The Royal Ballet - 2003

Dancers wearing thrift-store chic gyrated to pop hits in French choreographer Jerome Bel's The show must go on, at the Hong Kong Arts Festival.
Laurent Philippe

The Royal Ballet

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

London, United Kingdom

May 21–29, 2003

Reviewed by Allan Ulrich

The Royal Ballet advertised David Bintley’s Les Saisons as the company’s contemporary creation of the 2002–03 season, but "contemporary" stretched the point a bit; the most forward-looking of England’s leading classicists has spurned the steamy narratives he has favored in the past for an elegantly appointed forty-five-minute romp through Petipa territory. The music, one of Alexander Glazunov’s finest ballet scores, served for one of Petipa’s final Maryinsky commissions, a tribute to reigning assoluta Mathilda Kschessinskaya; it summoned from Bintley a four-part abstraction that generally hewed to the composer’s original libretto and sought formal rigor by bringing on its pack of soloists for farewell turns at the end.

In its details, Les Saisons (The Seasons) commands respect for its fluency of gesture. That much was clear during the opening "Winter" section, when Jamie Tapper led her four frosty minions—Deirdre Chapman, Lauren Cuthbertson, Mara Galeazzi, and Marianela Nu˜ñez—through a series of variations, marked by arched backs and corkscrewing trajectories. "Spring" brought a gorgeous pas de deux for the devastatingly appealing Alina Cojocaru and the elegantly proportioned Johan Kobborg; Bintley reverses the traditional roles. Cojocaru is the pursuer; Kobborg is the delightfully reticent object of desire.

The showier "Summer" duet united the reliable Jonathan Cope with the relentlessly ingratiating Isabel McMeekan for a more conventional allegro pairing, and "Autumn" summoned Martin Harvey and a sextet of randy satyr figures out of Jerome Robbins’s Four Seasons. Even when the choreography falls into routine, Bintley sustains a mood of fête galante. One merely hoped for something more adventurous for this return to The Royal. The major assets of the production included Peter J. Davison’s delicately brocaded backdrops and Mark Henderson’s ultra-modern lighting scheme—striking bars of illumination that denote the changes in the calendar.

Beyond Les Saisons, The Royal’s program mined the company’s legacy for two masterworks from an earlier era—Frederick Ashton’s Scènes de ballet and Kenneth Macmillan’s Song of the Earth, both in startlingly good performances. Ashton’s geometric 1948 abstraction seems a great gesture of consolidation, melding Balanchine neoclassicism with a typically English reticence. André Beaurepaire’s de Chirico-esque backdrops and his harlequinade costumes have acquired the patina of history, but the movement remains timeless. In Cojocaru and Kobborg, The Royal has found interpreters to cherish; only a male corps, occasionally missing the requisite stamina, besmirched this revival. Barry Wordsworth conducted the Stravinsky score with uncommon élan.

Most ballets set to Gustav Mahler music owe a debt to the 1965 Song of the Earth, an hour-long saga of death and renewal, set to the famous song-cycle, indifferently rendered by mezzo-soprano Jean Rigby and tenor John Daszak. Carlos Acosta’s charismatic Messenger of Death, fearsome yet empathetic, compared with the finest exponents of the past. Tamara Rojo’s overt sensuality and Cope’s infinitely compassionate partnering skills generated a high level of tension. That the revival was staged by The Royal’s recently appointed director, Monica Mason (an unforgettable exponent of Song of the Earth in an earlier era) surely helped this new generation of MacMillan interpreters. Call it the good fairy’s kiss.

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