Ashton’s Scènes de ballet, A Month in the Country, Rhapsody
The enormity of Sir Frederick Ashton’s legacy and contribution to the art of dance couldn’t have been more in evidence than during The Royal Ballet’s latest (and last of the season) triple bill. Dedicated to and celebrating The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, each ballet on this programme, whilst very different, highlights Ashton’s genius – his musicality and attention to detail, his creativity and his own, very distinctive, classical vocabulary. A significant thought crossed my mind – unlike some productions in companies around the world, one doesn’t leave the theatre asking the question: do I ever want to see this again? With Ashton it’s more – how many different casts can I see? Why don’t they do this more often? There’s real choreography, shape and form, characterisation, room for interpretation and it’s aesthetically pleasing. It has substance. And it presents huge challenges for all involved.
Opening with Scènes de ballet, originally created in 1948 for Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes, it’s clear from the moment the orchestra begins to play Stravinsky’s score of the same name, that this will require extreme precision. The choreography within the framework of a large cast, alongside the exposing nature of classical ballet in tutus and nowhere to hide, was bound to make everyone a little twitchy, particularly with a full house and film cameras out front. When one assesses the difficulty of the steps, the sometimes awkward and rapid changes in direction, it can be deemed a success, simply to get through it. This cast did much more than that. Led serenely by Vadim Muntagirov and Sarah Lamb, the four solo men held their own too (Luca Acri, David Donnelly, Calvin Richardson and Joseph Sissens). Supported by 12 competent corps de ballet women, there was tension in the air when the curtain went up but as the ballet progressed, that dissipated. Muntagirov opened with stupendous batterie and went from strength to strength, elegance personified. His ballerina, Lamb, was fragile yet imperious with beautiful, pure lines and footwork.
Created in 1976, A Month in the Country has always been at the top of my list of favourite ballets.
Based on Ivan Turgenev’s play, Ashton has economically pared down the characters and plot of what was five acts worth of drama, to just forty-five minutes of dance. And what masterful choreography it is. Set in a 19th century manor house, it tells the story of Natalia Petrovna (Marianela Nuñez), bored and trapped in a loveless marriage, who falls in love with her children’s tutor, Beliaev (Matthew Ball). As the melodrama unfolds it quickly becomes clear that Natalia’s ward, Vera (Anna Rose O’Sullivan) has also fallen for Beliaev and that even the maid, Katia (Leticia Diaz) cannot resist his charms. If it prompts one to question who on earth could mesmerise a whole household of women, Ball’s first entrance settles any ambiguity on that score. Every pas de deux and solo displays Ashton’s ability to make the steps tell the story, whether it’s a quivering foot signifying a fluttering heart or a lift that suggests a deeper intimacy. Casting is everything and Ball was beguiling as the tutor, sincere in his acting and beautifully lyrical in his dancing. Nuñez was superb as Natalia – with such subtle phrasing, exquisite footwork and wonderful use of her back and épaulement, we could read her every thought. O’Sullivan was a complete joy as Vera, musical as always, with light ballon and fleet footwork – she’s still the queen of runs en pointe, never missing a beat. A mention too, for Kate Shipway, who played the fiendishly difficult Chopin variations superlatively.
The performance finished with a dazzling rendition of Rhapsody – a ballet I never tire of seeing. Set to Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, it’s one enthralling phrase after another. Whether it’s high velocity turns and jumps or languorous lines and lifts in the pas de deux, it inspires awe. Created in 1980, for Mikhail Baryshnikov and Lesley Collier, it’s piece that requires virtuoso dancing and enormous stamina, all the while maintaining Ashton’s signature, graceful upper body and arms. Marcelino Sambé and Francesca Hayward were an obvious choice. Sambé, with a hint of hesitancy at the start, built steadily to an explosive climax, his natural ebullience always bubbling over, his airborne technical feats drawing audible gasps from the audience. Hayward was nothing short of magical, with quicksilver footwork, light jumps and ravishing port de bras. And in the pit, pianist Robert Clark gave a performance worthy of a solo platform.
Having watched many different casts in all three ballets, over more than four decades, including some of the original and greatest exponents of the roles, I think it’s a safe bet that Ashton would have been delighted that his ballets are still giving so much pleasure and being danced to such exacting standards.
By Deborah Weiss