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Arriving at Covent Garden last night and glancing at my Mayerling cast sheet I wondered if the audience – mostly non-ballet-regulars thanks to a promotion ran by The Sun newspaper – had any idea of their lucky draw with this particular cast: principals Laura Morera as Mitzi Caspar and Steven McRae as Bratfisch, soloists Sergei Polunin and Thomas Whitehead as 2 of the Hungarian separatists, Cindy Jourdain as Rudolf’s mother Empress Elisabeth (aka Sissi), a very talented field team to support a luxury leading cast: Edward “born to play Crown prince Rudolf” Watson, Mara Galeazzi as his Mary Vetsera and the much missed Sarah Lamb, back after one year absence, as his older lover Countess Larisch.

Mayerling Cast, from left clockwise: Mara Galeazzi as Mary Vetsera, Edward Watson as Crown Prince Rudolf, Sarah Lamb as Countess Larisch, Sergei Polunin as Hungarian Officer, Steven McRae as Bratfisch and Laura Morera as Mitzi Caspar.

Mayerling Cast, from left clockwise: Mara Galeazzi as Mary Vetsera, Edward Watson as Crown Prince Rudolf, Sarah Lamb as Countess Larisch, Sergei Polunin as Hungarian Officer, Steven McRae as Bratfisch and Laura Morera as Mitzi Caspar. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Whether this hot cast was already known to few or many, I think we all soon understood how special this performance was going to be. All that has been said in the press, rather more eloquently, of Watson’s Rudolf a couple of years ago is true: his “unfurling line” is better than ever. So is the “ability to turn his distinctive appearance to dramatic advantage. But what particularly impresses me is how he is able to remain so naturalistic, so effortlessly at home in a role which is said to be so demanding, the Mount Everest of male dancing. Watson turns MacMillan’s choreography inside out, he inhabits it so completely that by the time he loses his head and his lover in Act 3 he does not seem to be executing steps anymore, he is entirely possessed by dance, and thus by obsession and madness. His approach to the role is a crescendo of faster turns and high extensions combined with signs of agitation, of symptom, in every gesture.  Every step links into a continuous whirlwind of emotion.

Although Crown Prince Rudolf is frequently onstage and frequently dancing it is interesting to observe how MacMillan envisaged a character who does not “dance with the music”. This is blatant when you compare Rudolf against the dancers in the Tavern or his private entertainer Bratfisch. The latter are stereotypes, the “ballet within the ballet”, whereas Rudolf, except for the scenes where he joins in the group dances, is always a dissonant voice, an unconventional mover. Mayerling is not about the sequence of bravura steps which are characteristic of male classical roles, but more about how the protagonist, through scattered solos and a series of pas de deux with his many women, conveys his diseased view of the world, another of MacMillan’s ground breaking choreographic visions.

Edward Watson and Mara Galeazzi in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling Photo: Johan Persson / ROH © Source: Danser en France

But even though MacMillan crafted steps that speak more than actions, he also stayed rooted in theatrical tradition, demanding from his lead strong dramatic skills. When Watson is not dancing we see Rudolf’s neurotic mind constantly questioning his surroundings, observant, clearly setting his own agenda. In Act 2 for instance, the family gathers to hear a lieder sung by the Emperor’s lover, the actress Katherina Schratt, a song (“Ich Leide”, by Liszt) which speaks of farewells, of someone who is leaving. As Rudolf stands at a safe distance from everyone else, we see he is listening carefully, that he is soaking up those words to fuel his dark intentions.

With Watson’s line becoming progressively more extreme – I have never seen him using his extensions in a classical piece so liberally – we see the edges this Crown Prince is willing to go over to rid himself of this world. He carries the weight of the distant relationship with his mother, unleashes his Oedipean frustrations on his wife and on his old lover Countess Larisch, but in the encounters with young lover Mary Vetsera we see the dance become more weightless, almost like a brief release from pressure. Here Watson throws all caution to the wind, so full of complicity in his last “crazy-love” pas de deux with Mara Galeazzi’s fluid Vetsera that you think for just one moment this Rudolf might not go ahead with the initial suicide plan. But we know how it all ends: not happily.

