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Plain and Fancy

Posted on October 23, 2018


When George Balanchine choreographed Chaconne in 1976, he chose Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins for the principal roles. They were the leading lights of New York City Ballet at the time, and people naturally wanted to see them in anything they might dance.

The Balanchine historian Nancy Reynolds has described Chaconne as “a series of more or less unrelated divertissements, interspersed with dances for the two principals,” which also applies to Kenneth MacMillan’s sexy, passionate dramas. Romeo and Juliet, Anastasia, Manon, Mayerling and Isadora all involve an entire company – he once told me that, especially as an artistic director, he had to make sure the dancers weren’t being paid to sit in the dressing room – but the heart of those narratives lies in their fascinating pas de deux.

The current Royal Ballet revival of Mayerling reminds us of his remarkable ability to define a vast range of emotional experience through two intertwined bodies. Moving restlessly from one partner to another, Crown Prince Rudolf hurls himself from ruthless violence to abject terror while the women in his life fight him and collaborate with him. The ballet’s grand ball, hunting party and chorus of laconic whores are by the way, no more than lavishly costumed divertissements. The tragedy flows from the pas de deux and the artists entrusted with them.

Steven McRae outshines many present interpreters in the central role because, like David Wall who created it, his impeccable classical technique supports the intensity of his acting. MacMillan choreographed every twitch and stumble of Rudolf’s madness, enlarging ballet’s vocabulary for dramatic purposes, and only the dancers who display Rudolf’s twisted mind and tortured longings with absolute clarity reveal the nuances of MacMillan’s intentions. In McRae’s fine cast, I particularly admired Sarah Lamb’s icy intensity as Mary Vetsera, Laura Morera as the touchingly devoted Countess Larisch, and Meaghan Grace Hinkis’ reckless daring as Princess Stephanie.

Pictured: Steven McRae as Crown Prince Rudolf and Sarah Lamb as Mary Vetsera in Mayerling. Photographs by Alice Pennefather, courtesy of the Royal Opera House.

Why did they remind me of Chaconne? Because when its second and later casts emerged, it became a lot easier to focus on the movement rather than the individual performers, which is exactly where William Forsythe placed our attention in the extraordinary programme he called A Quiet Evening of Dance.

Four months before its recent premiere at Sadler’s Wells, this work won the 2018 FEDORA Prize for Ballet, worth €100,000 and awarded annually by Van Cleef and Arpels for innovation and choreography in an imminent production. The ballet consists of three duets and two ensemble pieces, some newly created, some revived, danced by six performers long associated with Forsythe joined by Rauf “RubberLegz” Yasit, who has developed his own style based on b-boying.

Accompanied by silence, birdsong or Rameau’s lilting baroque music, the five sections share one aim, to investigate the limitless potential of classical ballet’s vocabulary. Having set out, as Forsythe says, “to make people see ballet better,” he has devised intricate riffs on the raw material, breaking it down to its basic elements in order to examine them from all sides. Familiar academic positions – tendu, port de bras – and standard organisational concepts – canon, counterpoint, reverse – take the stage without scenery or explanation. Limbs flex and bend, hips and shoulders shift off-centre, each miniscule adjustment reshapes the overall effect.

Discussing Catalogue, for example, Forsythe compares the collection of these moves to “a mechanical sketch of the foundations of ballet.” It’s as if he’d slid that discipline under a microscope to expose the atoms that form it and the nuclei of those atoms and the electrons bound to those nuclei.

You may not have known the dancers’ names and you may never see them again. You may not remember which of them danced in which combination. If you love ballet, you will not forget this evening of discovery.

Pictured: Brigel Gjorka and Riley Watts in William Forsythe’s A Quiet Evening of Dance. Photographs by Bill Cooper.


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

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