Last night's performance of Ashton/McMillan double bill of 'The Dream' and 'Song of the Earth' proved an inspired ending for the RB season at Covent Garden,
It was my first full viewing of 'Dream' - I'd seen bits and pieces here and there but never the whole ballet, and I was both enchanted and moved. Ashton seems to have found a way to marry the broad comedy of Shakespeare's text and the bombast of the Mendelssohn score with the wit, delicacy and speed of his choreography. David Walker's sugar-spun fairy costumes for the corps - knee-length silvery-frosted pale green and lilac for the girls, with tiny wings sprouting from their backs were lovely and absolutely appropriate, like those 'fairies at the bottom of the garden' figures familiar from the notorious Victorian fake photographs. Alina Cojocaru's Titania was a dreamy breeze-tossed blossom, her feet seeming to hover like humming-birds over the floor and her lovely arms and upper body doing what Ashton surely wanted in his choreography (he would have loved her, I think). She still, though, at 19, lacks the outright sensuality needed for the role, and wasn't helped by Hubert Essakow's decent but lacklustre account of Oberon. He'll do better next time around.
Tom Sapsford's airily elevated Puck was a relveation . Even his cheeky muggings couldn't disguise the power and control of his dancing. Expect to see more of him
Luke Heydon danced Bottom mostly on point and if I hadn't known it was a man under the donkey mask I would have been puzzled at the tall and broadshouldered figure doing such competent fouettes and bourees. That, and the fact that Heydon made the unmasked Bottom such a touching and vulnerable character marks him out as a very special dancer.
Vanessa Palmer was outstanding (when is she not?) as Helena and Chloe Davies was a delicously bewildered Hermia.
Ashton's use of mime gets full use in 'Dream' most notably in the lovers' misunderstandings; I love the way Demetrius and Lysander daintily pummel the air in mock boxer fashion to indicate a quarrel. (Ashton also employs this useful shorthand in 'A Month in the Country', where it is even funnier since the quarrel there is between two women).
MacMillan's 'Song of the Earth' could scarcely be a stronger contrast to 'Dream' . Set ambitiously to the singing of Mahler's magesterial 'Das Liede von der Erde' it
avoids pretention by virtue of MacMillan's astounding choreographic invention. (I couldn't spot any obvious choreographic 'homages' here, though more experienced ballet-goers might have). The six songs of Mahler's score, sung on stage by the excellent Natascha Petrinsky and David Randle (replacing Thomas Randle) represent ancient Chinese poems reflecting stages of human life, fun, work, love, drunkeness, death etc; MacMillan matches each song with a dance. In one song, the image of a woman being gently cartwheeled over the knees of kneeling men will remain with me for a long time and in another, the women are memorably hoisted aloft and carried off the stage prone in the hands of two men followed by a third, linked man. One song ends with the men doing headstands with their legs bowed and feet splayed outwards giving the comic impression of a Grecian freize. But for me, the all-male first song, ending with Johan Kobborg held aloft and then rolled downwards in the arms of the other men was the most moving.
I thought almost all the dancing was outstanding. Jonathan Cope seems to be dancing better than ever, and his height (he seems to be almost a head taller than any of the other men) lends him a uniquely powerful aura. Johann Kobborg showed yet again what a valuable asset he is to the RB's ranks with his clean, clear and unfussed dancing. Tamara Rojo was lovely in the second song, but then so was Mara Galeazzi in the third song and Jaimie Tapper in the fourth song, and so on. There wasn't a dud on the stage that I could spot.
The ROH orchestra, under Barry Wordsworth's familiar baton, played as well as I've heard them in a long time; all in all, it was a wonderful end of season performance, and it would be hard to think of a more fitting finale to Anthony Dowell's leadership.