Royal Ballet Triple Bill – Les Sylphides/Sensorium/The Firebird

Les Sylphides

Nocturne – Yuhui Choe Johan Kobborg, Laura Morera, Lauren Cuthbertson, Iohn Loots, Bethany Keating and Artists of The Royal Ballet
Valse – Laura Morera
Mazurka – Lauren Cuthbertson
Mazurka – Johan Kobborg
Prelude – Yuhui Choe
Pas de deux – Yuhui Choe, Johan Kobborg
Grande valse brillante – The Ensemble

Chopin arr. Douglas – Music
Mikhail Fokine – Choreography
Monica Mason – Production
Alexandre Benois realised by Suzanne Hickinbothan – Designs
John B Read – Lighting


Leanne Benjamin, Alexandra Ansanelli, Thomas Whitehead, Rupert Pennefather, Natalie Harrison, Lara McCulloch

Artists of The Royal Ballet

Philip Caulfield (piano)

Claude Debussy orch. Matthews – Music
Alastair Marriott – Choreography
Adam Wiltshire – Designs
John B Read – Lighting

The Firebird

The Firebird – Mara Galeazzi
Ivan Tsarevich – Thiago Soares
The Beautiful Tsarevna – Elizabeth McGorian
The Immortal Kostcheï – Gary Avis

Artists of The Royal Ballet

Igor Stravinsky – Music
Mikhail Fokine – Choreography
Sergey Grigoriev and Lubov Tchernicheva – Production
Natalia Gontcharova – Designs
John B Read – Lighting

Orchestra of The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Barry Wordsworth

Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler

Reviewed: 4 May, 2009
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Everyone knows Les Sylphides: since its presentation in 1909 it rapidly became ‘the’ archetypal ballet in which ballerinas hovered on pointe dressed a woodland fairies and a poet dreamed amongst them. What is not generally appreciated is how revolutionary this ballet was, a conscious pull away from the rigid formalism of the three-act narrative which characterized the Imperial ballets in pre-revolution Russia. This is a ballet blanc (as in Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, La Bayadère) but with a difference – the male protagonist is not a mere observer; he is essential to the action and there is no narrative. Les Sylphides, for all its flummery and fairy wings, is the true pre-cursor of the abstract ballets which came to dominate classical dance.

The ballet as we know it dates from that first 1909 Ballets Russes season given by Serge Diaghilev to a shocked and delighted Paris in May of that year, although it had existed in another form in Russia (also by Fokine) under the name of Chopiniana which, confusingly, is the name by which Les Sylphides still appears over there. The Royal Ballet has a long tradition with the work dating back to Alicia Markova’s production for the nascent Vic-Wells ballet in 1932, a good pedigree indeed because Markova had, until three years previously, been a member of Diaghilev’s company; she was helped in the staging by Ninette de Valois, Vic-Wells Director and ex-Ballets Russes soloist herself. The company which became The Royal ballet performed Les Sylphides regularly over the decades, but then in the early 1990s dropped it from the schedules (as did more or less all the other companies in the UK). The reason for the rash of Sylphides this year (ENB present their version -also by Markova – at the Sadler’s Wells in June) is the centenary of the Ballets Russes, and, given The Royal ballet’s shamefully meagre marking of that occasion (this triple bill is their only offering) we must catch it while we can. The work is not scheduled for revival next season, and one fears that Les Sylphides will remain yet another work to be dusted off occasionally.

Company Director Monica Mason is responsible for this staging and, given that she herself danced it only once or twice (in the Mazurka to be precise) it is not surprising that it doesn’t quite feel right. Most of the choreography is there, but the special épaulement and ‘feel’ of the work are missing at present. Benois’s original designs are recreated, and while mighty impressive are not quite right either – too blue in fact. John B Read at least has switched the lights on for this production (he is a notoriously murky lighting designer) but he has not done anything to create ‘mood’; and that, after all, is what this balletic reverie is about.

