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The Royal Ballet in Ashton's Tales of Beatrix Potter. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

In their final programme of the year The Royal Ballet celebrates Sir Frederick Ashton, the founder choreographer who gave this company a wonderful classical repertory and British ballet a defining style. Initially I thought of this double bill as a case of odd pairing since, on one corner, appealing to the Ashton addicts and older crowds, there’s the very chic Les Patineurs, and on the other, practically screaming “kids only”, the Tales of Beatrix Potter. Why match them?

Mr. Clement Crisp, the eminent Financial Times dance critic, has a strong opinion on Potter: “My reaction is to remind myself that the right place for a piglet is a roasting-dish, that squirrels are vermin and that mouse-traps are cheap”. But we must try to practice what we preach and approach ballets with an open mind. Having seen neither piece before, off I  went looking forward to a feast of Ashtonian body bends and patterns.

Cindy Jourdain and Laura McCulloch in Ashton's Les Patineurs. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Featuring a créme de la créme opening night cast I thought Les Patineurs was a ballet of sheer beauty. Ashton conjures a vintage ice rink and through the way the dancers move and the various divertissements we get glimpses of couples, groups and individuals, all having a jolly good time skating. To replicate the feel of dancing on ice the chassé is heavily used, as are fouettés and various forms of spinning and walking on pointe. Soloists emerge from the group dances, developing their own signature moves on ice, with blue girl Laura Morera giving a masterclass on the suppleness of the Ashtonian back and fellow blue skater Yuhui Choe combining quick footsteps with the most graceful upper body and showing off some amazing fouettés en tournant.

The central white couple was handsomely danced by Sarah Lamb and Rupert Pennefather. This pas de deux is such an elegant portrait of a couple in love, beautiful dance emanating from the simplest of stories, so truly and deeply Ashton. But the evening’s scene stealer is Steven McRae as the Blue Boy, a role that seemed created on him as it demands a combination of panache and precision, both of which he is able to deliver by the bucketload. Delighted, poised and completely in character as the ice-rink show-off he dazzled the house in series of sparkling beaten brisés and a jaw-dropping combination of turns on fourth gear.

Sarah Lamb in Ashton's Les Patineurs. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Next item on the bill, the parade of cute furry animals in Tales of Beatrix Potter, with their nostalgic, just-fresh-off-the-books manner, might have won over quite a few cynics in the audience. As a dance piece it might not be very complex, but consider this: every character onstage is dressed in a bulky costume weighing between 4 and 5 kilos, with the animals heads an extra 2 kilos (our thanks to Bennet Gartside – aka Bennet76 – for this interesting bit of Potter trivia). The fact that they can dance any steps at all baffles us, with the quick and imaginative footwork for Squirrel Nutkin (Paul Kay) and Mr. Jeremy Fisher (Kenta Kura), the underlying elegance of the pas de deux between Pigling Bland (Bennet Gartside) and Pig-Wig (Laura Morera), the quirky pantomime between Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (Jonathan Howells) and the Fox (Gary Avis) seeming like a miracle.

There were, of course, plenty of kids amongst us but I could just as well see several adults gasping and smiling while Hunca Munca and Tom Thumb smashed the plates from the doll house. And so, by unleashing our inner kid and opening a window to a simpler past where the biggest problem was finishing homework before a good bedtime story, Potter weaves its Christmas magic. It worked on us.

Kenta Kura as Mr. Jeremy Fisher in Tales of Beatrix Potter. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Ashton’s Les Patineurs and Tales of Beatrix Potter will be at the Royal Opera House until December 31. For booking details visit the ROH website.

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Christmas season is definitely upon London, with decorative lights on the streets, people rushing to buy presents, chilly mornings and, ballet-wise, the possibility of finishing off the day with The Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker now in its 25th season.

Sir Peter Wright’s staging sticks to the original Hoffmann story where Drosselmeyer’s nephew Hans-Peter has been cursed and turned into a Nutcracker doll by the revengeful Mouse King. The spell can only be broken if he defeats the royal rodent while also capturing a young girl’s heart. Drosselmeyer sees in the Stahlbaum’s daughter Clara the potential to be just that girl. Given the heartwarming plot this Nutcracker could easily slip up into kid-friendly Disney territory but, thanks to the dark German Romantic undertones, it also scores with grown ups.

