The Royal Ballet Season 2013/14 Preview and Assessment

Written by: G. J. Dowler

There can have been few more hotly anticipated season announcements from The Royal Ballet in recent years; this was to be new director Kevin O’Hare’s first season wholly his own (the present one is perforce something of collaboration between him and his predecessor, Dame Monica Mason). How would he balance the sometimes seemingly conflicting demands of maintaining the classical and indigenous heritage repertoire, of opening up the company further to influences from outside the UK and of creating new work? The answer is, on paper at least, somewhat confused. This is, despite the fanfaronades in the press, not a particularly exciting season and has little to quicken the pulse of the balletomane, and much which could indicate worrying signs for the future.

It is a long time indeed that The Royal Ballet has relied so much on the selling power of the full-length ballets: of the 125 performances scheduled, just over one fifth (31) are of mixed programmes. Is O’Hare succumbing to belief in the tired and tiresome ‘triple bills don’t sell’ mantra, which would be in complete contradiction with the sell-out performances this season of mixed bill after mixed bill (they will sell, but only if you put works on that people will want to see viz. the recent Ashton mixed programme and the Firebird / In the Night / Raymonda Act III evening. Perhaps O’Hare has come under pressure to secure the company’s finances by packing his programming with long runs of old warhorses. Maybe he feels that the money needs to be in the bank to take the risk of new commissions. Whatever the motivation, the net result is a season which would be understandable in its ‘safeness’ if the company received no state sponsorship, but which is disappointing in one which does. To schedule 24 performances of The Nutcracker is extraordinary – a guarantee of income but stultifyingly dull for the dancers of the company and balletomanes alike. Also brought out again are The Sleeping Beauty (18), Giselle (13) and Romeo and Juliet (14) each of which is a great work and an essential in the repertoire but all of which combined in one season lead to an impression of weightiness of scheduling. Indeed, the last two present their own problems in terms of engagement of the full company – Giselle is notorious for giving nothing for the corps de ballet men to do and Romeo and Juliet makes much use of market square mummery and little else for the corps.

There are two ‘new’ full-length works which raise their own questions. Much has been made already of Carlos Acosta’s forthcoming new production of Don Quixote, a ballet which has had a poor track record at The Royal Ballet, firstly in Baryshnikov’s pared-down version under Anthony Dowell and then in a shoddy and dusty cast-off production from Australia in Nureyev’s prolix version under Ross Stretton. To achieve success, O’Hare has engaged an unquestionably great dancer who has no track record of staging full-length classical works and whose own forays into programming at Sadler’s Wells and The Coliseum have been unsatisfactory. Additionally, there is the worry concerning suitability. Don Quixote works when the Bolshoi or the Mikhailovsky perform it; it is big, bold, brash, the comedy writ large, the choreography demanding cheeky bravura that is far from The Royal Ballet’s polite style. I spoke very recently to a retired prima ballerina of world renown who herself danced Kitri in Don Quixote many times and asked her if she could identify dancers in The Royal Ballet who could dance the lead roles in the right way. She could not. The Royal Ballet is a great company with some great dancers, but it would be hard to find a ballet less suited temperamentally to their considerable talents. The second full-length new work is the world première of Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale with another commissioned score from Joby Talbot (the Tchaikovsky or perhaps the Stravinsky of our times, given his perceived affinity with composing for the dance). The choreographer’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is now hailed in some quarters as a modern masterpiece, whereas others (myself included) find it scenically arresting, but weak choreographically, and displaying a worryingly shaky grasp of narrative. The Winter’s Tale will be a serious challenge indeed, as the play itself is considered problematic in its unevenness: intense psychological drama which gives way to comedy and a happy ending, and, of course, both a bear and a statue, both of which, understandably, feature rarely in ballet.

The company’s unrivalled home-grown ‘heritage’ repertoire is not favoured particularly in O’Hare’s new season: Frederick Ashton continues to be pigeon-holed (as he was to a large extent in the recent mixed bill devoted to his work) as the creator of ‘comfortable’ entertainment: The Dream and Rhapsody, undeniable works of genius, hardly represent an exploration of the many facets of the company’s founder choreographer. Similarly, Romeo and Juliet, The Rite of Spring and Gloria are all great works by Kenneth MacMillan, but many of his other creations continue to gather dust in the bottom drawer, none more so than fascinating early works such as The Invitation, Danses Concertantes, and Baiser de la fée and intriguing full-length ballets such as Anastasia. Even Balanchine gets this ‘greatest hits of’ treatment with revivals of only Jewels and Serenade. Of de Valois, Tudor, Cranko, Nijinska, of the Ballets Russes repertoire, there is nothing.

O’Hare is to be praised for his focus on new work, and a new commission for David Dawson, while surprising, is to be welcomed. In-house choreographer Alastair Marriott continues to receive favour under the new regime and Resident Choreographer Wayne McGregor receives his obligatory one-new-work slot, and also sees the revival of his popular Chroma. I find a revival of Artist in Residence Liam Scarlett’s confused Walter Sickert / Jack the Ripper ballet Sweet Violets puzzling, but perhaps he will do some work on it to bring it into focus; much of it was promising. Scarlett is hugely talented, but O’Hare should appoint a dramaturg to help him (and Wheeldon and Marriott) construct successful narrative work. This is a common problem with choreographers – only very few can distil narrative effectively (Ashton is one such) – and even MacMillan and Cranko had similar problems; it would not be an admission of weakness, but rather a clear-sighted recognition of an undeniable challenge. The Royal Ballet continues with this forthcoming season to remain oblivious to developments in ballet elsewhere in the world. The invitation extended to Alexei Ratmansky this season to create for the company seemed to signal a greater openness to non-British creators, but certainly 2013-14 would indicate that this is to remain a very exceptional move. No-one could reasonably claim that Wheeldon and McGregor are of world class in the manner of Ashton and MacMillan (even if they have produced work abroad), so it would seem even more logical to look beyond these shores for genuinely exciting dance-making talent.

O’Hare’s programming decisions will not please everyone but what cannot be denied is the somewhat confused message they send out. If anything, I would have welcomed greater radicalism from him while at the same time encouraging an intelligent and comprehensive exploration of the company’s unrivalled back-catalogue of works. The proof of any season will be in performance, of course, and what might seem dull and un-adventurous on paper might, of course, blaze life on the stage. In scheduling what he has for 2013-14, Kevin O’Hare has not, however, given much reassurance that it will do so.

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