It was a fantastic, intense start for the ballet season. Although there are always first night jitters and some fine tuning as performances progress, the company seemed on great form back from their break and probably pleased with the big cheer they got from a very appreciative crowd. With this amazing cast and such a compelling piece we hope the new audience left enthused and ready to come back for more. It certainly sounded like it.

The Royal Ballet’s Mayerling is in repertoire until November 10. Book via the ROH website, by telephone or by visiting the Box Office.

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A few months ago Tamara Rojo participated in a live discussion with psychoanalyst Luis Rodríguez de la Sierra about the relationship between ballet and psychoanalysis. During the talk they examined  various themes within classical and modern ballet and compared the choreographic process with psychoanalysis. It was an interesting debate – and you can listen to it via audio stream [link] – which revealed to the audience, probably more used to Rojo expressing herself via dance rather than speech, the full extent of her vivid intelligence, the love she has for her art and the devotion to every role she undertakes. She is very much a thinking man’s ballerina.

Tamara Rojo & Thomas Whitehead in Goldberg. Photo: Tristam Kenton souce: the Guardian. Copyright belong to respective owners

Tamara Rojo & Thomas Whitehead in Goldberg. Photo: Tristram Kenton souce: the Guardian. Copyright belong to respective owners

It is no surprise then that she approached Kim Brandstrup with an idea for a collaboration that would result in the first work of the Royal Ballet’s new season,  The Goldberg project, an intriguing piece set to Bach’s namesake variations (handpicked by Rojo and Brandstrup) with an interesting semi-narrative of “dancers going about their routine in a dance studio”.  Added to this outline are some symbols: windows and doors that open and close, ladder, tv, music, modern and classical dancers, presence and absence, plenty of psychoanalytical material for the audience to draw their own conclusions. Besides Rojo, the central figures are her men: Thomas Whitehead and Steven McRae, one very much real, domineering and the other, almost like a divine presence, unseen by all but felt by Rojo.

The work made me think of Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, in its contrast between our own reality, its frustrations and the allure of a different world which outsiders idealize just like Wim’s angels look at humans. As the tension between Rojo and Whitehead mounts and a team of modern dancers execute steps which are decidedly earthly, grounded, Steven McRae is their “outsider/angel” counterpoint: he takes a backseat by the piano, he turns the pages for the pianist only letting us glimpse at his fluid, fast, ethereal moves when the others leave the studio.  Like a male version of La Sylphide he watches over Rojo while she sleeps, he wants to but can’t bring himself to touch her until the climax when they both dance a pas de deux full of possibilities, in contrast to the raw, frustrating relationship Rojo and Whitehead portray in their duets.

Despite Bach’s complex Goldberg variations being a clever choice to speak of routine and difficult relationships I still lamented its use. I am not a fan of choreography set to Bach’s tidy and well structured music and I missed the highs and lows which composers from later periods provide. I did not warm up to the hip hop & modern dancing either. The idea of contrasting classical and non classical is very interesting in principle and relevant to the narrative but in reality the modern steps failed to make as strong an impact as Thomas/Tamara/Steven. The evening really belonged to them.

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Kim Brandstrup. Copyright belongs to its owners. Source: GBCM

While at the main stage the Royal Ballet season kicks off in October with Mayerling, downstairs at the Linbury Studio the ROH2, Royal Opera House’s contemporary arm, makes a headstart next week with an exciting new collaboration between dancers Tamara Rojo, Thomas Whitehead, Steven McRae and choreographer Kim Brandstrup. Then, later in the season, Brandstrup goes back to the main stage for a repeat of his acclaimed one act ballet, Rushes – Fragments of a Lost Story. Based on  one of the preliminary outlines for Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot and influenced by socialist realist movie aesthetic, the ballet furthered his range as a leading narrative choreographer.

