This latest triple bill by The Royal Ballet just goes to show that live performance can confound all expectations, with a work one remembers as strong proving to be far from it, and another which are over-familiar, new-minted. As a programme, it is a distinctly odd affair, with three works so utterly different that one can discern almost no points of cross-reference whatsoever. That, in itself, could be a virtue, establishing interest in their very lack of commonality, but their choice, one suspects, is for a rather more mundane reason – the publicity puff speaks of ballets by this company’s three Resident Choreographers, and seeks to place the current work of Wayne McGregor on a par with that of the late-knights Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan. That is a presumption, quite apart from the fact that Sir Frederick is The Royal Ballet’s Founder Choreographer.
Expectations were high for the first revival of McGregor’s 2016 Obsidian Tear, a work characterised by a tremendous score from Esa-Pekka Salonen and intriguing choreography and scenic presentation which hints at arcane religious practices. In reality, it proved a genuine disappointment – the absence of Salonen in the pit on this occasion meant that his composition made far less of an impact than before, while a crucial change of cast – Edward Watson replaced by the otherwise admirable young dancer William Bracewell – robbed that particular role of ‘high priest’ of its weighty impact. Additionally, McGregor’s movement palette for his all-male cast emerged as fussier, busier and less expressive than remembered; there is too much choreographic scribbling as dancers are set off into a St Vitus dance of little effect. Of course, it is all ineffably hip and cool to look at, the costumes sourced by a ‘fashion director’ from a list of the couturiers du moment, Lucy Carter’s lighting as ever irreproachable, not least her the orange volcanic glow that sets the stage aflame as death takes place. But McGregor’s choreography cannot escape close scrutiny and is found wanting, despite the best efforts of some of the cream of the company’s men – not least the superb Matthew Ball and Calvin Richardson (the latter in red and introduced by his brother(?)/companion(?)/lover(?) to this covert all-male society which finally rejects and destroys him). Obsidian Tear begins with an intense duet for these two to the exquisite violin playing of Vasko Vassilev, but even this strong opening cannot persuade that the ballet is up to much at all, certainly not after the object lesson in how to choreograph for a group of men given the night before by William Forsythe at ENB up the road at the Sadler’s Wells.
It is probably true to say that very few people actively look forward to a performance of Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand, his high-Victorian vehicle for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, dating from 1963. Only they ever danced it until it was exhumed for Sylvie Guillem by the then RB Director Anthony Dowell in 2000, and since then it had not only returned with some frequency but been exported abroad to companies with ballerinas wanting to don Marguerite’s Beaton dresses in the hope that some of her magic will settle on them in the process. It can seem dutiful as a work, despite its masterful distillation of narrative, and this reviewer has seen only two genuinely powerful pairings which have succeeded in reigniting it: Tamara Rojo and Sergei Polunin when the Spanish ballerina left The Royal Ballet in 2013 and now Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli.
Bonelli, ever the epitome of elegance and restraint, seemed to explode onto the stage in this performance, eating up Nureyev’s emphatic choreography with the hunger of a twenty-year-old, making his blind rage at the Paris salon when he publicly insults Marguerite edge-of-the-seat viewing and his remorse and realisation that time has finally run out in the final moments deeply affecting. Ferri who, in her fifties, is undertaking a second dancing career, much as Fonteyn herself did, is nothing short of miraculous, a lifetime of experience and knowledge informing a portrayal of the deepest detail, all delivered with an artless simplicity which makes the narrative and her character sing. Tiny moments imprint themselves on the memory – the clutching of her clenched fists to her breast in a gesture of desperate pain, the blank stare across Armand’s shoulder showing the impossibility her position and the resignation that she must give up the one man she finally loves. I have not seen a Marguerite so uncomfortable at reassuming her old courtesan ways – here is a woman who takes on a former lover in order to protect Armand and his family. Idiomatic playing from Robert Clark at the piano almost made one forget Tom Seligman’s plodding conducting, but nothing could detract from the utter success of this performance, reversing expectations and unleashing the Covent Garden audience into noisy appreciation at the curtain.
After the high emotion of Marguerite and Armand, it was good to have Kenneth MacMillan’s 1975 ragtime romp Elite Syncopations to finish, a collective company letting-down of hair which, nevertheless, places considerable technical demands on many of the dancers. Clad in Ian Spurling’s still-zany candy coloured body stockings and hats, the dancers disport themselves with the same level of off-the-wall humour as we see in Jerome Robbins’s The Concert. This is a splendid revival, with several of the original cast returning to coach their old roles, ensuring that the detail is all there: Itziar Mendizabal donned Monica Mason’s Carmen Miranda hat and blue and red body suit to wiggle her bottom with the best, sly and foxy in the ‘Calliope Rag’; Yuhui Choe and Tristan Dyer were at first shy, then impassioned youngsters in ‘The Golden Hours’ (thanks to Alfreda Thorogood) while Melissa Hamilton and Paul Kay expertly delivered the tall-short comic ‘Alaskan Rag’ duet (Vergie Derman’s hand was to seen in their coaching). Sarah Lamb made for a poised and cool lead, partnered with Errol Flynn-like swagger by Ryoichi Hirano, but it was James Hay, one of the company’s most elegant dancers, who impressed perhaps the most, slicing through the demands of ‘Friday Night’, as sleek as an otter, not a single hair out of place at the end of his demanding solo. The entire company was on top form and sent the audience away with a spring in its step. Sheer bliss.
- Obsidian Tear **
Marguerite and Armand *****
Elite Syncopations *****