Royal Ballet: Triple Bill

It is possible to see Gloria, Kenneth MacMillan’s howl of rage at the wanton waste of the First World War, as the final piece in a great arc of expressionist dance, from Vaslav Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (1913), through Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces (1923), to Gloria (1980). The first two works portray a mythicized peasant life, where women are ritually sacrificed for the benefit of the community. The violence they depict, overt in Le Sacre, sublimated into ceremonial in Les Noces, is the violence of their century.

In Gloria, the communal violence is no longer beneficial, or ritualized, but mechanized, the slaughter of millions, so many that the living and the dead can no longer be separated. The vast armies of the dead walk (dance) as one, their numbers stretching away to the horizon. The score, Francis Poulenc’s Gloria, by turns lighthearted, sorrowful and resigned, lays down a palette from which MacMillan paints a vision of both hope and despair: a trio of men find companionship even as they dance with death, before the two main soldiers and their silvery companion – the angel of death? – join the nameless millions as they quietly line up to go over the top. The last soldier looks into the trench, into the pit, before he joins them, not quietly, but leaping, arms outstretched, crucified, the final sacrifice of humanity.

MacMillan achieved the highest aim, knitting the music, sets and costumes (of dusty, brutalized grandeur from Andy Klunder) and lighting (John B. Read) so tightly with his choreography that they form a single unity of vision, as Nijinska did with Natalia Goncharova and Stravinsky in Les Noces. (Nijinsky too may have done so, but the choreography of Le Sacre, despite attempts at restoration, remains unknowable.)

This collaborative vision is what Wayne McGregor too looks for, and for his new work, Tetractys –The Art of Fugue, he has elected to work with Bach (and Michael Berkeley), Tauba Auerbach for sets and costumes, and his regular lighting designer, Lucy Carter. The most enjoyable elements are Auerbach’s neon glyphs, which are raised and lowered over each segment of dance, a beautiful, playfully engaging schematization of the music. But they stand out, and stand alone, barely integrated into a whole.

Each work begins for McGregor with a single, usually theoretical, idea. Each is then mined for half an hour of dance, before being discarded as a new idea provokes the next work. It may be why it is hard to discern any development in McGregor’s work. We’ve had the form of atoms for Atomos, the photographs of Eadweard Muybridge and Richard Serra’s word lists for UNDANCE, virtual reality, PTSD and controlled explosions for Live Fire Exercise, and so on. For Tetractys, it is geometry and numerology, number theory and other games that Bach may, or may not, have been playing with in his mysterious Art of Fugue.

What it isn’t is a serious engagement with the music. The more standard piano and harpsichord arrangements of this work were apparently not considered, or not considered appropriate. Nor, apparently, was the lovely string quartet arrangement (which would also have linked to the four lines of the tetractys). Instead we have Michael Berkeley’s orchestral rendering of two canons and four fugal constructions: perfectly nice, but without much colour.

And in front of this the usual McGregor vocabulary of frantic scurrying, extreme distortion and hyper-extensions plays out, much as it has in all his previous works. A second viewing might have brought a deeper reading, but it was not to be. Dance can be an extreme sport, and in the matinee Natalia Osipova hit her head hard enough (against her partner, apparently) to sustain a concussion. Although she carried on to finish the performance, the evening show had to be cancelled. (That the Royal Ballet cannot field a second cast is astonishing, but in keeping with what appear to be financial constraints elsewhere; the piece’s muddy lighting suggests that onstage technical time was limited.)

The bill opened with Frederick Ashton’s final major work, Rhapsody, choreographed in 1980 for Mikhail Baryshnikov, full of glitter and dazzle, but an odd, unbalanced piece, the male principal’s style set entirely at odds with the rest of the dancers. The Royal has regularly revived the work, although its constant redesign of sets and costumes (originally William Chappell, then Patrick Caulfield, then Jessica Curtis) suggests a level of discomfort with it.

While Valentino Zucchetti debuted admirably, at the moment the Royal does not have a virtuoso of starriest star quality, someone who gobbles up space, who brutally demands attention. Steven McRae, more experienced, led the first cast, and young James Hay, a soloist, performed nicely in a matinee. But at the moment there is a dearth of dazzle in the Royal.