With Brandstrup’s film school background it was natural that a ballet called Rushes (the name refers to raw, unedited film scenes) should contain all forms of reference and reverence to cinema, with its non linear narrative and action that takes place behind beaded curtains, just like a grainy movie from the 30’s. Movie-like structures are something of a leitmotif in his works, and in the past he has spoken of his rejection of classical ballet’s literal or linear plot development as compared to “film cuts” (see “in his own words” below). However, Brandstrup’s forthcoming Goldberg project with Tamara Rojo seems an altogether different proposition, an experiment with  “other ways of moving”, using Bach’s Goldberg Variations and drawing subtleties and “things  that go unnoticed in big stages” to the intimacy of the Linbury Studio. More information on this project can be found in a recent interview Brandstrup gave to dance writer Jane Simpson now posted to Ballet.co.uk.

Kim Brandstrup in a Nutshell

Born in Arhus, Denmark in 1956, the son of a contemporary artist, Kim attended a progressive school which encouraged creativity. He initially studied film at the University of Copenhagen, but switched to modern dance studies at age 19.

He moved to London in 1980 to study at the London School of Contemporary Dance where Nina Fonaroff was his teacher.

Kim founded his own company, Arc, in 1985 (Arc is currently in the backburner but he plans to bring it back, not as a full time company but on a project by project basis).

In 1989 he won the Olivier award for “Outstanding Achievement in Dance” with Orfeo, a piece he choreographed for the now extinct London Contemporary Dance Theatre.

The cinema never ceased to be an influence in his work, along with literature. Kim worked with Irek Mukhamedov on a commission of Othello (winner of the London Evening Standard Award for Most Outstanding Production) and created for his own company pieces such as Elegy which drew on characters from The Idiot and later Elegy’s enlarged version (Brothers) inspired by two other Dostoevskian tales.

He has choreographed for the Royal Danish Ballet, the Rambert Dance Company, English National Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet and other companies in the UK and abroad.  He has been working with the Royal Ballet since 2003, having created dances for principals such as Carlos Acosta, Tamara Rojo, Zenaida Yanowsky, Leanne Benjamin, Steven McRae, Laura Morera, Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg.

Kim also works regularly with opera directors. One of his best known collaborations in this field was with director Phyllida Lloyd for Debussy’s one act opera “The Fall of the House of Usher”, where he choreographed the opening sequence featuring four dancing doubles of the opera characters, as performed by Steven McRae, Gary Avis, Leanne Benjamin and Johannes Stepanek. (This 2006 production is available on DVD).

He says his creations are triggered by the dancers he works with even if the music, theme or narrative have been chosen well in advance. For him, being in the studio with a particular dancer transforms a piece from concept to reality, tailoring the movement to their particular strengths and characteristics.

For Rushes he chose a rare, unpublished Prokofiev movie score (composed for a shelved film adaptation of The Queen of Spades) which he tracked from a tiny footnote in an article mentioning the score’s existence, liasing with a Princeton scholar and finally finding a copy in the Prokofiev archives at Goldsmiths College. What attracted Brandstrup was the structural freedom it gave him, the music was meant to be played underneath a dialogue so it was done in short, concise numbers.

In his own words:

Everyone says I have done narrative ballets but I have never tried to use narrative in a traditional way

My preparation is not steps, not even a story. I listen and listen until the music has become second nature, it has to be in the bloodstream.

The dancers are the second ‘given’ when you work with an established, full-time company. First there is the music, the theme, the place in the programme, which is stipulated when you are first asked, then comes – and this is the most important – the dancers. If they don’t inspire you, then you can’t do it, no matter how prestigious or exciting the project might be.

In a ballet you have a location and people acting in it in real time – 45 minutes in a castle, 45 minutes in a forest, 45 minutes at a wedding.” Whereas in film one event cuts to another and time is not literal.

