“Stravinsky Staged” is an inspired programme, which works on many levels. While the three ballets have their composer in common, they are also inter-leafed in various other ways. It is particularly apt enterprise for the Royal Ballet, which played such an important part in conserving The Firebird and Les Noces.
While The Firebird may be the first modern score, it is an essentially nineteenth century spectacle. Leanne Benjamin was a compelling Firebird last night (May 2nd). Her dancing was superbly edgy, and she is a fine actress. I had some cavils about the Danse Infernale, whose ethnic roots are very visible. The corps did not seem completely comfortable and it will be interesting to see what the Kirov makes of it this summer.
There were some strong individual performances in Agon. Zenaida Yanovsky is a completely persuasive Balanchine dancer, very assured and very sassy. I would like to have seen her with a partner other than Acosta in the pas-de-deux. The problem was not his dancing, but rather his very strong stage presence, and lack of nuance, in a pas-de-deux in which the woman is dominant. (I had seen Arestis and Stepanek from the second cast at a rehearsal; the symmetries in this alternative combination seemed better). However the overall account of Agon was less than the sum of its parts. It is probably unrealistic to expect the Royal Ballet to look equally at ease in every genre it explores. That said, this was a creditable Agon and it was good to see it.
Interestingly Balanchine was dismissive of Nijinska’s choreography for Les Noces, arguing that its mass movements and pyramidal formations amounted to little. Both Balanchine and Nijinska make very distinctive use of pointe, albeit in the service of sharply different ends. While Balanchine used pointe in exaltation of woman, Nijinska may have been using pointe (as Gerald Dowler suggests in an excellent piece in the latest Dancing Times) to evoke the images and icons of Russian Orthodox saints by elongating the dancers’ silhouettes.
Of the three ballets Les Noces seemed at once the most primitive and the most completely modern. The performance was a triumph. With the strength of her performance in Agon still fresh in the mind, it was intriguing to see Yanowsky virtually anonymised as the Bride in Les Noces. While Nijinska, like Fokine, quotes from folk idioms, she does so in a more stylised way and the performance was a stunning piece of ensemble dancing from a very committed cast.
If one cared little for dance, the night would have been memorable for the music alone. John Carewe, the conductor, had absorbed himself in the scores and the choreography, and had taken pains with the dancers. It showed in a luminous orchestral account of The Firebird, and a spine-tingling Les Noces. Nights like this justify the Royal Ballet’s very purpose.