It's been a busy week on the new (to me) ballets front with two rarely seen ballets to tick off in my "Eye-spy" book. Actually I have not seen an "eye-spy" book in years, but I certainly bought a few as a child and of course never ever got one completely filled in. Well I guess if they ever had a ballet and dance one then it might just be nearing completion.
Ashton's Ondine for the Royal Ballet opened at Sadler's on Monday with Viviana Durante and Inaki Urlezaga (replacing an unwell Jonathan Cope). Normally I find Ashton grows on me rather slowly, but rather worryingly I have immediately taken to Ondine. I think it's the story (one man, one woman, one water nymph, one Lord of the Sea), which when I read it before going I thought not so much of and yet seeing it unfold I found rather moving - in the same way that Giselle moves me (and Swan Lake really does not). It does have a 19th Century classic feel, though Ashton's choreography is obviously lighter and more naturalistic in tone and diverts are not so heavy-handed and are more integrated.
The designs, by Lila de Nobili, are magnificent. Very much a 1950's take on the plot, and with design come full circle, now look right and gloriously original rather than pastiche. The palette and the way it has dulled perhaps gives the ballet a feeling like the colour films that were shot in the middle of the century - a slightly odd balance, but kind of homely and warm as well. It must have cost a fortune to realise the sets and costumes and its nearest modern equivalent (in this respect) is probably Dowell's Sleeping Beauty.
The music, by Hans Werner Henze is not immediately accessible and most who had not heard it before were grumping a little. On the other hand it seems to improve with a few performances, though I doubt that any of us will be humming it during the weekly shop.
Durante danced Ondine when it was last resurrected in the late 80's, and it was entirely appropriate that she did the first night. It was a shame though that many of the critics missed her - they were all round at the Bolshoi seeing Raymonda (something we got to later). To me Durante was the best water nymph of those we saw - she acted and danced so well and managed to look incredibly innocent but in a siren-like way guaranteed to make Palemon's pulse race and to fall head over heels in love with her. Urlezaga, as with is Albrecht, impressed with a newly widened acting ability, though the role is not perhaps the greatest. They both handled the final fatal kiss brilliantly and convincingly with Palemon trying every way and Ondine only finally succumbing and with the greatest reluctance.
The second night cast was Miyako Yoshida and Bruce Sansom. More than a few who saw both performances preferred Yoshida and logically she is closer to the water nymph in style and attitude than any of the Ondines. Yoshida was very dramatic in the last act - hopefully something that many now notice - but in her first entrance (back in Act 1) I did not find her as obviously water-borne as Durante and the fatal kiss seemed to happen so quickly - I saw none of the struggling with conscience witnessed the night before.
The third couple were Sarah Wildor and Adam Cooper (Cooper replacing Urlezaga - who had replaced Cope etc). I suppose this represented a kind of dream ticket - real life partners Sarah and Adam getting to dance together and real life heart throb Adam to be seen once again dancing with the Royal in a Principal role. It's also been widely thought that Dowell could not deny making Wildor a Principal for yet another year and this has been her major new piece of work on show at Sadler's. "Do Ondine - become principal" was the fairytale bit that we all wanted. And Dowell played his part and Sarah duly told the stage door fans after the show that she was now an RB Principal. It's marvellous news and well deserved.
But the Wildor Ondine on the first night did not seem to be shaping up so well and after the first act we decided to conserve our energy in a week that has too many 'must see' performances. I must remember that Wildor's first performances can often be somewhat 'out of it' and therefore it would be better to go to the second or third perhaps. On the first night at least she did not seem to have the water coursing through her veins that we had seen in various guises with Durante and Yoshida - rather the movement and acting was all a bit muddy. But it's too unfair to criticise a performance we did not see in its entirety and I look forward to seeing her in it again and hearing others' views on subsequent performances.
Adam Cooper brought back some memories. He has amazing stage presence and for that (plus his ability to draw in a wider audience) I would hope the RB would make him an offer. However he can still look uncomfortable at times in classical ballet and the lifts never go quite as smoothly as perhaps one thinks they should.
On the other roles Nicola Tranah and Genesia Rosato were both convincing as Berta (the 'other' woman in Palemon's life), though they were both saddled with some very unflattering blue tights in the first act. Tranah got the better pair because they were somewhat darker. Shi-Ning Liu and Ricardo Cervera danced Tirrenio (Lord of the Mediterranean Sea) and gave it their all in what is often not the easiest of costumes. Liu, like Urlezaga, has grown tremendously in the last year and looks comfortable in the rep he inhabits.
Ondine is not currently listed in the 1999/2000 season, which is perhaps something of a shame; it certainly deserves more than the handful of performances it's getting at the Wells.
On Wednesday it was the Bolshoi's Raymonda. Great, great dance though the plot certainly doesn't set the world on fire, the more so given the thinly sketched nature of the Grigorovich production. But none of that really mattered because Nina Ananiashvili was dancing Raymonda and she was just stupendous. I always remember being dreadfully impressed when she danced with the Royal in the early 1990's but this seemed something else again and one would put her on a pedestal with Asylmuratova and Guillem. She has a technical mastery and a finish that requires no adjustment. Step after step of perfectly weighted perfection. However none of this is cold or clinical, but rather warm, human and right for the part. Ananiashvili is very womanly, while Asylmuratova is all etherial and Guillem 'smart natural'. It's amazing to behold and you should get a second mortgage to see her if you can.
Her betrothed was well danced by Sergei Filin. Unusually he seemed much more western as a male dancer - supportivly confident rather than show-off bravura which is perhaps more the Bolshoi way (and we love them for it of course!). But what really caught our eye were the 4 soloist boys in their pas de quatre. They were all good - not 2 good and two who were a bit early or late. Perhaps one in a hundred or two hundred pas de quatres are this good. The Royal Ballet asks different things of its dancers, but there is no way they could deliver excellence quite like this and we all lapped it up. It's been a long week, but filled with tremendous variety (I've not even mentioned the new RB triple bill) and one to look back on with lasting affection.