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Royal Ballet

Ashton Mixed Bill: ‘Scenes de Ballet’, ‘Sleeping Beauty Awakening pdd’, ‘Ondine Act 3 pdd’, ‘Thais pdd’, ‘Voices of Spring pdd’, ‘Marguerite and Armand’

13th July 2004
New York City, Metropolitan Opera House

by Eric Taub

'Scenes de Ballet' reviews

'Awakening' reviews

'Thais' reviews

'Ondine' reviews

'Marguerite and Armand' reviews

Putrov in reviews

Cojocaru in reviews

recent RB reviews

more Eric Taub reviews

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It is with a bit of trepidation that I set down my impressions of The Royal Ballet's first Ashton program at the Metropolitan Opera House. After all, Constant Readers will know I'm a die-hard Balanchine worshipper, and yet here I am, taking on the works of Sir Fred for a substantially British audience. I wouldn't want to be the boorish guest who puts down the tastes of his hosts. And yet, there's no way to avoid relating that I was significantly underwhelmed. Over the years, I've come to like some of Ashton's work very much, but most of what I saw at the Met Tuesday night spoke more to me of a somewhat fussy prettiness than the pure sublimity I've found in the Ashton works that have affected me the most. On the other hand, it was a great treat to see dancers I've only read about (including La Sylvie!), and works which were, for the most part, entirely new to me.

As I'm sure Constant Readers also know by now, the greatly anticipated duet for Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell did not happen. Sigh. The evening began with 'Scènes de Ballet.' I found myself wanting to like this "abstract," or, rather, plotless ballet, but not quite accomplishing it. Much of the choreography strayed very little from dry classroom exercises (Ivan Putrov's big solo, with its repeated soussus, double-tour combination, looked especially academic). Perhaps that was Ashton's intent, to build something shining out of these staid bricks (he's certainly less pedantic than Harald Lander was with 'Etudes.'). But many of the enchainements had a kind of stop-and-start, or rather end-stopped quality which I found a little off-putting, as if moving were something one does in between poses. A step stuck in my mind, where Putrov leaps in a big jété, then scissors his legs, landing in a deep lunge and reaching slightly backwards, one of many instances of quickly tethered flight; movement so heavily end-stopped the stage might as well have been littered with invisible brick walls. I know the Royal Ballet's school doesn't teach Cecchetti anymore, but the corps, especially the women, moved with a correctness which spoke more of artifice than artlessness. Miyako Yoshida, otherwise known as the Girl in the (Bright) Yellow Tutu, either set the tone or embodied it, with a cast-iron prettiness which breathed no life into the airless enterprise. While many of the men soared quite nicely before thumping to earth with the afore-mentioned dead stops, only Putrov, who danced with a commending largesse, showed me more than pretty bits and pieces. Perhaps it's the blinkered, Balanchinian New Yorker in me speaking out, but there seemed to be a lot more to Stravinsky's score than Ashton showed me.

Next followed a divertissement of assorted Ashtonian bon-bons. It's a too-rare treat to see Darcey Bussell in New York; I don't think she's been here since she did a memorable 'Corsaire' pas de deux with Igor Zelensky at a gala a few years ago. Lovely as it is in places, Ashton's 'Awakening' pas de deux from 'Sleeping Beauty' looks a bit out of place with out the rest of the ballet around it. Bussell's grandeur (well-partnered by Roberto Bolle) seemed appropriate to the soaring Tchaikovsky melody often appropriated for the growing Christmas tree in various 'Nutcrackers,' and much of the duet seemed to be about the beauty of her line in various attitudes, echoed by Bolle. As Petipa quite often calls on us to admire the line of Aurora and her Prince in just such a fashion, Ashton's work shows a careful understanding of the ballet, and how respectfully he interjected his own choreography. Would that others had learned from him!

The pas de deux from Act III of 'Ondine' ends when Ondine (Tamara Rojo) can no longer resist the importuning Iñaki Urlezaga, finally accepting his kiss with the familiar, unfortunate result. I liked how Rojo portrayed passion infused with fear and regret, and thought once again that Ashton seems more comfortable with story-telling, or, rather, creating dance which represents a narration of something other than itself, than he does with "pure" dance. The 'Thaïs' pas de deux, to the ever-familiar meditation by Massenet, beautifully straddled the razor's edge between pretty and campy. Leann Benjamin's florid entrance, bourreeing across the stage in a cloud of amber organza created by Anthony Dowell, seemed a perfect tribute to the generations which preceded Ashton. It wasn't hard to squint one's eyes and see Loie Fuller, Isadora or even Pavlova in a "specialty" number. 'Thaïs' had its breathtaking moments, with Benjamin making her billowing shawl as much of a partner as Thiago Soares, although such a nicety couldn't quite cover the relentless precision (so like that of Maxfield Parrish) beneath this dance's ornamental surface.

Spiffy as Benjamin's entrance in 'Thaïs' may have been, it didn't hold a candle to that of the heavenly Alina Cojocaru in the 'Voices of Spring' pas de deux, hoisted on Johan Kobborg's shoulder and trailing showers of rose petals from her upraised hands. This was a sprightly and joyous dance, all the more enjoyable for Ashton's occasional wink at its own sweetness. I loved watching Kobborg lift Cojocaru along a diagonal as she strode in big, "weightless" steps like an astronaut skimming the surface of the moon. It was perfect in its prettiness and happy conceit. Cojocaru's and Kobborg's verve gave substance to what otherwise might've seemed a sweet, airy meringue of a dance.

More toothsome than meringue, or, at least, more substantial, was the showpiece Ashton created for Fonteyn and Nureyev, 'Marguerite and Armand.' Certainly it offered Sylvie Guillem a chance to chew the scenery (metaphorically, as Cecil Beaton's set design consisted mostly of sheer, airy curtains). I've never particularly cared for this ballet. In perhaps a logical reaction to the odd "now-I-dance, now-I-mime" world of classical ballet, Ashton has a penchant for grafting "realistic" mime onto academic steps which sometimes works more organically than others. I've often thought of him as the choreographer most likely to show us a man shaking his fist while performing entrechats (as he does in 'The Dream'). Sometimes in this ballet it seems that the narrative and dance obstruct, rather than reinforce each other, as in Armand's apparent inability to ever go from point A to point B without interjecting a score of stabbing arabesques. Massimo Murru looked to have studied Nureyev he's got the chiseled look, and I swear I saw a few nostalgic flarings of the nostrils. Fortunately, he didn't quite emulate Nureyev's ironing-board arabesque, but he did have that familiar hunched-over look. Where Murru's undeniable dramatic presence seemed a bit studied, Sylvie Guillem transcended such artifice, only displaying her fabled extension in a single, knickers-dropping penchée which I think (hope) Fonteyn eschewed. It wasn't out of fitting with the doomed, passion-driven Marguerite she created. Her humiliation by Armand was almost palpable, and while a lesser dancer might've made Marguerite's drawn-out death scene into something operatic (paging Mr. Verdi!), Guillem showed us Marguerite's fitful, tentative journey between life and death, a struggle giving way to something greater, as, in the most piercing vision of the evening, Murru held Guillem aloft, her body as straight as a beam of light from her bedroom window as she swam, both dreamily and desperately, for that fading light. It was a perfect wedding of movement and meaning, and I feel the goosebumps still.

Though we didn't get Sibley, Anthony Dowell made a welcome appearance, to a suitable ovation, as Marguerite's father. As always, it was a pleasure to observe his slightest movement.

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