Clara and Drosselmeyer in The Royal Ballet's Nutcracker. Photo: Dee Conway / ROH ©

Act I takes place at the Stahlbaum home where guests and family are gathered for a Christmas party. Drosselmeyer (a spot-on Will Tuckett) arrives with his deep turquoise cape, gadgets and plenty of magic tricks including giant dancing dolls and the gift of a Nutcracker doll for Clara. Blink and you will miss lovely details such as Gary Avis‘s very funny rheumatic Captain trying to prove “he’s still got it” in the elders dance and the Marzipan cake which will become the sugar-coated stage for the Act II divertissements. The only letdown here is Drosselmeyer’s mending of the Nutcracker doll after it is broken by Clara’s brother as he seems to repair it manually instead of magically as one would expect.

In her debut as Clara, Leanne Cope captures all the freshness of a teenager and her wonder at the supernatural events which unfold before her eyes. Her dancing too was charming despite a couple of early mishaps, presumably due to a slippery floor at the Stahlbaum home. Paul Kay showed beautiful lines and crisp dancing as Hans-Peter, with plenty of energy in the battle with the Mouse King.

In Act II the Stahlbaum home and the Land of Snow give way to the Land of Sweets (Comfiturembourg). Here the often disconnected sequence of divertissements is cleverly linked to the story with the full participation of Clara and Hans-Peter and a mime scene where they explain their battle with the Mouse King to their hosts Prince Coqueluche and The Sugar Plum Fairy (Steven McRae and Roberta Marquez).

Steven McRae as The Prince in The Nutcracker. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Steven has been filled with praise on opening night and deservedly so. Not only does he ace his variation, he also shows regal poise and gentlemanlike manners, taking a step back to let his ballerina shine. Roberta Marquez only keeps getting better (the McRae effect?). Her Sugar Plum Fairy is lovely and even if the tricky gargouillades do not yet fully come through she compensates with phrasing, accentuating gestures such as her delight at meeting her partner, full of rapport with McRae in the pas de deux. Here, both Roberta and Steven give us more than is arguably needed from a short role that calls for no more than solid technique and a beautiful display of line, where all the emotional punch is already contained in Tchaikovsky’s score. Elsewhere, Yuhui Choe was the most beautiful Rose Fairy and her escorts, led by Brian Maloney and Johannes Stepanek were flawless, the Russian dance with Ludovic Ondiviela and Kevin Emerton another highlight.

The closing sequence has Clara back in the real world wondering whether it was all just a dream. Soon a chance meeting with Hans-Peter on the street where she lives suggests quite the contrary. And while the final reunion between Drosselmeyer and Hans-Peter might bring a tear to one’s eye, once the curtain is down over wintry Nuremberg the audience is all smiles. Let Herr Drosselmeyer keep fulfilling his purpose for many years to come.

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Triple bills are a great opportunity to discover rarer ballets along with new works, an essential ingredient in preserving the future of this art form. The Royal Ballet’s latest features a modern and sizzling combination well suited to those seeking refuge from an evening of tutus and tiaras.  It opens with Agon, Balanchine’s iconic work in collaboration with Stravinsky and follows with Glen Tetley’s Sphinx, originally created for American Ballet Theatre (ABT) and newly acquired for the company. The bill closes with Wayne McGregor‘s new ballet, Limen, successor to his previous works Chroma and Infra.

Ed and Melissa in Limen

Melissa Hamilton and Edward Watson in The Royal Ballet’s Limen, choreographed by Wayne McGregor. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Even if modern is not your thing, the genius concept behind Agon merits a visit. Balanchine built it from the interplay between 12 dancers and combinations of patterns and shapes. It demands pristine technique and inherent musicality to sustain the choreography. The steps are akin to those every dancer executes in class but here they do so with a twist (e.g. exaggerated arabesques) and at an incredibly fast tempo. It is always interesting to see the Royal Ballet tackle this type of abstract work because of their dramatic tradition and natural bond with the Ashton and MacMillan repertory. In their hands Agon goes beyond the exploration of movement and amalgamation with music (or its realisation in choreographical terms) and you sense at times they are trying to convey a string of short episodes.