It is a pity that Barry Wordsworth took such a leaden approach to the music, making Roy Douglas’s orchestration of Chopin sound unnecessarily soupy. In terms of dancing, the corps de ballet were careful, almost reverential, which robbed much of the movement of its poetry. But for the four principals I have great praise. Laura Morera skittered her way beautifully though the Valse and Lauren Cuthbertson has the right leggy quality to sail through the Mazurka with all its grands jetés. Johan Kobborg understands what he is doing in this work and while his own solo was a little underpowered, he partnered beautifully, making much of the ethereal quality of Yuhui Choe, one of the company’s few rising talents. She floated like thistledown in his experienced hands, and delivered a Prelude of melting beauty (interestingly, the company presents the Prelude dancer as the première danseuse who performs the pas de deux, whereas it was usually accorded to the Mazurka dancer; Margot Fonteyn seems to have instituted this change when she danced the Prelude. The production will bed down, no doubt, but needs to be danced frequently to get the style and mood into the muscles and bones of the dancers. It is a shame that Mason and her team did not have the humility to call in some of the few remaining dancers who were rehearsed by Fokine himself and who could have helped in securing the particular quality needed for this masterpiece.

Sensorium is Alastair Marriott’s new work, commissioned to evoke the spirit of Diaghilev for whom the creation of something new was always the target. Marriott here presents his third work for the main stage at Covent Garden, the first being Tanglewood which was enthusiastically received and the second, Children of Adam, which was not. Sensorium lies between the two. It is ravishingly designed by Adam Wiltshire with an enormous ‘sail’ of what looks like wood set at an angle at the back of the stage; the whole work is delightfully lit by John B Read and the colours and shapes he creates are truly ravishing.

But for me Marriott’s choreography is a little old hat: this is a resolutely abstract work for two couples, two demi-soloists and a corps de ballet of eight women, although the choreography and lighting do much to evoke water despite most of Debussy’s preludes (to which the work is set) being about other things – leaves, snow, wind and the like). Colin Matthews’s orchestrations of Debussy are fine indeed and I particularly enjoyed the contrast of having two of the preludes being played on solo piano. Marriott has certainly absorbed many influences, and in the convoluted partnering he has devised one could see not only Christopher Wheeldon, but, from a generation before, Glen Tetley (Voluntaries) and Kenneth MacMillan. The work has little, if anything, to say and is a pleasant enough way to spend half an hour; only Leanne Benjamin, that superb artiste, managed to extract from her movements more than what they were. Her pas de deux with gallant porteur Thomas Whitehead is definitely the highlight of this slight piece.

To finish, the magnificnet Firebird. Here The Royal Ballet stands supreme in its birthright to perform this work – their production was staged for them in 1954 by the Ballets Russes’ own répétiteur Serge Grigoriev and his wife, company principal Lubov Tchernicheva. No other company in the world possesses this provenance, and it is something to be guarded fiercely: Tamara Karsavina taught the title role which she had created to Margot Fonteyn (and a generation of Firebirds) who passed it on to Monica Mason who now coaches the present day interpreters of the role.

The Firebird is given in its 1926 designs by the great Natalia Gontcharova (as opposed to original 1910 Serge Golovine version). I cannot praise this revival highly enough – everything was in place and felt ‘right’ and Mara Galeazzi as the Firebird gave perhaps the finest performance of her career so far: she was truly a wild creature, desperate to escape the clutches of the Tsarevich in the first scene and exultant in her command of Kostcheï’s hordes in the Danse Infernale. She was superbly partnered by Thiago Soares’s individual interpretation of the Tsarevich; the last thing for a work of this type is for each interpreter to be a carbon copy of his or her predecessors. Soares reacted with real freshness to everything that happened around him; his ideas, actions and reactions clear as day; his mouth tightened into a hint of cruelty as he stood crowned as Tsar at the close of the ballet, sceptre clutched to his side, left hand raised slowly in a gesture of benediction and God-given power. Gary Avis too as the Immortal Kostcheï was fresh in all his movements and reactions – the finest artists take a role and make it unquestionably their own – and he joins the finest interpreters of the role created 99 years ago by Alexis Bulgakov. The sets and costumes have received some attention and look the better for it. Barry Wordsworth led a spirited performance of the score and most certainly did not deserve the boos he received at his curtain call – alas the ignorant get everywhere.

If this were one of several bills celebrating the Ballets Russes and its astonishing contribution I would say that it made a good if uneven start. But it stands alone as The Royal ballet’s tribute, and as such falls a little short of the mark.

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