First published in the TLS

Royal Ballet: Mayerling

My great-grandmother used to say, “In the fall, leaves fall,” meaning that as the weather gets colder, people die. The Royal Ballet has had leaves falling all year, and in the height of the (ha!) summer one of the most tenacious, and most beautiful, finally fluttered down. Leanne Benjamin, a principal since 1993, retired in the role of her choosing, Kenneth MacMillan’s Mary Vetsera, a crazed, sexed-up nymphet with a death-wish.

Benjamin has had a longer career than most. She is, unbelievably, 49, although you would probably have to see the picture in her attic to prove it, given that she still looks young enough to play “young” Mary, not something dancers half her age can always do. And, as a heartening lesson to many struggling dancers, it took time for her to come into her own.

I remember her blazing, if unnuanced, graduating performance. But then it almost seemed as if no one really knew what to do with this very young dancer, so physically able, but with a persona mature beyond her years. She went to Sadler’s Wells and Festival Ballet, then Deutsche Oper Ballet, where MacMillan noted her. But her travails were not over. She returned to London and the Royal, but MacMillan died before he could use her as she needed to be used, and for a long time she seemed not to fit anyone’s preconceptions of what a dancer should look and think like.

Most would have tamed themselves, re-tuned themselves to meet expectations. Benjamin ploughed her own furrow, and her determination finally made others realize that she was what a dancer like her should look and think like. Her classical centre was always pure – and then she pushed it, extended it, turned it into the high baroque.

So to Mayerling. Benjamin’s Rudolf was Carlos Acosta, turning in a fine, brutal, thuggish performance. His Rudolf has no hope from the beginning, and he pushes his women around as he is pushed around politically and emotionally by his parents and the court. Man hands on misery to man. Neither Benjamin norZenaida Yanowsky, as Rudolf’s mother, the Empress Elisabeth, should have been physically suited to Acosta – Benjamin seemingly too slight, Yanowsky too tall. And yet their scenes with him became a vortex down which Rudolf’s sanity rushed.

The bedroom scene with his mother was the finest I have ever seen, Yanowsky’s severe beauty embodying Elisabeth’s emotional constipation and frigid desire. The two produced a masterclass of how to convey complex mental states through gestures, paced, both big and small. Benjamin’s Mary meanwhile ran through the ballet like quicksilver, darting, restless, never entirely clear what it was she wanted until she and Rudolf found it in death, the only non-negotiable, stable element of the psychodrama that was imperial Vienna.

The Royal at the moment seems to have very few leaves left on the senior branches of its tree. Let’s hope better things come shortly, for Benjamin will be missed. Brian Maloney, too, retired last night, and his capable charm was warmly displayed as Bratfisch. Emma Maguire made the very most, and then some, of Princess Louise in the first act.

This run of Mayerling now complete, it would be nice if, before its next outing, the management dealt with some recurring problems. The back-projection for the funeral scene is so elderly it appears that Mary’s funeral takes place in a meteor shower, not the rain. Mitzi Caspar has become a chronically undercast role, with minor soloists dancing what MacMillan allocated as a principal role, deadening her scene. And, finally, as a historian, may I make a plea for the education of all future Princess Stephanies. A 19th-century woman in a tavern/bordello would not be angry, she would be terrified, as the early Stephanies knew.

Royal Ballet, winter season 2012/13

The great dance critic Richard Buckle once famously reviewed a winter season by remarking that each Christmas brings us “one Nutcracker closer to death”, and certainly it is possible to note the passing of the years by watching the Swans migrate, then the Firebirds.

Kevin O’Hare has now seen his first full season as company director at the Royal Ballet, and, although much of the repertoire was, of necessity, planned before he took over the reins, it was possible to begin to discern the outlines of his aspirations, perhaps most fully as the season reached its final stages.

