Royal Ballet, Stravinsky Triple Bill, Covent Garden, 25/4/01
Although the Royalís latest triple Bill at Covent Garden is unified by the music of Stravinsky, all works which were specifically composed as ballet scores, the diversity of the dance on show is striking. The narrative thread, elaborate costumes and lavish staging of The Firebird could hardly be more of a contrast to the pure and austere abstraction of Agon: and Les Noces is something different again, fierce, primitive, iconic. Some wonderful pieces of choreography were on display: but the company didnít look completely at ease in every item, and I hope they can get more under the skin of the works as the run progresses.
Firebird often features as a closing item on triple bills, but here it opens proceedings. It was the most familiar work on display, in the repertory of the Royal for many years, and the work in which the company looked most confident and at home in this programme. Leanne Benjamin is a bright, trembling, fierce Firebird. She hates and loathes her captor Ivan with a passion, but nevertheless enjoys her triumph over the evil Kostchei. She seemed to be summoning up the music with her fluttering hands as all his attendants fell before her. Itís a role she gives herself to wholeheartedly, a really striking performance, which fortunately for us was filmed by the BBC. Nigel Burley was Ivan Tsarevich, a rather underwritten role in this production - somehow the princes in the Kirovís production of Firebird seem rather more powerful and virile. The enchanted princesses look as charming as ever : they havenít got any better at catching the apples from the tree. They were elegantly led by Genesia Rosato. All the principals looked at ease in their roles and the company danced with vigour and evident enjoyment. A popular piece as ever.
Firebird was the earliest work on the programme, made by Fokine in 1909: itís a curious work, which retains the lavishness and spectacle of 19th century ballets, while at the same time moving away from their structures and conventional use of mime. Agon was made less than 50 years later, but in quite a different world, an uncluttered world from which the scenery and costumes have been stripped away leaving the dance alone, unornamented, sufficient in itself. Balanchineís Agon has not featured particularly frequently in the Royalís repertoire: it was last performed here about ten years ago, and it would be idle to pretend that all the cast looked really comfortable in the style. The Royalís wasnít a great performance: even so, the marvellous structure of the ballet, the music made flesh, is still there to marvel at.
Acosta and Yanowsky performed the final pas de deux: itís an interesting pairing, her cool and distant air with his warmth. The dancers looked rather tense for the most part. Jamie Tapper looked most at ease among the women (and received a really positive reception), and Kobborg among the men. Overall, I came way with a sense of anticlimax in the performance (though not in the work itself: there seems to be something new to find in it each time, especially when we get so few chances to see it). The reception was generally respectful rather than enthusiastic. I was interested to see that the stager, Patricia Neary, took a bow with the cast: I donít think Iíve seen that done before for any Balanchine performances here.
Nijinskaís Les Biches in the Royalís last season had been a real delight - sharp, clever, beautifully designed and obviously the product of an experienced, complex choreographer whose work is rarely seen these days. So Les Noces was keenly anticipated. Itís a very different work in style and tone from the worldly sophistication of Les Biches. It seemed odd to reflect that the productionís stark brown and white designs were by Goncharova, who also designed the opulent Firebird.
Les Noces presents a series of tableaux, rather than a narrative as such, of a Russian peasant wedding. The ballet was made in 1923, to Stravinskyís last score for Diaghilev. If it recalls anything it is perhaps Rite of Spring (in the music) and possibly some of Nijinskyís choreography in its twisted and hunched, flat stances for the dancers. It is a work for the massed ranks of the wedding guests, arranged in great sculptural groupings, rather than for individual display. The bride and bridegroom, and their parents strike simple, hieratic poses, staring as gravely and impassively as ancient Egyptian statues as the corps groups and re groups around them. The groupings are very deliberate, formal, symmetrical. (I wondered how much influence these had had on Ashton, who invited Nijinska to revive Les Noces for the Royal - he is fond at times of similar towers of people, in Dante Sonata, Ondine and others).
Yanowsky as the bride was possessed of the same monumental stillness as she showed as the lead nymph last year in LíApres midi díun faune: David Pickering was her solemn husband to be. The lead couple of the corps were Sasaki and Tranah.
Much depends on the crispness and unanimity of the corps in this work, and the men certainly looked a bit ragged at times. Nijinska masses the dancers into great piles of bodies, or sends them as massed groups stamping and jumping across the stage to the pounding rhythms. The effect is both ancient and modern at once: both ancient tribal fertility rite (the bride and bridegroom are led off into the bedroom at the close) and a work very much of its time. I found it compelling stuff, even if the company again didnít quite look as if they had fully got to grips with the complexities of the dance.