The RB's Trilogy triple bill hasn't been an unmixed success with the critics. Wheeldon's 'Tryst' has disappointed some; others have been luke-warm over Tudor's 'The Leaves are Fading' and even Ashton's late masterwork 'A Month in the Country' has not emerged entirely unscathed, yet I found this the most rewarding RB triple bill for several seasons.
I thought Christopher Wheeldon's 'Tryst' was a stunning work, which started strongly and got better. James MacMillan's richly-layered score was a pleasant surprise after some of the comments I had read here. It helped that MacMillan conducted it himself, with a tactful deference to the dancers (is this rare with composer/conductors?). Wheeldon's debt to Balanchine is unmissable, in particular the central pas-de-deux, which owes much to 'Agon'. But Wheeldon's own voice is the strongest here - boldness and confidence are becoming his trademark and they sweep aside any doubts about 'influences'. Jean-Marc Puissant's designs are exactly right for the piece, from the simple minimalist set aided by Natasha Katz's subtle but effective lighting to the equally simple practice-like costumes - the latter no doubt adding to the 'Balanchine' effect. Wheeldon keeps his 21 dancers in a wedge-shaped block within which he moves individual dancers with dazzling random logic - two dancers will step suddenly sideways to the right while somewhere else, and slightly after them another two or perhaps three or maybe just one will step in the opposite direction - there is a constant pattern of random-seeming individual movement, and one unforgettable moment has all the dancers in silhouette against a lighted background performing these almost auomated looking movements. It's a tribute to Wheeldon's unique choreographic talent that even this movement never looks less than purely classical.
The cast of 21 dancers is led by five couples, all given pas-de-deux. The principal couple at yesterday's matinee was Belinda Hatley and Martin Harvey, both dancing with polished assurance. Hatley in particular looked sleek and confident on her first appearance after a prolonged injury-induced absence. I have always admired her. She has to be one of the RB's most adaptable dancers, as much at home in Ashton's dappled works as she is here in Wheeldon's streamlined 'Tryst'.
Anthony Tudor's 'The Leaves are Fading' to some beautiful Dvorak music has not been highly rated by anyone this time around. 'Dated' and even 'Mimsy' are words that have been bandied about, but I love this quiet and beautifully detailed work. All it needs is to be hacked from the jungle of chiffon threatening to engulf it in its present design form which is...uh...dated and mimsy - even the men are in chiffon! The fussy backdrop likewise must go. Nicola Tranah opens the work as the wistful Older Woman and Leanne Benjamin and the mesmerising Edward Watson are the lead couple. I simply love the choreography for the man here, shy and bold at once and Watson just goes for it. He's an amazing dancer and I wonder why the RB have kept him under wraps for so long. Why is it that he is only getting proper stage exposure now? The result of his rawness is that he is an uncertain partner, and yesterday he looked strained in the demanding lifts in Tudor's work, and also seemed to get puffed far too quickly. More regular partnering work in major roles should soon sort these problems out. Benjamin was a miracle of lightness in her role, but by now I expect that of her- she deserves more challenging roles and I hope Stretton can find them for her. I loved all the other dancers in this piece too, but if I had to single one out I'd go for Ricardo Cervera. His sparkling and powerful dancing is always eye-catching, but I hadn't noticed until now how musically responsive a dancer he is.
(A Footnote: I note in the programme that 'Leaves' was presented 'By arrangement with the estate of Anthony Tudor and The Anthony Tudor Ballet Trust'. How ironic that a choreographer like Tudor should have a Trust to protect his scant output, whilst Ashton, a recognised genius, has nothing whatsoever to protect future performances of his prolific work).
A double disappointment awaited me in Ashton's 'A Month in the Country'. First was the news that Ivan Putrov would not be dancing Belaiev because of injury - Putrov was the reason I had booked for this performance in the first place - and secondly was Muriel Valtat's curiously flat performance as Natalia Petrovna. But Ashton's bomb-proof structure survived these two major attacks and I enjoyed 'Month' anyway. The Chopin music is irresistible, and the choreography is by turns touching, comic, and mysterious - for example, there's a wonderful moment early in the ballet where, for no apparent reason, Natalia, her son Kolya, the tutor Beliaev and the ward Vera, all gloriously dance in a syncopated turning line as if in a West End hoofing show. It's quite a lovely moment.
Jonathan Cope replaced Putrov with distinguished grace, undoubtedly added to by years of familiarity in the role. I mean no disrespect whatsoever to Cope here - his dancing is as excellent as it ever was, but his acting remained as it ever was - nothing special. If I think about it, over the years only Dowell was really special in this role and that's undoubtedly because Ashton created it for him. (I saw Dowell in the role only in the last gasps of his career, and he was still wonderful in it, despite the frightful blond wig he had chosen to wear).
Muriel Valtat is another matter entirely. Her dancing was exquistely detailed, and entirely appropriate to the demands of Ashton's work, and her acting was adequate, but somehow dull and uninvolving. Part of the problem may have been her face, which was both insufficiently animated and blandly made-up. The only other dancer I've seen in the role is Sylvie, and she was a blazing oil compared to Valtat's limp watercolour. But I hope Valtat will be given to the opportunity to dance this role again because, in the end, she is far more suited to it than Sylvie is.
Special mention must go to Bethany Keating's sparkling (and sparky) Vera. Her lovely, seamless footwork in her opening solo would have pleased Ashton. She promises much, and so does Victoria Hewitt as Katia, the knee-sitting, cherry-stuffing maid. Let's hope 'Month' doesn't stay out of the RB's repertory too long.