The highlight was 24 Preludes, a new ballet by Alexei Ratmansky, the man currently saddled with the title “Saviour of Classical Dance”. He may or may not be, but he is certainly a choreographer of greatness, and in this, his first work for the Royal Ballet (indeed, his first work in Britain), he has made a piece that will surely become a company staple. Ratmansky usually works intensively with selected companies, his knowledge of company style and the strengths of individual dancers informing each new piece. Here he lacked that in-depth knowledge, and his readings of his eight performers – Leanne Benjamin, Alina Cojocaru, Sarah Lamb and Zenaida Yanowsky, Valeri Hristov, Steven McRae, Edward Watson and Rupert Pennefather – sometimes seems superficial, concentrating on their most obvious qualities – Cojocaru’s quicksilver brightness, Watson’s extreme extensions, Pennefather’s rather stolid mien – instead of mining for something deeper.

Yet within these parameters, Ratmansky has nevertheless created a true dance world, investing a series of social meetings and turnings away into a fully formed emotional landscape.

The formality of structure suggests a Chekhovian grouping, reflected in the minimalist rippled background (beautifully lit by Neil Austin, and presumably also designed by him, although that remains uncredited), which transforms itself from stormy sky to shimmering aquaeous surface to Ilya Repin-like greenery.

By turns gentle, tumultuous and charming, Ratmansky’s choreographic invention never fails, moving from an opening section of turns and sighing falls, through a pas de trois where the tall Zenaida Yanowsky does the lifting of the smaller Steven McRae. The piece is about performance, as much as it is performance, with several tongue-in-cheek reminders that Chopin’s Preludes have a dance heritage: Les Sylphides is gestured at, and when the four men return at the end, searching for their women, they arrive in formation like the Wilis in Giselle, hunting their prey. More obviously the linked-dance format refers back to Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, and Ratmansky’s own Russian Seasons. That latter drama of elemental life and renewal is here replicated more decorously, in a somewhat muted manner – an “English Seasons”, perhaps.

The piece is certainly not perfect. Ratmansky has lumbered himself with Jean Françaix’s orchestration of the Preludes Op 28, which is not only uninspiring, but the complete set is theatrically too long. The entries and exits, forcibly tied to the demands of the Preludes, thus become an important motif – 24 Preludes, that’s forty-six entrances and exits in forty-one minutes. Even with a choreographer as fecund as Ratmansky, it risks becoming slightly risible.

Despite these reservations, it may very well be that this is the best work the Royal has commissioned since the death of Kenneth MacMillan. There have been works taken into the repertory in this time that are its equal, but none that has been commissioned by the company. For this alone, O’Hare’s debut season is worthy of praise.

Some of the other programmes are less sure-footed. A programme dedicated to the work of the Royal’s founder-choreographer, Frederick Ashton, marked the quarter-century since his death. But what a puzzling programme it was, made up of what must, with the best will in the world, be called odds and ends. In 1920, Diaghilev rejected Ravel’s La Valse as being entirely unsuitable for dance. Choreographers have since taken that as a challenge: Nijinska used the music in the 1920s, and Ashton and Balanchine set themselves the task in the 1950s. Both the latter, it must be said, prove Diaghilev’s shrewdness: Ravel’s flickering score, shifting between heartbeat-regular rhythms underneath and ghostly, evanescent skeins of sound on the surface, allows no purchase for dancing. At the time, Ashton turned in a dutiful gala piece, but its continued appearance over half a century later is a mystery.

In fact, all of O’Hare’s choices for this memorial programme are pièces d’occasion: the “Meditation” from Thaïs and “white” Monotones are also gala confections, Voices of Spring is an insert pas de deux for a production of Die Fledermaus, and Marguerite et Armand a celebrity vehicle for Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn.

Monotones is, simply, a masterpiece. Satie’s music obviously captivated Ashton, and after the white section to Satie’s Trois Gymnopédies, he created a “green” section to the first Gnossienne as a prelude. Performed by Emma Maguire, Akane Takada and Dawid Trzensimiech, Marianela Nuñez, Federico Bonelli and Edward Watson, both the bouncier green and the more linear white were danced with the detached, eerie gravitas that this otherworldly, almost lunar, piece demands.