When I studied film, everything that I loved about it was not verbal, it was the silent films. And when you look at a director like Hitchcock you’ll find that 60 or 70 per cent is purely visual and it’s through the images that the story is told.

She’s a remarkable artist she has such focus and power on stage which gives her a real dramatic hold over an audience. (on Tamara Rojo)

Extract of Reviews and Selected Praise:

Of his Two Footnotes to Ashton, Linbury Studio

Brandstrup’s bucolic Two Footnotes to Ashton is particularly captivating, a frolicsome and erotic footnote to La Fille mal gardée, with Johan Kobborg as a bare-chested, very surprised yokel on whom Alina Cojocaru insistently pounces like a tiny little cat on heat. Everything about this duet is seductive – the recording of Cecilia Bartoli at her most irresistibly honeyed in Gluck’s “Di questa centra in seno”; the way Cojocaru sexily nudges dopey Kobborg with her head and then unleashes lethal vertical arabesques; and the final sweetness of his succumbing, holding her hovering body over his in a delicious anticipation. A total charmer, truly Ashtonian, and surely likely to reappear for the pair on gala occasions. Ismene Brown at the Telegraph [link]

It was Kim Brandstrup who lived up to the evening’s title. His Footnotes was set to ravishing arias (Gluck, Handel), ravishingly sung by Bartoli and Kozena, ravishingly realised (Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg pouring out feeling as a whirlwind of turns and poses; Zenaida Yanowsky grieving wonderfully), and ravishingly made. Clement Crisp at the Financial Times [link]

Of Pulcinella, Birmingham Royal Ballet

Cleverly, Brandstrup depicts Pulcinella as a puppet who has somehow slipped his strings, a giddy, quivering creature who alternates between blithe enthusiasm and doleful despair, and who can only just hold on to his spiky, streetwise girlfriend Pimpinella (Ambra Vallo). Some of his best writing is for these comically ill-assorted lovers, especially their wrangling duets in which tiny Vallo seems to batten on to [Robert] Parker’s body, her railing fists and flick-knifing limbs wheeling vociferously around him. Judith Mackrell at The Guardian [link]

Of Rushes

Acosta is caught in furious, impassioned dialogue with Morera (both artists grandly expressive) while there are appearances by Cojocaru as a compassionate “other” woman. Brandstrup’s writing is fluent, dark in tone for the Acosta/Morera partnership, the couple repeating with each new “rush” aspects of emotional turmoil that we have seen before. Cojocaru seems at first an observer (like the corps de ballet who inhabit the penumbra at the back of the stage). But Brandstrup has shown himself in past works to be an emotional optimist, and the final “rush” is an ecstatic duet for Cojocaru and Acosta which suggests an assertion of possible happiness. Here is a fascinating (and visually very stylish) ballet that will repay further viewings. I hope to return to it, and the rest of this triple bill, after a later performance. Clement Crisp at The Financial Times [link]

In keeping with the theme of Brandstrup’s ballet, all that existed of the music was a couple of dozen fragments, which Michael Berkeley has worked up into an immediately appealing and very danceable whole. Brandstrup picks his collaborators with an unerring eye and ear, and his ballets have a sense of completeness which is quite rare. Jane Simpson review for Dance Now (Vol. 17 No. 2 Summer 2008)

Where to see Kim Brandstrup’s Work:

  • Goldberg – The Brandstrup-Rojo Project – 21 to 26 September at the Linbury Studio
  • New Watkins/Rushes – Fragments of a Lost Story/Infra – 19/26 Feb 1/2/4 March 2010 – ROH main stage
  • MK Ballerina – 20 May to 5 June – The Royal Danish Theatre
  • MK Danseur Noble – 21 May to 5 June – The Royal Danish Theatre

Videos

Sources and Further Information:

