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Liam Scarlett Asphodel Meadows, Frederick Ashton The Two Pigeons, TRIO ConcertDance

Posted on January 29, 2019

When The Royal Ballet Upper School left its Barons Court home in 2003 and moved into brand-new facilities in Covent Garden, directly across the street from the stage door that every pupil hopes one day to enter, I was told that the quality and convenience of the new premises were bound to improve the quality of the dancers trained there.

The Royal Opera House (ROH) had closed between 1997 and 1999 for modernisation, gaining bright new studios in the process. More recently, the Linbury Theatre, submerged beneath the main house, along with the public space above it at street level, have been reimagined and rebuilt.

Though the public now enjoys easier access than ever to the theatres and to food and drink before performances or during the intervals, all this remodelling and construction should, theoretically, benefit the artists and their work above all. Yet the two performances I recently attended on consecutive evenings made me wonder about the priorities at Covent Garden, because the organisation’s focus seems to have swung from creativity to comfort.

The Royal Ballet’s latest double bill opened with Liam Scarlett’s Asphodel Meadows, which resembles Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto in its abstract response to music but takes only its rhythm and tempo from Poulenc’s astringent Concerto for Two Pianos. Neatly assembled – Scarlett has a knack for choreographic structure – it starts and ends in darkness, filling the time in between with skeins of tangled movement that establish no atmosphere and leave no impression.

Frederick Ashton’s adorable romance The Two Pigeons brought light, warmth and heart to the stage, at least in the leading performances by Lauren Cuthbertson and Vadim Muntagirov as the quarrelling lovers and Laura Morera as the seductive Gypsy Girl. These three, and a handful of others, invariably explore the roles that come their way as if they understand the overlapping privilege and obligation of dancing those parts. Otherwise, the ballet has become a shadow of its former self, peopled by gypsies from central casting and the Young Girl’s friends, who flutter around the shabby garret without a thought in their pretty heads.

I saw Lesley Collier and Alfreda Thorogood out front, whose coaching may have enlivened the principals. No one seems to have done that for everyone else.

TRIO ConcertDance, the opening event in the beautifully refurbished Linbury Theatre, combined a piano recital by Bruce Levingston, playing solo and as accompaniest for the full 65 minutes, with a sombre posy of gala-worthy tidbits danced by Alessandra Ferri, now 55, and her younger partner, Herman Cornejo, a principal artist with American Ballet Theatre.

First produced in 2016, the collaborative evening featured four duets and two solos, each commissioned from a different choreographer, all dressed in either black or white, and, apart for the intriguing solo Cornejo made for himself, all limited to the vocabulary Ferri can still confidently execute. Led down memory lane by her sleek legs, soulful glances and romantic abandon in Cornejo’s supportive arms, her faithful followers welcomed her back eagerly. Forced to accept her stardom on faith, those with shorter memories had precious little to watch; the woman in front of me hid her phone in her handbag and caught up with her texts.

Like all advertising, the ROH poster in the Underground points you straight towards the star attraction; it says, “The performance begins the moment you step inside the building.”

Pictured: Alessandra Ferri and Herman Cornejo in TRIO ConcertDance. Photograph by Lucas Chilzuk.

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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