The remaining works on the programme, however, are, on a sliding scale, anything from charming gala lollipops (Voices of Spring, with Yuhui Choe and the young Alexander Campbell making enjoyable, if not profound, debuts) to chemical candy floss (“Meditation” from Thaïs) right down to unadulterated saccharine (Marguerite et Armand). Why a choreographer who produced more than six dozen works over six decades should have his career represented by a few pieces of ephemera in a memorial programme is barely comprehensible.

That Marguerite et Armand was revived as a star vehicle, is clear. Tamara Rojo, longtime principal, gave her final performances in one of Fonteyn’s last roles, the dying Dame aux Camélias, while the young Nureyev’s role was taken by Sergei Polunin. He is Ukrainian, not Russian, but otherwise the offstage parallels hold: Nureyev defected from the Soviet Union to the Royal, while Polunin fled in the opposite direction, abandoning the Royal mid-rehearsal one day, to turn up later in Moscow’s Stanislavsky Music Theatre. O’Hare has lured him back for a few guest appearances, one assumes as an overture to finding him a more permanent place as a principal guest artist, and this can only be commended: the Royal is certainly poorer for his absence.

If Rojo was pleased to bow out in this role, and Polunin found in the Nureyev comparisons a kindly welcome, well and good. But the ballet, as a ballet, is a bore. With dated designs by Cecil Beaton (the set an etiolated sub-Giacometti cage, the costumes either a series of camp embarrassments for the soloists, or a diva-ish three-costume-changes-in-thirty-three-minutes for the lead), the choreography would have to be stellar to survive, and it simply isn’t. The ageing Fonteyn was by then understandably limited, and while Rojo’s powerful sense of drama carries her audience with her, she has, in reality, little to do apart from burning looks, a few bourrées and a lot of falling to her knees. Polunin’s Armand is required to make several of the dashing runs (one complete with cape fluttering dramatically behind) so beloved of Nureyev – I half-expected him to cry “Ta-da!” as he appeared – but Ashton’s choreographic invention for him too seems curiously limited.

Another evening, another memorial to past Royal choreographers, this time an evening of works by MacMillan, twenty years after his early death. Here old favourites and a revived curiosity sit more neatly together. Concerto, an early piece to Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 2, is impossible not to love with its sprightly outer movements flanking a profound central meditation on the nature of classicism. Las Hermanas, an adaptation of The House of Bernarda Alba, could not be more different: a distillation of how fear and jealousy corrode and destroy. Only MacMillan could have revealed without words the icy heart of Lorca’s sexual snakepit.

Created two years later, but far more dated is John Cranko’s Onegin, which has in the past few years become a repertory staple. The work is mundane, but with juicy parts for four principals, it endures. The curious thing about it (particularly performed, as it was this season, in turn with the Royal Opera’s staging of the opera on which it is based) is how at odds the ballet is with both Pushkin and Tchaikovsky. Their Onegin is a clever, sensitive man stifled by a society that values neither of these things; Cranko’s Onegin (particularly as played by Stuttgart’s Jason Reilly, stepping in for an injured Johan Kobborg) is a crass boor. He does not reject the love-struck Tatiana, as in the poem, for sensible reasons, and with humanity; no, here he tears her letter into pieces in front of her eyes and throws them at her, pantomime-villain-style. The only redemption from such vulgarity (and it comes as a grace note in a strident evening) is that Cranko allows the possibility of married love. His Gremin and Tatiana genuinely find happiness together. Her renunciation of Onegin, therefore, is less devastating than in Pushkin, not renouncing happiness, but rather accepting that she has found it, just not where she had expected. Alina Cojocaru makes much of this gentle happiness, ably helped by Bennet Gartside as Gremin, now one of the company’s most accomplished character actors, and they bring an evening of melodramatic moustache-twiddling to a touching, quiet close.

