Royal Ballet Mixed Bill – Electric Counterpoint, Afternoon of a Faun, Tzigane & A Month in the Country

Electric Counterpoint

Edward Watson
Sarah Lamb
Zenaida Yanowsky
Eric Underwood

Christopher Wheeldon – Choreography
Jean-Marc Puissant – Design
Natasha Chivers – Lighting
Michael Nunn and William Trevitt – Video Artists
Mukul Patel – Sound Design

James Woodrow (guitar)
Robert Clark (piano)

Afternoon of a Faun

Sarah Lamb & Carlos Acosta

Jerome Robbins – Choreography
Irene Sharaff – Costumes
Jean Rosenthal – Set and Original Lighting
Les Dickert – Re-creation of Original Lighting


Marianela Nuñez & Thiago Soares

Helen Crawford; Nathalie Harrison; Kristen Mcnally; Pierta Mello-Pittman; Ernst Meisner; Fernando Montaño; Erico Montes & Sergei Polunin

Geroge Balanchine – Choreography
Holly Hynes – Costumes
Russell Sandifer – Lighting
John Charleton – Re-creation

Sergey Levitin (violin)

A Month in the Country

Natalia Petrovna – Alexandra Ansanelli
Yslaef – Jonathan Howells
Kolia – Paul Kay
Vera – Iohna Loots
Rakitin – David Pickering
Katia – Victoria Hewitt
Matvei – Kevin Emerton
Beliaev – Ivan Putrov

Frederick Ashton – Choreography
Julia Trevelyan Oman – Designs and Costumes
William Bundy – Lighting
John Charlton – Re-creation

Philip Gammon (piano)

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera
Barry Wordsworth

Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler

Reviewed: 28 February, 2008
Venue: The Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, London

Edward Watson and Sarah Lamb in 'Electric Counterpoint'. ©Dee ConwayThis was one of the most uneven and indeed bizarrely programmed evenings presented by The Royal Ballet in recent seasons. Monica Mason has a tendency to schedule rather serious evenings, but this quadruple bill took the prize for lack of coherence; there seemed to be little, if any, internal logic to the programming.

That is always difficult to ensure with a new, commissioned piece, and so it was wise to present Christopher Wheeldon’s new work, Electric Counterpoint, to open. Wheeldon is a good dance-maker, although it is too early to tell whether he is the ‘saviour’ of classical choreography that some have hailed him as. Certainly, he has chosen four superlative dancers to do his bidding, and reacted with characteristic intelligence and imagination to his score (here Bach followed by Reich). This makes for a ballet split in two, as the slow movement to the former gives way to a more dynamic dance vocabulary linked to the latter.

Sarah Lamb in 'Electric Counterpoint'. ©Dee ConwayWheeldon has embraced the zeitgeist and gone for projected video footage, with which the live dancers interact, the conceit being that it is footage of themselves, at times huge, at others multiplied, so there are neat moments when a dancer will perform in front of a corps de ballet comprising himself many times over. It must be said that it works for the most part and the four dancers respond to Wheeldon’s demands with astonishing commitment and artistry; Edward Watson seems most at ease in his movements, but that is not to detract from the others. The work opens with taped voice-overs from the dancers commenting on what it is to dance – it is very much a dancer’s piece – Wheeldon clearly loves dancers and the world they inhabit, but the tone is a little to didactic, and the message that dance is to move on a little too preachy. When the dancing proper gets going Wheeldon creates in his usual fluent vein, his pas de deux flowing and interesting.

It is interesting that now we have been exposed to much of Wheeldon’s work, his favourite moves and steps become clear – echoes of previous works abound, and just as with the choreographers of the past, observers can delight in linking the new with their memories of the old. How the ballet will fare with changes of cast – it did seem awfully specific to the four on the first night in terms of movement style – remains to be seen, but the company can be happy that they have a success on their hands.

