This is a bizarre Mixed Bill; pairing two delicate works of Jerome Robbins with the monumentality of Kenneth MacMillan's Song of the Earth makes for a performance of two distinct halves before and after the single interval. That it is presented for only four performances adds to the sense that it is, in essence, somewhat cobbled together, a reprise of a ballet revived earlier in the season and about to be taken on the impending USA tour (Song of the Earth) with two works needing little company rehearsal time and requiring only eight dancers in all. Added to which, after the titanic scenic demands of Wayne McGregor's recent Woolf Works, there is almost no scenery or lighting to worry about. Musically, interpretatively, choreographically, however, it makes little sense.
Anticipation was running high for the first sight of Vadim Muntagirov in Jerome Robbins's Afternoon of a Faun, a small masterpiece and a re-imaginging of Nijinsky's iconic work which stands alongside it in validity and artistic worth. Set in the evocation of a ballet studio, he is first seen asleep in a pool of light, he wakens and stretches; he is joined by a female dancer, both forever obsessed by their own reflections in the studio mirror (the audience). A fleeting kiss breaks the spell, she leaves and he returns to the floor. It is simple, beautiful, mesmeric, and Muntagirov displays his near-perfect classically-proportioned body to effect. He is not yet a hugely charismatic or characterful artist, so here we marvel at the cool, alabaster perfection of his movement.
Melissa Hamilton (soon to take a year's sabbatical dancing at Dresden's Semperoperballett) has more profile and proves a good physical match for Muntagirov. She enters rather coquettishly, distinctly a woman, but seems rapidly pulled into the Apollonian interpretation and assumes a more ethereal presence. As an approach, it certainly works, but other couples can and do bring greater sensuality.
In the Night needs dancers of real character to enliven another of Robbins's choreographic musings on Chopin; alas, only one of the three couples inhabited the choreography and phrased with a common musicality – Sarah Lamb, thistledown-light and Federico Bonelli, the model of a balletic partner. Elsewhere, the work was undercast, the dancers working hard to be good dancers but whose performances never rose above the pedestrian.
The performance of Song of the Earth produced a collective sigh of relief. In the March revival, the ballet looked seriously under-rehearsed and its focus seemed to have been partially lost. The key is clearly in the casting, and with Laura Morera in blazing, intense form, there was every chance of success. Morera continues to have an excellent season, even if her musicality, interpretative intelligence and stylistic truthfulness are often hidden away by unsympathetic casting and the presence of 'star' names. Here she probed the very heart of this extraordinary exploration in dance of life, love and death. She simply understands MacMillan's movement and imbues it with careful phrasing and interpretative subtlety – she has become a notable interpreter of his ballets.
Since his arrival at The Royal Ballet, Nehemiah Kish has not set the world on fire, a dependable if unexciting performer and a reliable partner. I doubt, however, that he has achieved anything better than 'the Man' in Song of the Earth, which requires not only stamina, good partnering skills, but a certain 'blankness' to portray the Everyman the role represents. This is not damning with faint praise for Kish provided an ideal foil to Morera's more obviously anguished 'Woman', and their great pas de deux in the final sixth song was the ballet's choreographic and emotional core, as it should be.
Edward Watson too understands MacMillan in a way now rare in the choreographer's own company, and he relishes the particular movement palette and emotional intensity. His is a chilling Messenger of Death, coldly implacable with just the hint of a sense of playing with lives of mere mortals. He changes in character in a split-second, from reassuring to terrifying presence and seems almost to expect the woman's fear of him as a type of homage. He stalks the stage, interacts with humanity but remains apart, aloof. And yet, it is he who leads both Man and Woman reunited in the final, ecstatic movements to the work's dying phrases and the repeated 'Ewig' (Eternal) from the singer. Death may be inescapable but it is not in essence cruel.
The company members seemed energised by the presence and performance of these three dancers and brought not only greater cohesion to their dancing than has hitherto been seen in this ballet this season but also a collective focus, which lifted the work to the spiritual plains which it can attain if properly performed. All praise to Alexander Campbell, Yuhui Choe and, newcomer to her role, Lara Turk as the supporting soloists.
It gives me nothing but pleasure to report that the playing of the Royal Opera House orchestra on this occasion under Barry Wordsworth was quite superb, showing clear relish for Mahler's composition and producing full tone in an unashamedly rich interpretation. Both vocal soloists distinguished themselves, not least Katherine Goeldner who eschewed the barn-storming approach of some heftier mezzo-sopranos in favour of something more intimate and carefully phrased. A vintage performance indeed on all levels.