Royal Ballet School, Linbury Theatre, 12 July 2001
The Linbury Theatre is quite an intimate setting for the students of the Royal Ballet School. There are no musicians apart from a piano off to one side: the audience are just a few feet away from the dancers. There’s pros and cons to this of course. It is pleasant to see the dancers close up and to try to put faces to names in the programme, and to get some idea of their particular qualities. However, the intimacy is quite harsh as well: every wobble is visible, every nervous expression. I think this is probably tougher on students than it is for dancers with many years of experience. I wonder how it must feel from the other side: do the dancers feel the contact with the audience differently, because we are real faces and not some distant blur ?
Still, it’s probably good that the students get the experience of different spaces. In the last few years, with the Royal Opera House taken by the Hochhausers, the traditional summer RBS performance has been rather squeezed – one year I think their only chance on the main stage was providing the corps for one performance of Bayadere, which can’t have offered very many opportunities. There are five performances at the Linbury, finishing on Saturday 14th evening.
The programme I saw was rather different than previous years. It’s mainly the older students, with not so much contribution from the younger children (no hornpipe, and no national dances, though some of these are scheduled for two of the other performances). And the students are not performing an established work – something known, a yardstick by which we might measure – but various items which have been made specifically for them. This is a pity (I have a soft spot for seeing the kids in their kilts doing their Scottish dances – well , once a year, anyway). And it’s a bit of a shame that they aren’t taking on a more ambitious piece.
The RBS performance often used to unearth something different, that wasn’t necessarily in the current repertoire and was interesting. (I think this is one of the reasons it has been popular with ballet fans in the past – the audience certainly isn’t made up only of parents and relatives). So many dancers biographies include little details about what they danced in the School’s performance – the betrayed girl in the Rake’s Progress, or a role in The Two Pigeons. I can’t quite imagine any role in this programme being quoted with quite the same ring to it, somehow.
There were nine items on the programme, none of them long, totalling about 90 minutes of dance in all. The opening work was Polka from Les Millions d’Arlequin: the only chance to see some of the youngest children, from years 7 and 8. They all looked remarkably poised and composed for their years.
Next there was a complete contrast – students from the Upper School in a barefoot modern piece. One thing which struck me about the evening was how much of it wasn’t classical ballet at all. I assume the idea is to illustrate the diversity of the training, and that the dancers can perform just as well in other forms of dance. There were three items out of the nine that were closer to dance than to ballet – and what was most striking was it was in these that the dancers looked to be having most fun, as if all that youthful energy and vibrancy were more at home in the cartwheels and rolling across the floor than in the disciplines of the classical pieces. Rookie Torrent was set to Japanese Kodo drumming and a cast of fourteen made the most of it – the boys seemed to relish it in particular.
In contrast was a sweetly traditional Tarantella complete with tambourines and ribbons for Year 11 pupils. This was one of the occasions where nerves were apparent – not in the dancing but on some (not all) of the girls faces. It was very light and charming.
The choreography for the next item, Snapshots is credited to Kate Flatt, with creative contributions from the students. This again seemed rather closer to dance than to ballet. It was one of the few opportunities for the students to sketch out a little in the way of character. (a bossy girl in red: a dreamy one in a floaty dress) A photographer pursues individuals and groups, catching some images and missing some others. It was a fun piece, nicely put across and I enjoyed it but perhaps didn’t stretch these Upper School pupils as much as it might.
The closing item for the first half was excerpts from a Christopher Wheeldon ballet, Souvenirs. A real shame we didn’t get to see the complete work., which he made originally for students at the School of American Ballet. The costumes are formal ball gowns and black tie and tails, very becoming. We had a waltz, tango and finale. Again, this was performed by pupils from the Upper School. It was more of an ensemble piece, with a cast of 22. It was a stylish piece, done with some verve, particularly the tango, where one girl was progressively surrounded by crowds of adoring males.
After the interval, we returned to a testing piece, a pas de cinq from Sleeping Beauty. Some nice, controlled performances here by Upper School pupils, facing tricky balances with aplomb. This was clearly a demanding piece which was approached with confidence. The piece that followed, Interpretations was in a contrasting style (again, a much more contemporary feel) but similar in that it presented a few dancers in the spotlight – two couples this time, again from the Upper School. This seemed to aspire to being a rather angsty emotional piece but the choreography didn’t really make much impression, I’m afraid.
Dance of the Hours (described as after Petipa) returned us to a more classical mode. This was an opportunity for the soloists to shine in an evening which had largely concentrated on the ensemble rather than the individual. The dancers here seem to be from years 10 and 11, except for the only male on stage, from the Upper School. For their age and experience, the girls were impressive, with the soloists looking quite undaunted by their balances.
The final work, Kreisler Variations was another work specifically made for students, this time for the San Francisco Ballet School. It offered a series of ensemble dances, solos and a couple of pas de deux.. I think the problem with seeing too much work that is ‘made for students’ after a while is that the carefulness of it all begins to get to you – these works seem structured so that lots of different dancers get given their three minutes to shine, rather than by any inherent logic in the work itself or in the music. That’s why the students should be dancing some more challenging pieces – to get to grips with important works and to understand what ballet is about. Kreisler Variations was pleasant enough, but no one would rush to put it on apart from as a student piece. The cast acquitted themselves well, and the audience responded to this and to some performances in it with enthusiasm.
It was a pleasant evening without being really memorable. There were no stunning revelations among the dancers, with no one standing out head and shoulders above the rest. Often you would think that one dancer looked interesting, but then he or she would be succeeded in another piece by someone else who was also interesting, in another way. And even then, I’m not always sure I could identify the right person from the lists of names in the programme (the first girl on stage for Rookie Torrent, for example). It is rather unfair to pick out names from all this, but I will record that Cornell Callender (who joins ENB) was particularly popular with the audience in his very brief appearance (nice pirouettes). I thought the girls in Dance of the Hours very pleasant ( Nutnaree Pipithsuksunt, Romany Garrett-Pajdak, Elizabeth Harrod – hope that spelling is correct), with the Thai girl having a lovely smile and presence. I could equally pick out many other dancers – but this review is already quite long enough.