryside animals started, staged with a palette of summery and autumnal hues, the Christmas spell was broken. It's all quite charming, but not at all my cup of tea. The choreographic invention is pretty thin and relies too heavily on twee jokes and novelty. With so little of substance in the choreography to hold my attention, my mind wanders.

The pigs all dance en pointe from time to time -- even the men teeter on their trotters -- and I wonder about how many ballets call for dancing en pointe from men, searching my memory for the name of the guy in Europe who specializes in it. It's Bart De Block, in case you were curious. The costumes, including full head masks, seem lifted straight from Potter's own illustrations. It fascinates me how well the cast executes the variations without seeming hampered by heavy tails, padded bellies and a minimum of peripheral vision. The use of masks only heightens the corporeal expression, with head tilts, slight é paulement, and little gestures of the arms conveying a weight of characterization. In this regard, Ricardo Cervera as Johnny Town-Mouse was especially convincing with his cock-of-the-walk manner.

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