  1. Brandstrup’s Official Website [link]
  2. Biography from Birmingham Royal Ballet website [link]
  3. Biography from GBCM website [link]
  4. New Rojo/Brandstrup work feature by Amanda Holloway. ROH About the House magazine – April 2009
  5. Kim Brandstrup feature by Allen Robertson. ROH About the House magazine – Sept 2007
  6. Performance Notes and Programme for Rushes (2008) including article “Kim Brandstrup” by Judith Mackrell
  7. Kim Brandstrup: Arcing back from the abyss by Nadine Meisner for The Independent [link]
  8. Kim Brandstrup’s Brothers reviewed by Ismene Brown for The Telegraph [link]
  9. Kim Brandstrup’s work listings at Loesje Sanders’ Website [link]
  10. Theorising Brandstrup at Work, a conversation with Susan Melrose and Steffi Sachsenmaier [link]
  11. Claude Debussy – The Fall of the House of Usher · Prélude à la l’après-midi d’un Faune · Jeux (Bregenzer Festspiele 2006) DVD [link]

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Since mixed reviews (including our previous opening night write up) have plagued the Royal Ballet’s celebratory “Ballets Russes Triple Bill”, I approached last Friday’s penultimate performance with a mixture of curiosity and excitement. By now, I thought, with most of the “nerves” gone and all the quirks fixed, it is not unreasonable to expect the dancers to be at their best.  I had also brought with me the ultimate tester for impact, a friend who had never been to a ballet performance. I was interested to see how she would gauge these ballets, given the stylistical differences between them.

The Royal Ballet in Les Sylphides. Photo: Johan Persson ©. Source: The Independent.

 

Les Sylphides started with Chopin’s Prelude in A (op 28) sounding wonderful, even if  a tad too slow in tempo. The curtains opened to show beautiful sylphs in pristine white Romantic tutus, standing in perfect poses. The cast was full of replacements: Johan Kobborg instead of Federico Bonelli as the Poet, Yuhui Choe instead of Alina Cojocaru and Helen Crawford replacing an indisposed Lauren Cuthbertson, as announced just before curtain up, so only one (Laura Morera) out of three sylphs had been originally cast. But all these cast changes did not detract and if Les Sylphides is supposed to evoke mood and display the beauty of dancing, I can happily report it did, thanks to Yuhui Choe and her sheer virtuosity: she was ethereal, vaporous and light. Her bourrées barely skimming the floor and her arms full of delicacy; her balances lasting for all eternity and her jumps with landings so soft that one could think she was floating. Yuhui’s artistry was so distinctive that when Laura Morera came in to dance the waltz, the jumps felt a bit heavy, the arms not delicate enough (although Laura’s innate musicality was evident in the phrasing of the steps. I still think of her as more of an allegro dancer). Helen Crawford was a slightly better fit for the Mazurka, but she still looked more like a maiden dressed as a fairy rather than a real spirit of the woods.

From left to right. Johan Kobborg, Yuhui Choe, Laura Morera and Helen Crawford. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

From left to right. Johan Kobborg, Yuhui Choe, Laura Morera and Helen Crawford. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

The corps de ballet were in great shape and although one would wish for a bigger display of ethereal qualities, which sometimes depend not that much on the dancing but on the dancer, every gesture and movement was precisely timed and positioned into the succession of dances. As the poet, Johan Kobborg gave a decent performance, his cabriolés a delight (pure Bournonville goodness), but I felt this was not a role he relishes and in all honesty it does not play to his strengths.

One thing that bothered me in Les Sylphides more than the slow tempo (for at times the music did speed up) was the strong lighting which prevented us from  experiencing the eeriness of Benois’ design of ruins in a dark forest. I longed for a darker stage with only the light on the white of the tutus (a suggestion of moonlight) allowing for a glimpse of the ruins and the surrounding trees.

