Royal Ballet: Triple Bill

October 31, 2000

Carlos Acosta, seated, and Nigel Buffey in The Royal Ballet’s Shadowplay.
Photo by Bill Cooper

Royal Ballet: Triple Bill
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

London, England, U.K.
October 31, 2000

Reviewed by Margaret Willis

This is Sir Anthony Dowell?s final season as artistic director of The Royal Ballet, and the repertoire this year includes works that hold personal memories for him and choreography from those who have helped to stamp the Royal with its uniqueness.

The season opened with Dowell?s version of Swan Lake, which he created in 1986, shortly after he had taken the reins from Norman Morrice. The second program offered works by three British choreographers: Sir Frederick Ashton, Michael Corder and Anthony Tudor. However, this triple bill also served to show just how multi-national the British company has become, especially in its upper echelons. The sublime French ballerina Sylvie Guillem closed the evening with her dramatic interpretation of Marguerite and Armand (see review June 2000, Dance Magazine, page 56). Canadian Jaimie Tapper, Swede Johan Persson and Romanian Alina Cojocaru danced enthusiastically in Corder?s new work, Dance Variations (with Dane Johan Kobborg and Australian Leanne Benjamin as second cast), while Cuban Carlos Acosta and Spaniard Tamara Rojo intrigued and enticed in Tudor?s Shadowplay.

Antony Tudor?s works have been neglected in his homeland for too long, but Dowell is finally remedying this by including two in the 2000/01 repertoire?first Shadowplay and, later in the season, The Lilac Garden. Shadowplay, Tudor?s allegorical one-act ballet set in a jungle, was created in 1967 to the evocative ethnic music of Charles Koechlin. For Dowell, who created the lead role of Boy with Matted Hair, the work proved an important landmark in his career. Already acclaimed for his burgeoning technical talent, the role unlocked newly found interpretative skills. Now it was Acosta?s turn to show that he could command in stillness and slow stretching poses as much as in his meteoric bravura. Dressed in dazzling white, with shiny sun-tanned skin, curly mop of brown curls and strong muscular physique, he epitomized the idea of Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling?s The Jungle Book, here with Balinese rather than Indian origins. Sitting bolt upright in masterly manner beneath the knotted trunk of a leafy tree, one hand on an opened bent knee, the Boy contemplates life. (Tudor had converted to Buddhism and this work apparently holds many complex messages.) His meditation is interrupted first by a gang of agile, rope-swinging monkeys (the Arboreals), who tease him and try to outwit him, then by six Aerials?female figures with waving arms and high extensions. The dominating presence of Terrestrial (Nigel Burley) suddenly rises from behind him and attempts to physically overpower him as he takes refuge back at the tree. However, it is the pointy-hatted Celestial goddess depicting passion (Tamara Rojo) who reaches into his very being with her beguiling, penetrating and constant gaze. Carried in like a sailing ship?s masthead, Rojo?s two escorts lower her to kneeling position onto the back of the unsuspecting Boy. Weaving her magnetic spell, she entwines herself around him before being passed time and again in complicated lifts from Boy to escorts. Finally, aided by all the jungle beings, she towers over him, laughing at his confusion. He returns once more to the security of his sitting position beneath the tree, flanked by the Arboreals, who now also take up his stance. Though seemingly at peace again, he is seen to give himself a quick monkey-style scratch just before the curtain falls.

While the role of Boy was low-key in physical action for Acosta, his compelling presence and disciplineD technique made the character believable. Burley, though a good dancer, could have done with some of this presence and authority in his depiction of Terrestrial. But Rojo was majestic, relishing her role of domination and showing superb control in her contorted body. (Mention should be made of a British hopeful who performed the Boy two weeks later. Edward Watson, a product of The Royal Ballet School and now a soloist with the company, who physically resembles the young Dowell, made a promising debut in the role, offering smooth lines, nimble footwork and easy, high extensions. Watson is a man worth watching.)

The new work by Michael Corder seemed very light and fluffy after all the inner obscure meanings of Shadowplay. With Scottish overtones?the backdrop was imprinted with riotous swathes of Highland purples, greens and browns, while the music by Richard Rodney Bennett included adaptations of three folk songs?it seemed surprising that there was not a kilt in sight. Instead, the dancers were clad in rather unbecoming costumes of garishly mixed colors: purple trimmed with orange, turquoise with orange, orange with purple, with the men in color-splattered catsuits and the women in short dresses. Dance Variations is a joyful, fast-flowing collection of steps and poses that constantly remind of specific moments in classical works. Like Scottish mist, there is much swirling in and out of the four corps couples, of the soloist partnering of Tapper and Persson and Belinda Hatley and Joshua Tuifua (half English, half Tongan) and of the principals, Darcey Bussell and Jonathon Cope. The work is a perfect venue for Bussell?s six o?clock leg extension, plunging arabesques and wide smile, though it shows no new facets of her talent. Cope, once again, admirably proved himself an excellent and elegant partner.