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The Royal Ballet on stage and on the big screen

Posted on November 26, 2019

RJ1

When Frederick Ashton retired as the artistic director of The Royal Ballet in 1970, the company arranged a gala in his honour featuring selections from 34 of his creations and his contributions to Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and Giselle, presented to the excited public without a printed programme. The details were distributed as the audience left the Royal Opera House, but experience allowed viewers to recognise each excerpt as it occurred; the set for Les Rendezvous, a ballet I’d never seen, prompted a delighted murmur of recognition before the dancers even appeared.

Because of the occasion, everyone knew the company would dance at its best to display the repertoire that had, in large part, put it on the map.

The opposite also happens; ignorance can breed indifference. Doris Lessing once submitted a story to dozens of publishers under a pseudonym, and all of them rejected it. If you don’t know the source of an artwork or the reputation of its interpreters, how does it alter your response?

The Royal Ballet itself put this question in my mind as it proceeded through this season’s initial mixed bill. First up: Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto, set to Shostakovich’s sardonic second Piano Concerto and performed like a demonstration piece. Here we stand stock-still for a few beats and pose. This is what a preparation for pirouettes looks like. Smiles indicate pleasure. Darkness shrouded the supporting couples in the second, lyrical movement, as if MacMillan had meant us to see the pas de deux alone, and the moderate pace dulled the glittering edge of the third movement.

Next up: Frederick Ashton’s Enigma Variations, which delicately fits choreographic portraits of actual people to the musical portraits Edward Elgar painted of them in his renowned score. Young dancers struggle today with Victorian dress and manners, which may strike them as ancient artifacts briefly borrowed from a museum. 

Consequently, about half the cast I saw on opening night defined convincing characters inside Julia Trevelyan Oman’s period costumes, so only half this nuanced ensemble piece could engage or move the viewers. Sensitively led by Laura Morera as Elgar’s wife, Olivia Cowley as Winifred Norbury and Francesca Hayward as Dora Penny, the women alone seemed comfortable slipping personality into their steps – perhaps they absorbed the atmosphere from their gowns and ribbons.

Formerly a stylish firecracker that raised cheers from the audience, on opening night Raymonda Act III produced, as the saying goes, a damp squib; nobody caught fire but Vadim Muntagirov, a dashing nobleman beside a pallid Sarah Lamb, and Yuhui Choe and Mayara Magri in their variations.

This triple bill emerged from the 1960s, when the first two pieces were choreographed and Rudolf Nureyev brought Raymonda Act III into the repertoire. Are the dances out-dated? Old-fashioned? Do they contain some intrinsic theatrical worth, or do the performers alone justify their revival? Whose name sells the tickets? MacMillan’s? Muntagirov’s?

While I expected more commitment or energy from that performance, the audience seemed satisfied simply to have seen “The Royal Ballet” live and in colour, which makes me think the occasion itself – an evening in a distinguished theatre, eating, drinking, visiting with friends – may have been a stronger draw than the choreography. The last time I saw Raymonda, in Nureyev’s complete staging for the Paris Opéra Ballet, the final act tore the roof off the Palais Garnier, and the dancers seemed eager to send it flying. At Covent Garden they may struggle to maintain their purpose when so many social pleasures are bidding for their viewers’ attention.

Fully aware of this situation, Michael Nunn and William Trevitt have made a 90-minute film of MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, expressly to lure a younger audience to ballet. They have transferred the choreography, slightly cut, into a realistic setting – Verona’s town square, Juliet’s bedroom – rather than recording it on a proscenium stage, even allowing “real life” to pass between the camera and the action as it would in… well, real life.

The narrative assumes fresh immediacy in these conditions, with young Royal Ballet artists dancing, chickens scurrying through the marketplace and rain drenching Romeo’s lethal duel with Tybalt. Church bells and the crowd’s muffled chatter add atmosphere, but without the sound of the dancers’ feet, I felt as if I were watching them through a pane of glass.

Those who don’t know the ballet, however, may discover it here for the first time and be lured into seeing more, which in the long run would benefit the company, its public and dance itself.

The film of The Royal Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet plays in Curzon Cinemas for one night only on December 16. To book tickets, or to find out participating venues, visit curzoncinemas.com.

Pictures of Romeo and Juliet courtesy of Manilla Productions.

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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