La Valse/ Monotones/ Marguerite & Armand, Royal Ballet

Genius does not mean having no influences. Monotones, one of the very greatest of Frederick Ashton’s ballets, is heavily influenced by other works: by George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations and Apollo, by Marius Petipa’s La Bayadère. And it in turn has influenced other great works: Kenneth MacMillan’s searing Gloria would not exist without this unearthly, moon-calm vision.

Monotones II, the second or “white” half, was created first, a gala piece which defies the usual fate of gala pieces. The starkness, the heroic simplicity and grace of this trio was immediately apparent, and Ashton choreographed a frontispiece, as it were, to introduce it. Monotones II features a woman and two men, and thus I was created to mirror its shape by being choreographed for two women and one man (all ably danced last night by, for I, Emma Maguire, Akane Takada and Dawid Trzensimiech; and for II, Marianela Nuñez, Federico Bonelli and Edward Watson).

The ebb and pulse of Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes suites permits Ashton to produce ribbons of dance: in Monotones I, a back-and-forth pull-push effect, at its most simple and beautiful in the travelling arabesques, the women then the man leading and returning, as though tied with invisible bonds; Monotones II is a more liquid unfurling of linked arms and posed arabesques, so seemingly unstoppable that, like the entry of the Shades in La Bayadère, the viewer feels bereft when the series ends.

Two other gala pieces feature on this Royal Ballet Ashton commemoration (it is now a quarter-century since his death). The “Meditation” from Thaïs is a pas de deux that takes Massenet’s well-known violin intermezzo and does, well, not much with it. The always valiant Leanne Benjamin does what she can, but her partner, Valeri Hristov, was not at his best last night, and was additionally burdened by Anthony Dowell’s Peter-Pan-does-the-Orient costume.

By contrast, Yuhui Choe and Alexander Campbell made fine work of the Voices of Spring duet created for a production of Die Fledermaus. Campbell’s neat, beaten footwork was a pleasure (as is his Tintin-style quiff), and Choe’s little farewell flutter of her arms in the final lift was as joyous as it was unexpected.

The star-power for the evening, however, was in Marguerite and Armand, Ashton’s retelling of the Alexandre Dumas story of La dame aux camélias. Originally choreographed for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, it is heavy on attitudinizing, light on choreography, and apart from the pleasure of seeing Tamara Rojo (in her formal farewell to the Royal Ballet) and Sergei Polunin (in his formal let’s-make-friends-again return), the piece wears badly, with more dated costumes, this time by Cecil Beaton. (Do Marguerite’s admirers demand hardship pay for appearing in public in those dreadful wigs?)

A patchy bill, therefore, but for the pleasure of Monotones, so rarely performed, almost anything is endurable.

Der Fensterputzer, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, Sadler’s Wells

t may be that designer Peter Pabst is the unsung hero of Tanztheater Wuppertal’s “World Cities” extravaganza. When the lights go down at Sadler’s Wells for Der Fensterputzer(The Window-washer), the stage is dominated by a vast mountain of glowing red flowers, over four metres high, nine metres across, looming out of a modernistic black-box stage. It is a moment of pure, surging drama.

Hong Kong is the city Bausch is commemorating in this installation of her travelogue, her series of essays of places her company has been, cultures she has ingested. A smiling woman welcomes us – or perhaps a wider population: “Good morning, thank you”, she repeats mechanically, as receptionists do, old-fashioned telephone operators, women behind cash-registers. “Good morning, thank you.”

Us? Perhaps, for we (or at least audience members in the front rows) are soon offered drinks – or a banana – by an increasingly frantic dancer, wanting desperately to fulfil our desires, if our desires can be encompassed in a glass of wine, or a piece of fruit.

Despite the lightness of tone for much of the evening, there is a constant undercurrent of futility, and yet also a stubborn refusal to be defeated. A woman walks up a tilted table; she slides back; she walks up again; and again.

Others learn. A man lifts his partner in a swooping back-dive, over and over, as another man stands by, giving instructions, then taking over, then returning the ever-turning woman back to her original partner; who is taught, who is teaching, shifts and blurs in this lovely dreamlike trio. There are also moments of great tenderness: a woman stands in front of a pair of Wellington boots. Her partner lifts her from behind, gently dropping her into the boots, a delicate moment of grace.

Yet while there are gorgeous episodes – the sound of fireworks is accompanied by the ensemble throwing up handfuls of the flowers, like living feux de joie – there is a patchy quality to the evening, which stubbornly refuses to cohere. A car is brought in, a woman falls back, others appear to cry, or perhaps laugh, over her, the car is carried out again. Why? Why not, seems to be the only response.

It is as if Bausch were doodling in her studio, but without the urge to edit anything out. The two halves of the evening are more recapitulation than development – the second half has more ensemble work (which is very welcome, especially a lovely clapping piece), more talking, including fragments of poems by Wislawa Szymborska, more humour (a dancer-usher demands to see tickets with menace and more than a bit of Miss Whiplash). But it is different only in emphasis, not in kind. There are no surprises, and had the first half stood alone, we would not have lost anything.

Ten productions, 20 days, two theatres. You can’t really expect every one to be a hit, and truth to tell, some of Bausch’s travelogue pieces are stronger than others. This is not to say it is bad – Bausch could not choreograph a dull evening. But it is not top flight, and at over three hours, that’s a lot of low-level flying.

Anna Karenina, Eifman Ballet of St Petersburg, London Coliseum

Dance by and for people with no interest in dance

An apocryphal story tells of an awful theatrical adaptation of the story of Anne Frank. When the Nazis arrive to search the house where the family are in hiding, an enraged theatre-goer shouts, “She’s in the attic!” Well, I didn’t quite point Anna Karenina to the train station, but the thought crossed my mind.

