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Inspiring artists

Posted on June 25, 2019

Isn’t it curious how much ballet dancers differ? By the time they can call themselves professional, they’ve been taught to respect the academic vocabulary and deliver it with precision. Most performers honour those twin obligations faithfully even if they lack imagination, but many go further. The Royal Ballet’s revival of A Month in the Country and English National Ballet’s new production of Cinderella reminded me of how easily you can distinguish between an inspiring artist and a pedestrian one.

Without verbal assistance from the choreographers or any scholars, these ballets explained themselves in movement; some viewers may discover Ivan Turgenev through Frederick Ashton’s setting of his play, just as many discovered Igor Stravinsky’s music through the choreography he drew from Mikhail Fokine and George Balanchine. Sidestepping Charles Perrault’s fairy godmother/pumpkin coach interpretation of Cinderella, Christopher Wheeldon staged a darker version, the Grimm brothers’ version, which he has expanded to fit the Royal Albert Hall. Though the vast space swallowed the intimacy of the pas de deux, the kaleidoscopic patterns for the courtiers and seasonal divertissements filled it engagingly.

At 38, Alina Cojocaru portrays Cinderella with the freshness and innocence younger dancers no longer feel and don’t yet know how to evoke. Commanding a stage that can hold 100, she easily captured every eye and moved every heart, illuminating the role’s romantic lyricism as if she’d never danced it before. As Cinderella’s nemesis, the pushy Stepmother, Tamara Rojo nailed ruthless ambition to profound vanity, deftly defining the character as both a dangerous schemer and a silly, sloppy drunk.

Cinderella’s prince, Isaac Hernández, danced cleanly but without much personality, so Jeffrey Cirio took the male honours for the first performance as his sidekick, Benjamin. How did they differ? Not in skill, perhaps, but in commitment and dramatic intensity. Who could you believe? Only Cirio.

Opening night of A Month in the Country brought a debut in the leading role from Marianela Nuñez at the peak of her powers, partnered by Matthew Ball who is still exploring the extent of his. Coached by Anthony Dowell, who created the role of the tutor, Beliaev, Ball handles it with confidence, more comfortable with the steps than the character but never allowing them to dominate.

Born to play Natalia Petrovna, Nuñez had clearly studied every move and gesture in order to present them with apparent spontaneity. Seldom can you read anyone’s thoughts, but when Petrovna’s ward Vera accused her of infidelity, you could see Nuñez process the damning attack and settle on a response, all before her face and action spoke that response out loud.

Physical and emotional impulses flowed through her body seamlessly, each impelled by the other, and by underplaying the overwrought moments that often seem melodramatic, she fit them naturally into her nuanced expression of passion and despair.

Yasmine Naghdi’s debut in the title role of The Firebird on the same evening looked like a rough sketch by comparison, as did the entire ballet except the vivid ensembles for Kostcheï’s entourage of wives, youths and monsters. Edward Watson’s Ivan and Christine Arestis’ Tsarevna reduced grandeur and delicate nobility to halting timidity; Gary Avis turned Kostcheï into a pantomime baddie, less threatening than his attendants; and Naghdi constructed the mythical Firebird out of harsh angles and forbidding lines, all of a piece but as sharply creased as origami without a curve in her body or a hint of tenderness in her portrayal.

Sadly, some dancers can’t resist smearing their discipline with self-indulgence. The proof lies in Sergei Polunin who, in a show titled with his name, hurled himself through two original works with a massive chip on his shoulder and an inflated sense of his own charisma. He’s too old to be a bad boy or to maintain the flamboyant technique that originally attracted the public and consumed his concentration. Why would anyone want to watch him now?

Pictured: English National Ballet’s Cinderella, with Alina Cojocaru as Cinderella and Tamara Rojo as the Stepmother. Photographs by Ian Gavan and Laurent Liotardo.

 

Barbara Newman’s books about ballet include Grace under Pressure; The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories for children; a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance, and its follow-up, Never Far from Dancing. She has written for Dancing Times since 1984 and served as the dance critic for Country Life from 1990 to 2016. She archives all her work at http://barbaranewmandance.net

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