Next in the programme was Alastair Marriott‘s Sensorium, a strikingly contrasting work, even though the inspiration behind it somehow resembles that of Les Sylphides. Marriott wanted to give a choreographic response to Debussy’s preludes in the same way that Les Sylphides is Fokine’s response to Chopin’s orchestral suite. As I wasn’t aware of which particular preludes were going to be used in performance, I decided to just try and make the “sensory associations” that Marriott wants from his audience.

Senso

From left to right. Thomas Whitehead, Leanne Benjamin, Rupert Pennefather and Alexandra Ansanelli. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

In a midst of extensions, contortions and twists against a backdrop of salmons, blues and nudes, there were moments in Sensorium in which the choreography suggested images of wind, sea and sand. In particular, there were two pas de deux, the first with Rupert Pennefather and Alexandra Ansanelli (who is retiring at the end of this season) and the second with Thomas Whitehead and Leanne Benjamin. Both were well matched pairs, with Rupert faring quite well in a non-danseur noble role supported by the gorgeousness of Alexandra’s extensions. Leanne and Thomas presented more of a passionate “twisting and turning” pas de deux that was very enjoyable and contained some classical steps amidst the unusual shapes. The last prelude incorporated all the dancers and had the main couples surrounded by blue bodies moving as if they were waves in the sea (in something that resembled yoga’s downward dogs!), the peach background evoking a windy sunset. This was probably my favourite “sensation” from Marriott’s choreography. The downside is that nothing in the ballet is particularly memorable (with the exception of Colin Matthews’ Debussy’s orchestrations) so I see this ballet being probably revived a couple of times before fading away.

The Royal Ballet in The Firebird. Photo: Dee Conway ©. Source: The Guardian

I did not have high expectations for the last piece with Roberta Marquez cast as “The Firebird” as she does not rate very high on my personal board of favourite dancers. However, not only did she prove worthy of her principal dancer status, she was literally on fire: her jumps were athletic (quite a big jumper she is!), her turns were flashing. Her hands expressive and her gestures spot on at all times. Trapped by Ivan Tsarevich, you could see the Firebird’s surprise and despair on her wings, how she tried to free herself. In fact, Marquez and the ever awesome Gary Avis as the Immortal Kostcheï were the highlights of the performance. First Soloist Valeri Hristov danced the part of Ivan, a bland role that doesn’t require much from the male dancer, so it is hard for me to evaluate him. The corps and members of the Royal Ballet School were good as the various creatures in the final scenes and the designs and costumes are something to be admired on their own. However, it occurred to me that this piece would be better placed with other narrative ballets rather than abstract pieces, given that it’s so rich in mime and huge dramatic ensemble scenes.

Fire

From left to right, Valeri Hristov, Roberta Marquez and Gary Avis. Photo: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

All in all, in this Triple Bill the Royal Ballet came up with a good display of dancing which more than honours the memory of Diaghilev: variety of styles, great dancers and music, which makes it great for newcomers: my friend loved Les Sylphides and was mesmerized by the images it created. She also found Sensorium to be interesting and contrasting. However, she felt let down by the Firebird, in the sense that she was not expecting so much theatricality to be served up last, after the abstractions of the previous pieces. For me, that summed up what a good triple bill should be about, a treat for everyone. For me? This triple bill was certainly not perfect, but it had its moments.

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Johan Kobborg. Source: The Royal Ballet ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Just over a year ago I was sitting at the Alina Cojocaru gala at the QEH with my jaw wide open: there were four Basilios (Johan Kobborg, Marian Walter, Daniel Ulbricht and Sergei Polunin) plus 2 Kitris (Alina Cojocaru and Roberta Marquez) taking turns in the Don Quixote variations. Whilst the four men spun simultaneous tours a la seconde (turns with one of the legs open and stretched on the side) I thought: how could this ever be topped as a gala party piece?

