Injuries at the Royal Ballet sadly played havoc with my attempts to see two different casts in Ondine at Sadlerís Wells. Iíd planned to see Wildor and Yoshida in the leading role: I saw Sarah at her first performance on the 22nd, partnered by guest Adam Cooper, but Yoshidaís injury meant that Sarah took her remaining performances - three in two days ! I was concerned that she might be showing signs of strain by the end, but at the final evening performance on the 31st she still looked to be fizzing with energy, and her interpretation was much stronger and more confident than in the earlier performance. I enjoyed the second performance much more, perhaps partly though greater familiarity with the music, but it also seemed that the cast in general were more on top of the choreography later on.
Ondine is an odd work to categorise. Itís not a classical construction with great set pieces (except for the wedding divertissement in the third act) or grand formal pas de deux, but a continuous, flowing narrative. And yet the narrative itself isnít that strong: thereís no real explanation of why the lovers are on a ship in Act 2, or what exactly has passed between Acts 2 and 3 in order to convince Palemon to return to his mortal lover, Berta. But it does offer opportunities for quite different, memorable effects: the most convincing feel of the sea, and the shimmer of water. The final tableau is not only exquisitely beautiful,, with Ondine grieving over the body of her lover, but the surrounding ondines, their arms drifting like seaweed in the dim green light, uncannily evoke the shifting currents under the sea. And in Act 2, the sensation of motion while being on board ship is strong enough to make the audience seasick.
The work was made on Fonteyn, and itís a hard role to fill: it demands not only the usual level of Ashton technical difficulty, but the ability immediately to entrance both Palemon and the audience as a wild creature from another world. By Saturday, Wildor was more in command of the shimmering, flickering steps of the first act. I loved the way she writhed like a hooked salmon when Palemon caught her. Iíd have been happy to entertain a wilder and colder interpretation though - she isnít human after all. (Perhaps thereís an urge to make Ashton quite nice and charming, twee heritage ballet. I think thereís quite a bit of sharpness there that shouldnít be obscured. For instance, the Bertas in this production could have been rather more bitchy). Wildor did have a delightful innocence in rousing the waves in Act 2, quite unaware of the effect she was having on the mortals, and, in the second performance at least, you really felt she had the power of invoking wind and wave. But it was her appearance at the beginning of Act 3, as a vision rising from the waves which was the loveliest and most memorable moment, as, held aloft by unseen partners, she dreamily turned and twisted weightlessly in the waters, to one of the most delicate and haunting passages of Henzeís score.
Cooper was an ardent Palemon, but he has been away from the purely ballet world for a while: his technique was looking somewhat suspect at times, and sometimes the lifts looked rather more effortful than they ought to have done: but he was always emotionally convincing. Bruce Sansom, partnered Wildor on the 31st. He is always at home in the Aston repertory, and was excellent in all departments - secure in partnering, convincingly besotted with Ondine in Act 1, and touchingly remorseful in Act 3. The heroís task is mainly partnering, and the really meaty male dance part is Tirrenio, the Lord of the Sea, who tries and fails to prevent Ondineís marriage, but eventually reclaims her. Campbell Mackenzie and Shi-Ning Liu both made creditable appearances in this, with Liuís jumps giving him a slight edge. A touch more menace would not have gone amiss, but the role was still beautifully danced.
The production features some beautiful stage pictures, using the corps - in Act 1, the girls form a human waterfall on stage, and later a fountain: in Act 2, the simple lines of the corps swaying and the movements of the backcloths gave a wonderful illusion of the swaying of the ship at sea. The designs and the dappled lighting are beautiful, and are perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the production: they must have been expensive to reproduce. But itís not all tableaux: Act 3ís wedding divertissement features some fearsomely fast dancing, and wonderful Ashton footwork. It must be extremely difficult to perform at such a pace with the required degree of precision, and on the 22nd, it was looking like hard work for some, but the later performance looked more confident. Of the soloists in this, Cervera and Hatley made a particularly good impression.
Ondine is an uneven work, but it contains some wonderful lyrical passages and images, and it was well worth reviving. I hope we see it back in the repertory again soon....next time back in Covent Garden.