Limen is a hollow work, and while there is much to admire in the tireless and talented dancers who throw themselves into McGregor’s lunges, shakes and stretches, it is not a ballet to ever love – McGregor is a cerebral choreographer, famously erudite, but in the quest for the intellectual, he leaves the human at home. There is little beauty, grace or feeling in this work and, even in its best section – a serene pas de deux for the diminutive Sarah Lamb, and Eric Underwood, which carries its own hidden meaning – the overwhelming sense of déjà vu is inescapable; for without the human side, the emotional aspect of dance choreography, all that is left is the steps, and McGregor’s come from a surprisingly shallow reserve. The lighting design from Lucy Carter was quite brilliant, achieving spectacular and sophisticated effects, and Moritz Junge’s costumes – at first in boiled sweet colours and then changing to skin tone – do not offend. As for the music: Kaija Saariaho’s cello concerto Notes on Light which, while a perfect accompaniment to a spot of self-harm, is not something normal, sane men and women should have to pay to listen to; its droopy soundscape is pure, distilled tedium.
McGregor’s Augean stables were swept clean by a superb, coruscating performance of Marguerite and Armand. Those expecting the contemporary choreographer to knock slushy, gushy old Ashton into a cocked-hat could not have been more wrong, for, at last, this ballet truly lives again. It was only performed by Fonteyn and Nureyev in their lifetimes and, for many years after their deaths no-one dared revive it. In typical form, the French dancer Sylvie Guillem wished to take up the challenge and, once the ballet was revived, she monopolised the role of the consumptive courtesan. She was never right in the part, never likely to convince that she was a worthy successor to Fonteyn, her body too etiolated, too angular, too hard for the choreography to sit easily on her. Fonteyn was already 44 years of age when Ashton created this vehicle for her and the young Nureyev in 1963, and much of what Marguerite does is technically unchallenging but interpretatively deep and highly sophisticated. Additionally, Guillem danced with several tall partners as Armand, all of whom were too old for the part and, they too, physically unsuited.
Now all is changed: the sublime Tamara Rojo (who did dance the role at the previous revival) unequivocally stamps her mark on the part, and she is partnered by an explosive Sergei Polunin, the young star of The Royal Ballet. They look wonderful together - she petite and dark (uncannily Fonteyn-like at moments), he muscularly Romantic, his passion blazing forth. Rojo is uncommonly expressive with her arms and décolletage, and, from that, it could not be clearer from this assumption that it would be criminal for her not to be cast as Natalia Petrovna in the revival of Ashton’s A Month in the Country later this season. Together with Polunin she makes this ballet work as it has not done since the days of its creators – it is essentially a pas de deux in five movements, as Ashton deftly evokes the main scenes of the familiar narrative, ably abetted by Cecil Beaton’s simple settings, which allows scenes to change by a move of a chair here or a change in light there.
The costumes look stunning on both: Rojo wearing the succession of gowns with total success. She brings all her acting skills to bear on the role, utterly convincing, drawing the audience into this tragic tale of her doomed love; the way she clutches the pillow on which she can clearly detect the scent of Armand after his father has demanded she renounce his son is deep and telling, her sad love bursting on an uncomprehending Polunin when he returns from riding, alone knowing that she is, in reality, bidding him farewell. Both dancers took huge risks, nowhere more than in ‘The Insult’ scene when Armand confronts Marguerite and throws money in her face: Polunin yanked and dragged Rojo hither and thither, MacMillan-esque realism poking through in a way that is hard to believe it did originally, but that is right and proper – the emotions we were witnessing were genuine and we understood them; Ashton’s heightened reality given gaspingly fresh life. Nowhere is this more so than in the heart-breaking final scene where Rojo brought her experience of the dying Manon and the apparently dead Juliet to the death of Marguerite (both interestingly post-date this as ballets). These are notable interpretations from both dancers, and must be seen by all who love the dance and the theatre. Barry Wordsworth and the Covent Garden orchestra and piano soloist Robert Clark played the orchestrated Liszt score with aplomb.
Kenneth MacMillan’s Requiem is a notable work and Mason is to be congratulated once more on its restoration and subsequent revival – she has brought back into the active repertoire the four ‘big’ company ballets that MacMillan created: Rite of Spring, Song of the Earth, Requiem and Gloria, and for that she only deserves praise. Requiem still looks good nearly forty years after its creation as a tribute to John Cranko, MacMillan’s friend and fellow choreographer who died unexpectedly during a plane trip with his company Stuttgart Ballet. It was originally danced by them as a genuine outpouring of personal and collective grief, but its message, its beauty and its validity are timeless and the ballet communicates its message as clearly now as it did then – who can fail to respond to the initial entry by the entire cast of thirty-one dancers shuffling on en masse, fists hammering at the heavens in the anger of bereavement, mouths agape in the silent howls of grief?
Inspired by William Blake, MacMillan uses pose to great effect, etching striking groupings and tableaux, momentarily evoking images, before effortlessly dissolving them into the abstract. Yolanda Sonnabend’s columns of light and her strangely striated body stockings (based on Vesalius’s sixteenth century anatomical studies) create an other-worldly effect, and John B Read’s lighting changes mood and feeling, nowhere more so than in the final In Paradisum, when a pool of brilliant white light evokes the soul departing our world. It is a deep and moving ballet. At this matinée several role debuts took place, not least of which was Lauren Cuthbertson, who, while not yet fully under the skin of what can be interpreted as the ‘angel’ figure (as is the case with experienced Leanne Benjamin in the other cast), was hugely promising, not least in the delightful Pie Jesu solo. Federico Bonelli’s contributions are welcome as the Christ-like figure in the loin-cloth, his solo notable for its soft, pliant quality. Especial mention to the Opera House Chorus and soloists Anna Devin and Daniel Grice for the vocal contributions in Fauré’s emotionally charged setting of the Requiem Mass.
- Four further performances until 20 October
- Royal Opera House