Carlos Acosta and Sarah lamb in 'Afternoon of a Faun'. ©Dee ConwayThe evening continued with a superb performance of Jerome Robbin’s take on the iconic Nijinsky L’après-midi d’un faune, here transplanted to a ballet studio, and the conceit being that the audience is the mirror into which the dancers – as they do in rehearsal – constantly look and check their own reflection. It is a fine work, performed beautifully by a Carlos Acosta looking more relaxed and rested than he has for some time, and the ethereally beautiful Sarah Lamb. She disturbs him relaxing in the studio and they dance; it is as simple as that, except that the air is pregnant with both mutual and narcissistic attraction and the tone hushed, and always they look not at each other, but at their imagined reflections in the mirror that is the auditorium. Eleven minutes of beauty. It did however, sit uneasily with the Wheeldon piece, which is also introspective in tone.

Thiago Soares and Marianela Nuñez in 'Tzigane'. ©Dee ConwayNothing so uncomfortable a match as with the next piece, a late addition to this bill, and the first performance by The Royal Ballet of George Balanchine’s Tzigane, conceived in 1975 essentially as a vehicle for Suzanne Farrell, one of the choreographer’s greatest muses, and occasioned by her return to New York City Ballet. It is set to Ravel, and is intended to evoke Hungarian gypsies, but with the demure misses of The Royal Ballet, there was little chance of anything that exotic, not that they or the men of the eight strong corps had anything remotely interesting to dance. Quite why this piece of kitsch has been acquired by the company is beyond me – it has the quality of those shows put on for tourists at Mediterranean resorts, and not even the fiery Thiago Soares and the doughty Marianela Nuñez could instil any interest in this piece of tosh. Balanchine’s choreography may be one thing, but he rarely had good taste in costuming, and Tzigane is no exception to the rule, the dancers kitted out in brown and tan polyester. I suspect the prize of getting Farrell herself to stage it was too tempting to resist, but does the company need this nonsense? No.

Alexandra Ansanelli and Ivan Putrov in 'A Month in the Country'. ©Dee ConwayThe worst, unfortunately, was saved until last. Not that Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country is at all bad; indeed, it as a masterly work and a demonstration of the choreographer’s unparalleled ability to convey a complicated narrative. The work has iconic status and the first Natalia Petrovna, Lynne Seymour, possibly the finest dance-actress the company has ever had, was simply astonishing in the role. In recent times, Sylvie Guillem, although not to everyone’s tastes, was a deeply sincere and emotional protagonist. In a piece of casting which baffled everyone Tamara Rojo, the modern-day inheritor of Seymour’s roles, was passed over in favour of Alexandra Ansanelli, a recent arrival from New York.

It was not Ansanelli’s fault that her interpretation was entirely superficial, nor that her frantic arm-waving was as far away from Ashton’s languorous épaulement as one could go, nor even that her splayed NYCB hands were nothing like the expressive agents they are intended to be in this part. She is a product of the School of American ballet and New York City Ballet, with no experience in acting or narrative works, and indeed, since her arrival in London she has not undertaken a dramatic role (her Larisch in Mayerling never materialised). To cast her in this deep and subtle role was sheer folly, and poor Miss Ansanelli came unstuck, ‘big time’, as they day in the Big Apple. It fatally weakened the ballet, rendering it melodramatic and, at times, tedious. A pity for Ivan Putrov, who emoted with subtlety and effect, even if he was technically not as sure as one would expect of him.

The other parts seemed at first undercast, with poor solos from Iohna Loots and Paul Kay, although they settled down considerably once over those first hurdles. They all seemed hurried by the choreography, and given that the music was played at the correct tempo gives out a worrying signal as to the ability of even talented dancers in the company to dance the work of their Founder Choreographer – The Royal Ballet was always known for the speed and brilliance of its footwork. Shining out as an indication of what can be done was David Pickering in the acting role of Natalia’s admirer Rakitin; understated but telling gesture and a sure stage presence. Indeed, as if to fill the vacuum at the centre of the ballet, the other characters tended to overplay, which in Ashton, that most subtly brilliant of choreographers, kills it dead. The ballet went for nothing, and for the first time in my experience there was no applause until the end. Zenaida Yanowsky heads the second cast in this ballet, and promises to deliver more of what is needed to make it live. Check casting.

  • Further performances on March 4, 5, 11 & 19
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