Despite these choreographic dinosaurs, in other ways O’Hare seems determined to expand the repertoire across the classical spectrum, which is extremely satisfying. Several pieces make welcome returns: Apollo, in its original, uncut version, had performances of just-tamed ferocity (from Carlos Acosta) or childlike wonder (Federico Bonelli). One of Balanchine’s greatest works, Apollo‘s Olympian distance appears to have put off previous directors, but O’Hare has sensibly scheduled this work from 1928 as the forerunner to contemporary classical dance, opening the programme for Ratmansky’s 24 Preludes and Christopher Wheeldon’s Aeternum (to Britten’s terrifying Sinfonia da Requiem, which rather defeated him). Another neatly planned evening was one that mixed Jerome Robbins’s In the Night, long absent, with the perennial crowd-pleaser The Firebird and (another inexplicable absence) Raymonda, Act III, a dazzling confection of Glazunov’s oom-pah-ing orchestrations and Petipa’s (aided by Nureyev) Oriental/Russian scenario, all wrapped up by the silver-white splendour of Barry Kay’s Austro-Hungaro-Byzantine romp of a set. (The only one I know routinely greeted by a round of applause when the curtain rises.) Dance companies can live neither by Swan Lakes nor by new choreography alone. O’Hare has confidently displayed an ability to construct the harder-to-promote mixed bills that are the core of any repertory, and with this promising augury, we watch, hopefully, as the Swans return once more to their breeding grounds.

Monica Mason retires from the Royal Ballet: a lovely woman hiding an ugly (open) secret

Being the artistic director of a major ballet company is like minding mice at a crossing. So many things can go wrong, and, it must seem, so few ever go right. The Royal Ballet has had a vexed history of artistic directors. Monica Mason’s predecessor, Ross Stretton, was sacked after a mere thirteen months, leaving behind a demoralized, volatile company. Mason, who from 1991 served as assistant to the previous director, Anthony Dowell, was parachuted in as a safe pair of hands after a lifetime of dedication to the company: she joined the corps at sixteen and became a principal in 1968, before switching to administration.

Despite fifty-four years of history with the company, Mason looks forward not back. At her final curtain call, she said: “We must change in order to grow”. And thus her final, farewell season was designed not merely as a summation, but as a suggestion for the future.

In order to stage the many works that had defined her career, classics were rationed in this memorial season: only Sleeping Beauty and that Christmas perennial, The Nutcracker, from the big nineteenth-century repertoire, although La Sylphide, sensitively staged by the principal Johan Kobborg, ameliorated the lack somewhat. Steven McRae partnered the company’s treasure, Alina Cojocaru, impressively, stepping in at extremely short notice after the sudden flight of the wunderkind Sergei Polunin.

It was obvious even from the stalls that Polunin, aged twenty-one, was two things: potentially one of the great dancers of his generation; and a loose cannon. But you can do two things with a loose cannon: you can let it slide all over the deck, damaging itself and others; or you can secure it so it functions. Ballet companies are, by their nature, filled with adolescents and very young adults working at levels of unimaginable competition in a world in which they have been almost entirely closed off to outside influences since childhood.

Mason must work, of course, with the dancers available. The Royal Ballet School, ostensibly the feeder for the Royal Ballet, in almost a quarter of a century has failed to produce a single dancer of international calibre. All the current graduates of international status joined the school only in adolescence, frequently cherry-picked after featuring in a prestigious competition.

Mason has therefore had to do her own cherry-picking, hiring a roster of foreign principals for lack of home-grown. Many of them are fine dancers whom it is a pleasure to watch, in a repertory that is both broad and deep – it is a thrill to see Nijinska’s Les Noces, immaculately staged; if Sweet Violets by the young choreographer Liam Scarlett isn’t entirely coherent, it still promises much; the riches of the Kenneth MacMillan repertoire continue to nourish, with Song of the Earth making a welcome return.

But in this season of Mason-ic celebration, with the twentieth-century British repertory highlighted (six Ashton productions, six Macmillan), it is clear that the once-vivid British style has almost vanished. Frederick Ashton’s choreography requires brisk, bright footwork counterpoised by a plastic, swooning fluidity in the upper body. Of all the Royal’s dancers, only Marianela Nuñez can claim total mastery of the style; Cojocaru is a close second, but her tiny frame prevents her upper-body work from carrying as vividly as Nuñez’s.

