Still Loyal to the Royal

Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae, photo by Andrea Mohin

It used to be that the Royal Ballet's tours to the U.S. were guaranteed sell-outs and their stars had rabid followings across the pond. Margot! Rudi! Sibley and Dowell! Lynn Seymour! Their versions of the "classics" were considered superior to any American company's. This was true even 10 years ago -- I remember the last time the Royal Ballet toured NYC it played at the Metropolitan to packed houses. They presented a wonderful tribute to Ashton ballets, and several ballerinas on their roster were internationally acclaimed dancers (Alina Cojocaru, Darcey Bussell, Sylvie Guillem, Tamara Rojo). I remember seeing, among others, Syvlie Guillem in Marguerite and Armand, and absolutely beautiful The Two Pigeons by the Birmingham National Ballet, and Symphonic Variations.

Ten years later and they make their return trop to New York and it's astonishing how much the company has changed. Cojocaru, Guillem, and Rojo all left but dance elsewhere. Darcey Bussell retired. Their newest imported star is Natalia Osipova. And the company itself seems to be going through a transition period in terms of both personnel and repertoire choices. The mixed bill they are presenting this weekend has works by Wayne McGregor, Liam Scarlett, and an eclectic collection of divertissements. Shows were heavily discounted at the usual suspects -- TDF, Goldstar. But still, there seems to be a loyal contingent of balletomanes who were enthusiastic about this return trip.

I caught two performances of their first program -- a double bill of Sir Frederick Ashton's The Dream and Kenneth MacMillan's Song of the Earth. The Dream is actually well known to NY balletomanes -- ABT does an excellent version of it. Still, it's good to see the Royal's take on this beloved ballet. First cast (6/24) was what you'd might expect from the Royal Ballet -- a very pleasing, professional performance that nevertheless was slightly constipated. Sarah Lamb (Titania) is a beautiful dancer with amazing balances -- in the grand pas de deux with Oberon she was able to hold so many balances in those tricky "mirroring" positions. Her back was supple enough for the final pose (laid over Oberon's lap, in total submission) to be a thing of beauty. But Titania is not just a lovely fairy. Shakespeare writes her as a HBIC type and Lamb didn't exude much imperiousness, or much of anything, actually. Steven McRae is a very elegant Oberon with a very flexible arabesque. In fact, I was a little surprised to see him pushing his leg almost to 180 degrees in arabesque. McRae's chaine turns in his scherzo were very fast and impressive, and as I said, so was his arabesque penchée, but his characterization was only slightly more outgoing than Lamb's. Neither of them really project much beyond a kind of generalized elegance.

James Hay (Puck) was quite different from Herman Cornejo, who has virtually owned this role at the ABT. Hay is like Cornejo tiny and elfin. But whereas Cornejo explodes into the air with gravity-defying body rotations, Hay is more like a butterfly, graceful and fleet. Both are excellent at the cabrioles and flying leaps. Cornejo is more dynamic, Hay probably more idiomatic. Bottom (Bennet Gardside) was an audience favorite. His variation on pointe in the donkey suit drew laughs.

Osipova and Golding, photo by Bill Cooper

The second cast I saw (6//26) was rougher, more uneven, but also more interesting. Natalia Osipova (almost unrecognizable in a blond wig) is not a natural for Titania -- she's no longer the wunderkind who burst onto the scene as SuperKitri, but her dancing still has a sharpness to it that doesn't quite fit Ashton's choreography. Personality-wise though, she's more interesting than Lamb -- there is a spunk and imperiousness to Osipova's Titania. And her style of dancing suggests a forest wildling creature -- she sometimes launches into a fast pirouette almost as an afterthought. Matthew Golding is a large, broad-shouldered, somewhat stern looking dancer. His natural face tends towards a scowl. He's not as elfin as McRae, not as polished, but his dancing is more dynamic -- faster spins, bigger movements. When he completed those multiple pirouettes he drew attention to the feat. It's a tradeoff.

But they are better alone than together -- Golding and Osipova's partnering had some awkward moments in their reconciliation pas de deux -- she's a bit too petite to match him in those mirroring poses, and they were still dancing as if it were a competition of wills. It did make for a more interesting dynamic than Lamb and McRae however. You sensed that Oberon and Titania's next quarrel is not far off. Valentino Zucchetti (Puck) was not to my taste -- he was a letdown after seeing Hay in the same role (not to mention Cornejo). He doesn't have much elevation and mugged way too much, but Jonathan Howells (Bottom) was even more skilled in pointework than Bennet Gardside.