Boris Eifman has always divided the critics. Western audiences tend to respond the way they do to car crashes: they are appalled, but find it hard to look away. Russians, meanwhile, virtually stand on their seats and scream for more. Eifman, who since 1977 has run his own company in the teeth of Soviet hostility, is now garlanded with praise at home, having new studios and a school created for his own company.

But his ballet vision is, to Western eyes, still stuck firmly in those decaying decades of the fin-de-Soviet empire, when the Lycra ballet was king, and clutch ‘n’ grope the method of choice. If Ken Russell could choreograph, Anna Karenina is the ballet he would have made. Maurice Béjart (or, as the great critic Arlene Croce spelt it, “Beige Art”) did choreograph, and this was precisely the type of thing he made.

Eifman doesn’t waste much time or trouble on design or music. The set, by Z Margolin, is a gilt-turned balcony which looks like a Faubourg St-Honoré chocolate shop transported to a Midlands market-town in the 1950s. The music is not only taped, but is bits and pieces of Tchaikovsky, wrenched asunder at will to suit the choreography.

The story is reduced to its bare minimum, simply Anna (Nina Zmievets) torn between an agressive husband (Oleg Markov) and a loved son, and Vronsky (Oleg Gabyshev), all swoony rapture. There is no attempt to show the society the trio live in, to explore why Anna is unable to settle. Karenin has no tragic grandeur, he is not the caring but restrained man, but simply a bully, and a rapist to boot.

 

But that kind of coarsened value, the black/white melodrama, is Eifman’s home. We know, for example, when Anna is unhappy with her husband, because she shifts from classical steps to pseudo-Martha-Graham contractions; Karenin’s dilemma is displayed by wrapping his arms around his body, while his determination exhibits itself in pacing with hands behind his back à la Prince Philip.

It is hard to assess his dancers by any ordinary means. They perform Eifman’s clotted, dense steps with ease, and sail through lifts that are gymnastic rather than balletic (my favourite is when Anna perches on Karenin’s head, and, so burdened, he marches solemnly across the stage). But whether they have any musicality, any ability to shape phrases, create dance moments – well, they’re not asked to. Instead they  telegraph emotion by clutching their brows, or other portions of their anatomy.

Occasionally there is a moment when Eifman sets up a nice theatrical situation: Anna and Vronsky are both alone in their beds, thinking of each other, and the light shifts back and forth between them on opposite sides of the stage. But even then, the choreography they perform is so same-y, so pedestrian, that nothing comes of the scene.

Given Eifman has been doing this sort of thing for nearly four decades, it seems odd to call his work amateurish, but that is, ultimately, what it is: dance by and for people with no interest in dance.

2011: Mariinsky, Manon, and a German Dane

Memory defines what lasts: ephemeral dance and theatre, permanent art, it’s what stays in the mind that matters

Highlights of the year are always interesting. Things you loved at the time do, sometimes surprisingly, fade very quickly. I really enjoyed the Gabriel Orozco retrospective at the Tate: I thought it inventive and exciting. But now I have hardly any memory of it, and can no longer visualise what enthused me. (Well, apart from the sweet photos of two scooters flirting with each other. But that’s really not enough.)

By contrast, the Wellcome’s show of ex-voto panels from Mexico, the small thanks-offerings painted to record miraculous intercessions from the saints in the daily lives of ordinary people, has remained with me, images popping up in my mind at surprising moments: touching, funny, heart-breaking and above all fascinating.

On the dance front, two performances stand out, one for its choreography, one for a performer. The Mariinsky danced Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony on their summer visit. Lots of the critics didn’t engage with it, but to me it was a miracle of Romantic gossamer, seen through a sharp neo-classical prism. (Right, Alina Somova and Aleksandr Sergeyev, photo Natasha Razina/Mariinsky) That sounds overly intellectualised, but I felt like a child at her first ballet when watching, it was all so new and fresh. And Alina Cojocaru danced Manon as though it too were newly made. I’m told that there was a lot of backstage flak for her – it is true, not every step was performed exactly as choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan. But my god, the spirit was MacMillan’s, and the emotional power. It was one of the greatest tours de force I have ever seen.

And finally, the Schaubühne Berlin brought their version of Hamlet, adapted by Marius von Mayenburg. It began with “To be or not to be”, which was repeated like an echo twice more in the evening. Hamlet (Lars Eidinger, left, photo Arno Declair) not only switched in a heartbeat from comic to tragic, but even from fat to thin (one of the more bizarre shocks of the evening). As a non-German-speaker, it was clear I and the other Anglos in the audience were having a different experience from the Germans, who were hearing a modernised text while we were reading 16th-century English in surtitles. If I’d had to change anything, I would have asked for a direct translation of what was being said. But what remains in my head weeks later is the design, by Jan Pappelbaum, who created a large square of earth, soon churned up to mud. Here, Hamlet’s conviction that the world is made up of betrayal, manipulation and deceit in the pursuit of power could not be more graphically displayed. Ultimately we are all sliding around in the mud, the world is the pit of slime that Hamlet sees in his madness. Or perhaps, in his sanity.

2011 highlight: Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Bartok/Mikrokosmos was both tender and a joyous stomp.

2011 letdown: A toss-up. ENB’s Strictly Gershwin made me want to slash my wrists, just to alleviate the boredom, but Rambert’s Cardoon Club, overproduced and overlong, was perhaps worse, because it was paired with the almost perfect Paul Taylor Roses.

2012 recommendation: Theatre: Ninagawa Cymbeline (I’m not a Cymbers type of girl, but I’m a passionate fan of this Japanese director) and the Chichester Sweeney Todd, with the fabulous Imelda Staunton. Dance: the Royal Ballet’s Les Noces – my desert island ballet and score.

Watch the Royal Ballet perform Les Noces’ opening section