Nuñez, in the “Fonteyn” role, led the rarely performed Birthday Offering, created in 1956 as a showcase for the Royal’s seven principal women. But apart from Nuñez, the current crop were unable to meet the combined requirements of terrifyingly difficult choreography and 1950s-nice-girl presentation. The few years the dancers spend in the Royal Ballet School mean that the Ashton style is an optional add-on, not the essence of their dancing.

MacMillan’s expressionistic rigour is more within the grasp of the company today, as is the slick international style of Christopher Wheeldon, or the joint-dislocating gymnastics of the resident choreographer Wayne McGregor. Perhaps to highlight this all-styles credo, Mason decided to go for a mixed evening in place of a conventional retirement gala. The National Gallery selected three artists to respond to Titian’s three scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses; three composers were then chosen; three conductors; and then, bizarrely, eight choreographers to work in three teams (McGregor and Kim Brandstrup for “Machina”, Alastair Marriott and Christopher Wheeldon for “Trespass” and Liam Scarlett, Will Tuckett and Jonathan Watkins for “Diana and Actaeon”).

The results are, unsurprisingly, uneven. Chris Ofili’s sets for “Diana” are lushly Chagall-ish (although his costumes are dreadful: bodies moving at speed are very different from canvas); Mark Wallinger’s set for “Trespass” is a wonderfully tenebrous Perspex cavern in a silver-chain wood; in “Machina”, Conrad Shawcross’s mechanical Diana is intellectually but not physically engaging. Similarly, Mark-Anthony Turnage produced a thrillingly danceable score for “Trespass”; Jonathan Dove’s “Diana” will bear repeated listening; while Nico Muhly’s “Machina” failed to excite. There were interesting sections in each piece, but as a whole Metamorphosis seems set to be quickly forgotten. Forgotten, except that it displayed two problems larger, and uglier, than ugly costumes.

The Cuban Carlos Acosta is held up as the company’s symbol of ethnic inclusivity, but he joined the company already trailing stardust, and therefore has been permitted to dictate his choice of roles. Apart from him, the company fields only token numbers of black dancers, always in junior ranks. (At the moment, there are, to the best of my knowledge, three black dancers in a company of 103.) When given more than corps roles, these dancers are confined almost entirely to contemporary ones, or, worse, given “ethnic” parts, such as when Eric Underwood was recently cast in the creepily xenophobic Oriental parody in Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland, produced under Mason’s aegis.

This lack of space for black dancers to flourish was highlighted by the Royal Ballet School’s graduating performance. As so often over the years, several black students performed well – this year it was the turn of the blazing Marcelino Sambé (also a recent recruit, after a competition success). Yet if current practices hold, they will either not be hired by the Royal, or they will languish in the ranks. There is another, equally obvious lack: of the twenty-strong creative team, just one, Lucy Carter, was female, one of few in the team to be asked to work on more than one piece (she lit all three, admirably).

Meanwhile, Mason has commissioned not a single choreographer with two X-chromosomes during her tenure. The last women to choreograph on the main stage even predate her predecessor: Twyla Tharp and Siobhan Davies were featured in 1995 and 1999 respectively. Taxed with this recently, Mason brushed the matter aside: “I have not commissioned any female choreographers to make work for the Royal Ballet during my tenure as director because, quite simply, I have not come across one that I felt was suitable. Choreography is not a gender issue – it is an issue of talent”.

Leaving aside the question of whether it was not her job to nurture talent, not simply present it, one must ask, are there no contemporary women artists for the National Gallery to choose for this evening? Were Cornelia Parker, Rachel Whiteread, Gillian Wearing, Chantal Joffe, Marlene Dumas, Jenny Holzer all too busy? Were there no women composers? Conductors? Or did the question not even occur to those involved?

I fear it is the latter. I fear it is not deliberate that black dancers are not welcome; it is not deliberate that women creatives go unhired. If it were deliberate, it would be easier to eradicate. But what is happening appears more insidious. It is a matter of people hiring those with whom they are comfortable, finding people who look and sound more (to use Mason’s word) “suitable”.

Mason says: “We must change in order to grow”. One can but hope.

[TLS, 3 August 2012]