Posted on February 6, 2020
You could call it a feast of narratives. The Royal Ballet has served up The Sleeping Beauty and Coppélia for Christmas and dances Onegin throughout February. Birmingham Royal Ballet brought The Nutcracker to Birmingham and the Royal Albert Hall; that company has just launched a long tour of Swan Lake. English National Ballet (ENB) followed The Nutcracker with Le Corsaire, and Scottish Ballet has been touring The Snow Queen.
It’s an international feast too. This month alone you can see The Lady of the Camellias in Munich, The Sleeping Beauty in Houston, La Bayadère in Helsinki and Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, Anna Karenina and The Winter’s Tale at the Bolshoi. The Paris Opéra Ballet opened the new year with 17 performances of Giselle at home and will present it, along with Onegin, when it travels to Tokyo.
Of course, a good story holds endless possibilities for interpretation, and the finest dancers skillfully reinvent old material so it’s brand-new at every performance. Or they try to. Or hope to. The Royal Ballet’s Natalia Osipova poured such nuanced emotion – shy infatuation, reckless passion, corrosive bitterness – into Onegin’s Tatiana that everyone else had to struggle to match her dramatic intensity. I sat beside a young critic on opening night who’d never seen Onegin before and admitted freely that she watched only Osipova because the rest of the cast seemed incidental.
ENB’s Corsaire uses one of the silliest narratives ever put on the ballet stage to showcase its gifted male dancers, who tear into it with swashbuckling panache and dazzling technical clarity. Understandably, because it’s so seldom staged, the friend who accompanied me to the London Coliseum was seeing it for the first time. Also understandably, she raved about the leading men – Francesco Gabriele Frola as Conrad, Brooklyn Mack as Lankendem, Jeffrey Cirio as Ali – but lost track of the elaborately confused story and couldn’t have cared less about it.
Though both theatres were comfortably full, what purpose do these ballets serve if the principal artists alone command all the attention? If celebrity culture has infected dance, what’s the point of producing lavish spectacles to display every last dancer when nobody is watching most of them?
While still The Royal Ballet’s director, Monica Mason told me, “[W]e cannot run a triple bill for ten shows – it absolutely doesn’t sell. We know that it sells for about six or seven… That’s why we push our luck with the things that we know do sell, like the full-length ballets.” Twelve years later, little has changed. At Covent Garden, the double bill comprising Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering and Cathy Marston’s latest creation, The Cellist, will come and go in six performances, followed by 23 servings of Swan Lake. For ENB’s 2020-2021 season, its director, Tamara Rojo, will venture into choreography for the first time by staging a new production of Raymonda.
Yet ENB’s 70th Anniversary Gala featured excerpts from 15 works as well as Harald Lander’s complete Etudes. In nine pages of small print, the programme listed every ballet the company has ever performed.
Where are they? As memory has become short and stars determine box-office sales, dozens of ballets have vanished from sight. Despite the UK’s endless fascination with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, selections from his legendary repertoire turn up here once in a blue moon, as do works made by Serge Lifar, David Lichine, Maurice Béjart and Roland Petit, which all appeared on the very first page of the programme’s long distinguished list.
Should they be revived? Aren’t you curious? Now that the viewers’ concentration has apparently been whittled away by social media, wouldn’t three or four short pieces in one programme suit the cultural habit of snacking? Wouldn’t the mix encourage viewers to sample delicious choices they had never imagined?
Frederick Ashton’s A Wedding Bouquet or Lichine’s Graduation Ball might whet the appetite for more dance just as thoroughly as contemporary choreography by Christopher Wheeldon or Crystal Pite. Antony Tudor’s Romeo and Juliet might throw new light on the familiar full-evening versions, to which the public returns again and again.
It’s a matter of preference whether Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Biches is a better ballet than, for example, Akram Khan’s Dust. Nobody disputes, however, that a limited diet contains little nourishment. Trying to sustain dance while ignoring its history weakens this splendidly varied art and threatens, dangerously, to reduce it to mere fashion.
Pictured: Natalia Osipova as Tatiana in The Royal Ballet’s production of John Cranko’s Onegin. Photographs by Tristram Kenton, courtesy of the Royal Opera House.