Anthony Dowell Celebration Programme, Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, 1/8/2001
The end of the Royalís season, and with it the end of Anthony Dowellís time as Artistic Director, is almost upon us. The final mixed programme in this Hochhauser season again highlights roles that Dowell was particularly associated with in his career as a dancer, and what a delightful programme it is. It is strongly cast, featuring many of the Royalís principals - those that arenít injured anyway, for a long season seems to have taken its toll.
Frederic Ashtonís works were featured heavily and so for Ashton fans this is a must -see - especially as so little Ashton is scheduled for next season. The evening opens with The Dream, and concludes with A Month in the Country, which hasnít been staged at Covent Garden since the early 90s. In between are a number of pas de deux as special end of term treats. These include an Ashton rarity - the ĎAwakeningí pas de deux from Sleeping Beauty, an item which Dowell cut in his much-criticised revision of the production. Was this, I wondered, some kind of admission at the last that this might have been a mistake ? Or just a change from the usual suspects as divertissements ?
The Dream looked as delightful as ever. The leads on this occasion were Leanne Benjamin, as a very strong willed and imperious Titania, and Kobborg as Oberon. He looks very much at home in the role, both in terms of the ease he shows in the intricacies of the choreography, and his ability to dominate the stage. The final pas de deux went very smoothly to a passionate reception. The quartet of lovers were nicely done. It was interesting to listen to as accompanied by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia (Birmingham Royal Ballet's orchestra), a definite improvement on the ROH orchestra this May, I thought, especially as regards the diction of the singers.
But although there were some fine performances (including some of the lead fairies), the production seemed too eager to go for broad comedy rather than subtlety. Ciriaciís Puck was rather too cute for my taste, Iím afraid, although he had a fizzing energy. And Iím still not convinced that the corps of fairies really have fully mastered the nuances of the style in the opening scene - the arms really need to ripple fully from the shoulder and that means more than a hopeful wiggle of the elbows. Nevertheless, the production is still enormous fun.
Injuries among the Royalís depleted ranks of male dancers meant that Robert Parker of Birmingham Royal Ballet appeared to partner Belinda Hatley in the Awakening pas de deux. She seemed to bloom when partnered by him and looked very relaxed with him as partner. Given that they havenít appeared together before they seemed very in tune with one another. It is not an obviously showy piece to choose for an occasion like this, and was rather overshadowed by some of the more obvious fireworks that followed, but it had a quiet charm of its own.
Monotones II followed, with Yanowsky, Marriott, and Vodegel-Matzen in the spotlight. Itís hard to think of any work which is so relentless in its requirements of perfection of technique, poise, and control (well, except Symphonic Variations) - nothing can be fudged or fluffed. Just three bodies in white on an empty stage moving in perfect limpid harmony with each other. Thereís nowhere to hide. The cast did a fine job (Yanowsky is increasingly impressive in everything she does). This was greeted with real fondness by the audience.
Sarah Wildor appeared next as Manon, this time with another guest, Roberto Bolle. The bedroom pas de deux is a great favourite at Covent Garden, and this was put across with some fervour by the couple. Itís always difficult when performing excerpts like this to put across characters in the space of a few minutes, especially when the dancers havenít appeared together before. Under the circumstances, they were a very credible couple, and it would be good to see the ardent Bolle perform des Grieux at Covent Garden.
Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta followed with the Don Q pas de deux, that staple of galas everywhere. This was, predictably, a great hit with the audience. If you want big jumps, big lifts, big pirouettes, everything, these two can deliver it. Rojo wields her fan with a neat snap of authority. Itís all very impressive and clearly wildly popular, but sometimes I think there should be a moratorium on the Don Q pas de deux at galas for the next five years. Itís fun, but itís almost too familiar.
The evening shifted into an entirely different mood for A Month in the Country, Ashtonís concise retelling of the Turgenyev story of the disruptive effects and unhappiness brought about by a handsome young tutor on a wealthy Russian family. This was a world away from the showiness of Don Q: Ashton sets out to portray real, credible human beings caught up in messy and troubled affairs.
I saw Guillem appear in this back in about 1992, and I was fascinated to see how she had changed. Back then, I thought she was technically very strong, but not at all involving, and the performance left me quite unmoved. Then she didnít look at home in the choreography - she looked too tall for it. But much has happened since: the Guillem we see now is the one who has appeared as Margeurite and as Caroline (in Lilac Garden). Her performance now as Natalia Petrovna is full of tiny, thoughtful details - the way she bends her head, or folds her arms - everything is shaped to tell you the characterís state of mind. The technical facility is now there to serve the role, not to dominate it. (Alternatively, my eyes have just adjusted to Ms Guillem. But I do think she has changed and that her experiences in dancing with the Royal, and the stress on naturalistic portrayal of emotion, have influenced her).
A Month in the Country is a concentrated work, the essence of the story distilled down to a few potent scenes - Natalia and the admirer she no longer has time for; the tutor, Beliaev, and his flirtations, the departure. Massimo Murru has a youthful innocence, not really understanding the consequences of his actions until itís too late. Alina Cojocaru is very affecting as the adoring Vera, but Justin Meissner doesnít look young enough to be creditable as the young son, and the costume does him no favours. Supporting roles are well cast, and itís a moving and welcome revival.
It may be a little unkind when we are all in celebratory mode, but I canít help but reflect that in twenty years time or so, I canít imagine that there will be any similar programme to celebrate the roles created on the principal dancers of Dowellís directorship years. But thatís no reason not to go and enjoy this programme.