The first cast includes up-and-coming soloists (Yuhui Choe, Hikaru Kobayashi and Brian Maloney) alongside established principals Carlos Acosta and Johan Kobborg and rising star Melissa Hamilton,  fresh from her MacMillan debut as Mary Vetsera last week. The leading men (Acosta and Kobborg, plus Valeri Hristov and Brian Maloney) make Agon’s tricky footwork sequences and off-centred positions look easy, though Daniel Capps‘s conducting seemed to be going against them towards the finale. The ladies were led by Mara Galeazzi, a charmer in the Bransle Gay and by Melissa Hamilton, in the pas de deux with Acosta. 21 year-old Melissa seemed entirely at home in the intricacies of the pas de deux, sinking into a penché so deep that her nose touched the knee as if it were no trouble at all. It was inspiring to see her unique blend of suppleness and elegance contrasting the earthy quality of Acosta’s partnering.

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Rupert Pennefather and Marianela Nuñez in Tetley’s Sphinx. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Tetley’s Sphinx fits the company and this particular cast of dancers as snugly as their bodysuits. It must be quite a challenge to balance Tetley’s high-powered choreography with the characterization of each role but Edward Watson‘s acid orange Anubis dazzles and threatens with swirling diagonals while Rupert Pennefather, looking every inch the greek hero, partners solidly. The heart of the ballet comes in the shape of Marianela Nuñez as the Sphinx who risks her life in exchange for a promise of love, and who is ultimately betrayed. She initially appears dominant and powerful, with arms that recalled an elegant bird of prey, but after she whispers the answer to  her own riddle to Pennefather’s Oedipus she changes into a hopeless, defeated creature who now embraces mortality. Sphinx might not be everyone’s cup of tea (its costumes and designs look more Studio 54 than ballet) and those not familiar with Jean Cocteau’s take on Oedipus will be left scratching their heads. We like it, not only for the literary souces, but for its athleticism and this particular cast’s foolhardiness in performing this exhausting piece brilliantly in three consecutive days.

Ed in Sphinx

Edward Watson as Anubis in Glen Tetley's Sphinx (with Marianela Nuñez and Rupert Pennefather in the back). Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

McGregor’s Limen is centred around the themes of life and death, light and darkness and the thresholds in-between, to align with Kaija Saariaho‘s cello concerto “Notes of Light”. Again McGregor taps strongly into technology, via Tatsuo Miyajima‘s designs and amazing lighting by Lucy Carter, to set the mood for the various movements in the music. Limen features a cast of 15 dancers, including many of his regulars.

The choreography stays true to McGregor’s trademark quick movements, contortions and extensions, although since Chroma he has been progressively softening his edgy dance language. There are also nods to previous ballets Agon and Sphinx (e.g. the iconic Agon attitude wrapping the man and the pirouettes with arms à la Sphinx) and, as such, Limen might be McGregor’s own version of a Balanchine ballet: what we are seeing really is a representation of the music and its subliminal message of light against darkness.

Limen opens with a translucent curtain in which numbers are projected, representing the passage of time. The cello’s voice cues in the orchestra  and behind the curtain we see Edward Watson mirroring the music and slowly moving through extensions while new dancers start to emerge  to match the remaining instruments. The second movement is led by Steven McRae and an ensemble of dancers, who become “alive” as they enter a colourful square of light. The orchestra takes over and energetically fights the cello, serving as a backdrop for McRae’s remarkable solo, which combines McGregor’s language with classical vocabulary.

Sarah and Eric in Limen

Sarah Lamb and Eric Underwood in The Royal Ballet’s Limen, choreographed by Wayne McGregor. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Classical dance fully inhabits the third and fourth movements and their lyrical pas de deux. Marianela Nuñez and Brian Maloney echo the brief harmonious dialogue between the cello and the orchestra, while Sarah Lamb and Eric Underwood represent Saariaho’s cello eclipse. As Underwood embraces and lifts Sarah, she folds her body in every possible way (with the costumes and dark lighting enhancing the effect) to the fading sound of the instrument.

The final movement is a return to the light, symbolised by a panel of blue LED lights which loom over the dancers now dressed in flesh coloured leotards. Watson carries the emotional baggage of the movement, once more showing his wonderful use of extension. The ballet (or is it the music) ends with a question, as the cello sings its last note (a very high F sharp): have we reached the heart of light or are we back into darkness? The dancers face the back of the stage and the lights dim, Watson the only dancer who stands at a threshold between this ensemble and the front of the stage. Once again McGregor has delivered a keeper, perhaps even a natural conclusion to the trilogy that started with Chroma (Chroma is the absence from white, while Limen might be the absence of colour). It has become clear that he is now more comfortable with classical vocabulary and could be interesting to see what choreographic surprises he might throw at us from now on. We can’t wait.