Cue “Les Lutins”, a new choreography by Johan Kobborg for the “Royal Ballet at the Linbury Studio” series. it matches virtuoso dancers to virtuosic violin pieces (including “La Ronde des Lutins”) and the result is a burst of dance that I haven’t seen since Ethan Stiefel danced off Sascha Radetsky in Center Stage. It starts with Steven McRae putting his tap dancing skills to good use and as the violin plays faster his Vaudevillian dance turns into a crescendo of dizzying pirouettes, leaps, grand battements, think every bravura step and then some. Brief pause. Now Polunin arrives also dressed in Vaudeville style suspenders and tie (minus cane) to raise the stakes, he shows Steven some of his own tricks, double tours en l’air (or were those triples?) but he is matched and more is thrown into the mix, both trying to impress cute girl Cojocaru who obviously chooses… the violinist! Delicious!

This piece is reason enough to book a ticket for the Linbury (you should hurry, there are only 2 more performances) but the whole evening is great fun. There are quirky pieces such as the one created by Kristen McNally (“Yes we did…”) about Obama fever pitch where the dancers move firmly and anxiously, as if fueled by coffee, “trying to change the course of history”. I loved Thomas Whitehead’s techie geek, typing away at an invisible computer (I can’t recall ever having seen “computer mime” in ballet before) and I think I might even have preferred this piece to brand new “Sensorium” over the main stage. It was daringly different, it was fun and as the programme notes “If you don’t try you’ll never know”.

Many of the other works seem influenced by resident choreographer Wayne McGregor and all the better for it because this hints at a validation of his own style within the company (I can’t be neutral on this topic, I love McGregor’s work). The evening closes with the most eloquent choreography, “Consolations and Liebestraum” by Liam Scarlett, set to Franz Liszt’s namesake piano pieces it shows strained relationships between men and women, some of which are fixable and some of which are doomed. The work is very stylish, the cast is fabulous (Laura Morera, Ricardo Cervera…), especially Tamara Rojo and Bennet Gartside who dance a passionate and moving Pas de Deux. We can’t wait to see Liam Scarlett’s piece for the main stage next season. Ah, and “Les Lutins” at the next Alina/Johan gala of course!

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One of the attractions of a triple bill vs. a full-length ballet is the opportunity to discover a mix of different choreographers and dance styles, so that by the end of the evening you should find at least one ballet that is right for you. There is also the chance to discover up-and-coming dancers alongside starrier performers, since the young ones often start tackling bigger roles in shorter pieces before moving up the ladder to the meatier classics.

Take for instance Royal Ballet artist Melissa Hamilton who was absolutely eye popping in last year’s Infra, a thrilling one act ballet by Wayne McGregor. Despite being a recent arrival in the Company, Melissa made a huge impact in a demanding work that displayed some of the Royal Ballet’s most amazing and experienced dancers (Edward Watson and Marianela Nuñez to name but a few). She is now due to appear in her first full length leading role next season (dancing with Rupert Pennefather in Mayerling). Having seen her in Infra and in Christopher Wheeldon‘s DGV – another short work – means we will be buying a ticket with confidence.

The Kostchei and the Firebird. Copyright by its respective owner. (Source: Royal Opera House)

The Kostcheï and the Firebird. Copyright by its respective owner. (Source: Royal Opera House)

But back on the subject of triple bills, earlier this week I caught the latest Royal Ballet mixed programme which commemorates the 100 year anniversary of the Ballets Russes’ first season in Paris. On the bill are two indisputable classics: Les Sylphides and The Firebird (both by Mikhail Fokine), along with Sensorium, a new work by Alastair Marriott.

I was very much looking forward to Les Sylphides. I had never seen it before and Romantic ballets are just the thing for me. I simply adore the slow moving “tableaux” feel of Balanchine’s Emeralds, another “ballet of mood”. But despite a great cast (which included Yuhui Choe, Lauren Cuthbertson, Laura Morera and Johan Kobborg) and the poetic Chopin score, I could not feel the “mood”. Maybe the moonlit setting failed to shine or maybe the dancers need time to adjust to a work that has not been performed for quite some time. I also wondered whether slow was giving way to plain static in places, although the pace of conducting seemed to pick up in the Mazurka and the Pas de Deux. Perhaps I was also too distracted by the ballerinas’ headdresses which looked rather like helmets, but for me the magic that the Royal Ballet usually brings to the Romantic classics did not fully materialise here.

