The Royal Ballet – Quadruple Bill [La valse, Invitus Invitam, Winter Dreams, Theme and Variations]

La Valse

Francesca Filpi, Kristen McNally, Deirdre Chapman, Bennet Gartside, Thomas Whitehead, Johannes Stepanek

Frederick Ashton – Choreography
Maurice Ravel – Music
André Levasseu – Designs
John B Read – Lighting Design
Christopher Carr – Staging

Invitus Invitam

Leanne Benjamin, Edward Watson, Christina Arestis, Gary Avis

Kim Brandstrup – Choreography
François Couperin arr. Thomas Adès – Music
Lucy Carter – Lighting Design
Richard Hudson – Costume Designs and Setting
Leo Warner for Fifty Nine Productions – Video Designs

Winter Dreams

Tamara Rojo, Nehemiah Kish, Laura Morera, Itziar Mendizabal, Edward Watson, Jonathan Cope

Kenneth MacMillan – Choreography
Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky arr. Phillip Gammon – Music
Peter Farmer – Designs
John B Read – Lighting Design
Grant Coyle, Monica Mason – Staging

Theme and Variations

Sarah Lamb, Steven McRae
Artists of The Royal Ballet

George Balanchine – Choreography
Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky – Music
John B Read – Designs
Patricia Neary – Staging

Orchestra of The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Barry Wordsworth

Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler

Reviewed: 16 October, 2010
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

This is one of the finest mixed bills that The Royal Ballet has presented in a long time – a generous programming of four works by three great choreographers of the past and a new ballet by an exciting and intelligent creator.

Members of The Royal Ballet in La Valse. ©Johan Persson/ROHAshton’s La Valse is a hugely successful treatment of Ravel’s wonderful score, here played with ravishing beauty and tonal depth by the Opera House Orchestra under Barry Wordsworth, who succeeded in eliciting playing of the finest quality throughout the evening. Set for three lead couples and a further 20 in the corps, Ashton evokes the swirling movements of this fin de siècle ballroom first glimpsed through the mist of a front scrim. Levasseur’s sumptuous setting and costumes continue to ravish the eye, and on this the second performance, the work lived and breathed. Ashton brilliantly uses the full depth and width of the stage, filling it with movement, exciting choreography for all 46 down to delicate solos and small ensembles of the principals. Francesca Filpi made a highly favourable impression as the central lead and was ably supported by Bennet Gartside’s elegant partnering.

Kim Brandstrup’s new work, Invitus, Invitam is an engaging, intelligent new work, very small scale but with enormous impact. The concept is typically erudite, stemming from Suetonius’ description of the Emperor Titus’s loss of his lover Berenice with the simple lines ‘Titus reginam Berenicen…demisit invitus invitam’, ‘Titus sent Queen Berenice away against his will, against her will’. This was the springboard for Jean Racine to write his play Berenice and now here for Brandstrup to evoke both the Racine and the original Suetonius, all in dance terms.

Essentially three pas de deux for the superlatively expressive Leanne Benjamin and Edward Watson, both clad in ghostly seventeenth century costumes, they echo Racine’s structure in which the pair meet three times, the first in which Titus cannot bear to tell Berenice of his decision to send her way, the second when she knows but is in denial and he is devastated by the pain he has caused, and the third in which they make their final farewells.

Brandstrup’s choreography is unshowy, full of exquisite lifts and ever turning movement, and both he and his dancers chart the painful progression to the final parting with delicacy and depth. In between, Christina Arestis and Gary Avis, black-clad and contemporary, work from a script, offering snatches of the white pair’s movements – actors intoning Racine’s words? The setting comprises a monumental wall, effectively lit by Lucy Carter and onto which Leo Warner’s stunning video designs of architects’ plans being traced and then becoming ‘real’, thereby creating the front of a palace (the famous single set of French classical tragedy). It is a rare fusion of dance and design in which the latter actively contributes to the effect of the former. Thomas Adès’s arrangement of Couperin adds to the focussed and intelligent atmosphere of this ballet. This is a superb work, and is most welcome into the repertoire.

Winter Dreams is one of Kenneth MacMillan’s last works, completed in the year before his untimely death in 1992. It offers a snapshot telling of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, evoking the melancholy of the story and set to Philip Gammon’s arrangement of Tchaikovsky piano pieces (played on-stage by Gammon himself) and some traditional Russian folk music, played by a guitar ensemble. It is overlong, but contains some fine choreography, not least for the three sisters themselves.

Two newcomers to the company were on show: Itziar Mendizabal, a First Soloist who has come from Leipzig Ballet, and who fitted in well enough as the eldest sister Olga, and new Principal Nehemiah Kish, newly arrived from Copenhagen. Both suffered from a lack of dramatic intensity, dancing the steps well enough (even if Kish couldn’t quite pull off some of the ‘tricks’ MacMillan put in for Irek Mukhamedov). Mendizabal has a long-limbed quality but needs to soften her face to portray character convincingly. Unfortunately Kish was supposed to be Tamara Rojo’s adulterous love interest, but could only muster generic emoting and was not much of a foil for Rojo’s superb portrayal as Masha– she inflects her every movement with meaning, and while she lacks Darcey Bussell’s Amazonian jump (which MacMillan exploited in his choreography for her), she surpasses the retired ballerina in dramatic intelligence.

Laura Morera was a superlative Irina whose hopes are so cruelly dashed and it was good to see Genesia Rosato as Anfisa, the family’s nanny and Christopher Saunders as drunken old Dr Chebutykin make so much of their character parts. Alas, other roles were less well taken: Jonathan Cope’s bland Kulygin (Masha’s dithering husband) and Valeri Hristov as the Baron Tusenbach, who failed to convey his character’s pathetically endearing qualities that make Irina choose him over the blustering Captain Solyony. It is good, nevertheless, to have Winter Dreams back in the repertoire.

Proceedings closed with a spectacular performance of Balanchine’s showpiece, Theme and Variations. The corps de ballet and four demi-soloists were in sparkling form, together and stylistically true, but it was Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae who dazzled in the central roles, she crystal clear and sharp in her tricky choreography, he grand of gesture and sure of technique even in the infamous solo which includes eight consecutive double tours en air and which made even Baryshnikov break into a cold sweat. Their pas de deux went beautifully, not least because they are so well matched physically, their legs at precisely the same angle, their proportions in harmony. This was world class dancing and brought a wonderful performance of ballets to a rousing close. Barry Wordsworth surpassed himself in the Tchaikovsky, garnering idiomatic playing and keeping tempi brisk enough to whip up audience excitement in the breath-taking finale.

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