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Manon with Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta. Source: The Royal Opera House ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Manon with Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta. Source: The Royal Opera House ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon is a modern classic, loved by the audience and regularly performed by every major ballet company in the world. The success of this piece is a testament to full-length narrative ballet’s capacity to survive in a prominently abstract dance age and to attract new audiences, because let’s face it, love stories are always appealing.

As in every MacMillan ballet, acting is a key element in Manon and it is not only through the choreographic phrases  (ie. the blend of steps) that the audience is drawn into the story but also via the dramatic input of its interpreters, the gestures, the costumes and the interactions with the members of the corps.

Despite availability on DVD of an older version (with Jennifer Penney and Anthony Dowell as Manon and Des Grieux) The Royal Ballet chose to record and broadcast a couple of weeks ago a more recent performance of Manon with Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta in the main roles. It’s been quite a good run for both of them, since they have featured on almost every publicity spread this season. Furthermore, thanks in part to his own contract with Decca, Carlos has been captured on various DVD’s and TV broadcasts since last year. With both dancers at the pinnacle of their careers, one can expect great performances.

I’ve seen Manon played in different ways. Manon as a naive girl, easily manipulated by her brother Lescaut and lured by the promise of a better life, so that when she falls in love, she is in constant struggle with her feelings. Or Manon completely assured and conscious of her power, which she uses to its full extent in order to survive, teasing Des Grieux and playing with him as if he were an object, only later realising she has fallen in love with him. Tamara Rojo’s Manon seems to blend parts of both archetypes in her interpretation but the whole is, in my opinion, slightly confusing.

In terms of technique, Tamara brings her A-game into the role. Her dancing is lush and her musicality is overpowering. There are very few dancers who possess the ability of doting with intention every single note in the music. The position of her body, hands and head ever changing with the music, the steps linking in the choreography. Tamara also knows when to place extra physical stretches to end a choreographic phrase and her use of extensions is well judged, which is a real gift in these days of extreme extension abuse. However, the only part where I find fault (even when if small) is on the acting.

Somehow I don’t fully understand this Manon’s character. It seems that she enjoys the luxury and the life Monsieur GM can provide. So it is not only due to Lescaut’s will that she decides to trade Des Grieux for the wealthy Monsieur (I really don’t sense any manipulation from Lescaut here and there is no hesitation on her part either). Which means she can’t possibly love Des Grieux at this point, whilst the various pas de deux with him, mainly the first one, suggest otherwise: we see Manon completely besotted.

Is it really that Manon enjoys the attention she gets from these men thus everything becomes complicated by the fact that she develops feelings for Des Grieux? Are we looking at a girl who is trying to survive, completely dependent on her own charms or are we looking at a girl who is just passed around without any will of her own, whose only truth is her love for Des Grieux? I don’t think Tamara is playing the naive girl card, but in her portrayal, Manon’s intentions are only clear to me in the last act where she is the impotent woman trying to cling to the only thing left (Des Grieux), having lost everything else. It is here where Tamara is at her best. The interpretation and execution are flawless and one can really connect to the pain, sadness and regret that Manon is feeling.

Carlos Acosta gives us a fine Des Grieux, even if there are plenty other roles that suit him better. There are some flashes of super-Acosta, particularly in those pirouettes and he is definitely a good partner for Tamara. While I was convinced by his straightforward Des Grieux – very much a man in love – let’s just say drama is not Acosta’s forte. I’ve seen and enjoyed more complex portrayals and here I particularly recall the Kobborg/Benjamin Manon from the same run last autumn. Not only did Kobborg give a flawless execution, he also showed why he is currently the best dancer/actor in the company.

This production also features a strong supporting cast: Laura Morera is fantastic as Lescaut’s mistress, in a role that suits her perfectly and Jose Martín an efficient Lescaut, both showing good comic timing in the “drunken pas de deux”. Paul Kay brings his showmanship skills as the beggar chief.

This review is based on the BBC4 broadcast of The Royal Ballet’s Manon, recorded during its 2008-2009 season.

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