If Les Sylphides lacked mood, Sensorium had too much of it I thought. The choreography and indeed the dancers (Rupert Pennefather, Alexandra Ansanelli, Leanne Benjamin, Thomas Whitehead) are impeccable but the work was too neat and reverential. I longed for something faster, more innovative and colourful. This  thankfully is something that The Firebird provided. Despite being a 100 year old ballet it is one of the liveliest, most colourful pieces in the Royal Ballet’s repertory. Mara Galeazzi, not just a Firebird, but a “Fiery” bird, showed off her beautiful fluid arms, frantically expressing through them her fear and frustration whilst imprisoned by Thiago Soares’s Ivan. The scene at the Immortal Kostcheï’s domains where dozens of enchanted creatures come out to scare Ivan manages to be at same time as scary as a child’s nightmare and greatly amusing, thanks to the superb Gary Avis and his impeccable comic timing. The final tableau which depicts with more colour than dance the Tzarevich’s coronation speaks volumes of the Russian roots of this wonderful classic. Stravinsky’s music is thrilling. So 1 out of 3 for the evening overall, but sometimes that is all one needs.

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Given the full run of Giselles, it is always very enlightening and enjoyable to experience different casts and portrayals. This is not only a challenge for the dancers, as they could be prone to imitate “famous” versions, but is an opportunity to experiment and dare to find subtle ways of connecting with the audience and communicating the story.

Giselle is the ultimate romantic ballet and a classic. The first act is full of pretty colours and sunny characters (almost Disney-like); plenty of mime and charming details. However, there is the dramatic twist at the end which leads to the famous “mad scene” which serves as catalyst for the forthcoming events. Gloom and darkness are the ingredients on the second act, in which a completely different world materialises. All the colour is gone, replaced by a ghostly white sheen. Human emotions are set against a supernatural background: Giselle’s love and Albrecht’s repentance against the terrible but beautiful Wilis gliding on unison.

Leanne Benjamin, made use of her experience to show us a mature Giselle, which has overgrown any naiveté, so that when Albrecht’s deceit is revealed, Giselle develops madness fuelled by rage, rather than pure heartbreak. Johan Kobborg’s Albrecht is clearly charmed by Giselle and is, without knowing, falling for her. This is more evident when Giselle dies, as he realises what he has lost.

In the second act, Leanne brings us a Giselle which is a shadow of her former self, very dark and eery. This was the first time I’ve seen such a portrayal, as it is clearly different to the sad and forgiving Giselle one expects. I found her acting to be without fault, but some of the balances were not held long enough (in particular, the famous penché) and her phrasing with the music was a bit off. However, her bourées were lovely and the overall feeling of weightlessness was definitely there.

Johan’s dancing on the second act was spot on (some lovely cabriolés and amazing footwork). The chemistry with Leanne is something of an on/off thing, as their complicity varies depending on the piece (their Manon, earlier this season was amazing). Giselle is certainly not one for them, and somehow the portrayals of their characters do not add up (somehow I can see Leanne doing Giselle with Ed Watson).

The pas-de-six had standout performances from Yuhui Choe and Steven McRae (they should be paired every time!). Another highlight for me was Samantha Raine as one of Myrtha’s attendants and Thomas Whitehead as Hilarion. I find her dancing to be quite ethereal, with beautiful arms, while Whitehead commands the stage as soon as he steps into the spotlight. Myrtha was danced by Laura Morera, in a role that does not play to her strengths (I prefer her allegro work).

All in all, Peter Wright’s production for the Royal Ballet is as beautiful as ever. Definitely worth a trip to Covent Garden.

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