Marguerite and Armand: Sylvie Guillem and Jonathan Cope, Royal Ballet 13 November
"I felt as much love for you as a woman's heart can contain and give, and now you are far away, you curse me and and there is no word of comfort from you.".
The story of Marguerite and Armand is one of the world's great romantic tragedies, based on Alexandra Dumas' play La Dame aux camélias, used also by Verdi in his opera La Traviata. Marguerite is a notorious demi-mondaine and beauty, already in the advanced stages of tuberculosis when young Armand Duval falls in love with her ("The Meeting"). Although he has no money, he persuades her to abandon her life of luxury to live quietly with him in the country ("The Country"). He refuses
his father's pleas to give her up. For a time, they are idyllically happy. However, Armand's father visits Marguerite to beg her to give up his son, whose entanglement was prejudicing the matrimonial chances of his sister. She agreed to break with her lover, denying herself her one chance of real happiness.
Without Armand, life had become pointless. Once more, Marguerite frequents the salons of Paris, enjoying the life of the glittering demi-monde and flinging herself back into the luxury she had once embraced. Armand deliberately seeks her out to taunt her, and she visits him to beg for mercy. For a night, they are reunited, but the next day Armand discovers that she has
already been unfaithful. He sends her payment for her service ("The Insult") and leaves France. Marguerite continued to live wildly, at a pace that eventually kills her.
"It was chance alone that made you desert me, I am sure, for if you were here in Paris, you would not leave my bedside or my room."
While he is abroad, Armand learns of her death. He returns to Paris to hear the truth about what happened.
Frederick Ashton did not intend to choreograph a narrative ballet following the action of Dumas' play but distilled the story into five scenes (of which the middle three are "flashbacks"): Prologue - Marguerite dying in deliriu(performed by a double); The Meeting - party scene with loads of admiring men; The Country; The Insult; and Death. The main difference from the original play is that Armand returns in time for a passionate reconciliation with Marguerite before she dies in his arms. Father is duly remorseful.
Ashton's chroreography was inspired by Margot Fonteyn and the prospect of her new partnership with Rudolf Nureyev. It has been said that Ashton didn't want the roles to be ever danced by anyone else. Although this is now disputed, for those of us for whom Fonteyn and Nureyev are in living memory, any subsequent partnership was bound to have an awsome reputation to live up to.
Sylvie Guillem was ravishing in her crimson party frock; palpitationously lovely in her white summer dress; wickedly seductive in her black ballroom number; and pathetically frail
and vulnerable in her death-bed nightie. In the "Country" scene, her pas de deux with Jonathan Cope was danced with a tenderness and passion transcending anything I have seen.
This called upon great depths of lyrical interpretaion (call it 'acting' if you must) and in quick succession she faced the joys of fresh love, anguish as his father forbade her to see him, and then more dancing with Armand knowing that this meant farewell. This is heavy emotional stuff, totally captiviating. When Sylvie's heart is broken - your own breaks too.
"God! God! I am going to die! I was expecting it, but I cannot reconcile myself to the thought that my greatest sufferings are still to come."