I can't help but compare this version to Balanchine's A Midsummer's Night Dream. Ashton's version is more compact, more focused on the relationship between Titania and Oberon. There is a beautiful pas de deux for Titania and Oberon and some wonderful choreography for Puck (perhaps superior to Balanchine's version where Puck is sort of a story driver but doesn't have that many solo bits). Balanchine's version covers more of Shakespeare's story, and the Athenian lovers are given zany antics that often become the highlight of the show. Ashton's "Athnenian" lovers are somewhat starchy, correct Edwardian ladies and gentlemen.  The four Athenian lovers don't play much of a role in this ballet. In Balanchine's ballet, the lovers' dramatics onstage and offstage are a running theme. They flail, they weep, they fight, they pull each others' hair. Balanchine also makes his fairies Titania and Oberon much more selfish and self-absorbed. Titania's extended pas de deux with Bottom in Balanchine is one of the ballet's peaks -- in Ashton the Bottom/Titania affair is much shorter. In Ashton's version, all's well that ends well. In Balanchine's version, the final tableau is again the darkened forest with butterflies and bugs flying around. Ashton: prettier. Balanchine: funnier.

Song of the Earth was one of Kenneth MacMillan's first successes and it doesn't have the overwrought, indulgent choreography of his later works like Romeo and Juliet, Mayerling or Manon. There's no dancing prostitutes. Instead it's a bare stage, with a male and female singer (Katherine Goeldner, Thomas Randle) on the edges of the stage singing Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. The NYCB orchestra did a wonderful job with Mahler's challenging orchestration -- one shudders to think how the ABT's pickup orchestra would have murdered this music. A full text of the six songs can be found here. MacMillan's work actually requires absolutely synchronicity in the six males and eight females that weave in and out of the stage. There is a lot of "mirror" dancing, with slow controlled movements that look a bit like Enrico Cecchetti's exercises.

The 6/24 performance had the males in the First Song at times completely out of sync with one another. Their legs were at different heights, they put their free leg down at different points, they pirouetted at different places. But no one was worse in this regard than Carlo Acosta (Messenger of Death). He simply doesn't dance in the same style as the rest of the males, and it showed. He also is not sinister -- he still exudes, at age 40, an eager, warm bravura performer. His ménage of coupé jetés garnered applause for all the wrong reasons. Much the same could be said about the female lead (Marianela Nuñez). She's an excellent dancer with a wonderfully clean style. But she didn't project much at all -- in fact, she looked as if she could be performing classroom exercises. I appreciated the technique, but this isn't the right role for her. Nehemiah Kish made up the third member of the trio. To be honest I didn't get much from this performance. I thought the ballet was overlong and a bit repetitive with the endless scenes of death and rebirth.

Photo by Dave Morgan: Hirano, Cuthbertson, and Watson

Well the 6/26 performance made the ballet make sense. The trio of Edward Watson (Messenger of Death), Lauren Cuthbertson and Ryochi Hirano was much more expressive -- they really made the choreography sing. Watson in particular was a sinuous and creepy creation -- he made the Messenger of Death a sinister force every time he was onstage. When he put his hands over another dancer's face (a recurring theme in this ballet) you really felt the Death Force. He was also wonderful at mirroring other dancers' poses and body languages, almost like a ghost. Cuthbertson cuts a more singular, lonely figure than the sunny Nuñez -- especially in the last song her lightning fast pas de bourrees felt like desperate attempts to escape. Hirano's figure isn't defined at all in the ballet, but when the three of them danced together, and joined hands and walked downstage towards the light at the ballet's conclusion, the song's "circle of life" theme somehow made sense. In addition to this wonderful trio Yuhui Chloe was lovely both nights as the "sunny" girl.

This is a very dense song cycle, to difficult (read: not obviously balletic) music, but it grows on you, and the ballet does as well. The music's vaguely Eastern sound is reflected in the Oriental-inflected positions MacMillan choreographs -- I like his use of flexed feet, rippling arms, and tilted heads. The ballet has lighter moments. The Fourth Song has some lovely couples choreography that is NOT like the "sack of potatoes" lifts that MacMillan would later become so fond of -- instead the women are gently rocked back and forth to a lilting melody. The Fifth Song is an ode to drunken rollicking. It's interesting to see how different MacMillan's later warhorses are compared to Song of the Earth, and one wonders what might have happened had MacMillan not choreographed Romeo and Juliet.

At the end of both evenings applause was enthusiastic and there wasn't the mass exodus to the exit signs. Yes, it seems that after all these years, New York is still Loyal to the Royal.


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