Monica Mason's last pickings from the Royal Ballet repertoire before leaving her post as the company's director included two works by the Royal Ballet's founder choreographer, Frederick Ashton – Birthday Offering and A Month in the Country – and Bronislava Nijinska's “extraordinary” Noces. It was Ashton who invited Nijinska to restage her masterpiece for the company in 1966 and, as the New York Times notes,
When you keep watching, you see that all three ballets ask the same pliancy of the torso, tipping every which way while the lower body keeps busy.
The critics awarded the Dame's choices and the Royal Ballet's dancing with a splatter of 4 and 5-star reviews.
Birthday Offering was created in 1956 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the company's foundation and to show off the company's ballerinas to the young Queen Elizabeth. It was, maybe, the less satisfying part of the evening. Sarah Crompton for The Telegraph had prepped up for the ballet on YouTube:
What I had watched on stage had been pretty good but what I saw on film had a different kind of delicacy, which many of today's dancers, however skilled they are, seem to lack.
And the Financial Times‘ Clement Crisp (who is no stranger at all to these ballets!) remarked that this was
Ashton at his most beguiling in making eight Fabergé variations for ballerinas, and it looked as if it had been left out in the rain overnight.
As The Observer‘s Luke Jennings points out,
…the sense overall is of a choreographic language at best half understood… every Ashtonian grace note has been ironed out.
Debra Craine in The Times was perplexed by the casting and preparation:
Opening night performances were mixed. Yuhui Choe was appealing and doll-like in her variation, Sarah Lamb was sumptuous in hers, while Roberta Marquez came closest to embodying the capricious femininity of Ashton's writing. Pas de deux honours went to Tamara Rojo and Federico Bonelli, fine dancers both, though neither was on best form, especially Rojo who seemed to be withholding her ballerina charm.
The 7 female stars in the '50s included Margot Fonteyn, and on the opening night Tamara Rojo was dancing her part. Crompton approved:
At least Tamara Rojo understands how to place her head, and let movement flow smoothly through her upper body, so that each phrase becomes a lyrical continuation of the one before. She was luminously lovely…
The Independent on Sunday too had no qualms about Rojo's suitability:
What makes this revival memorable is Tamara Rojo… It's one thing to look radiant when being wafted about as if by a light breeze (thanks, Federico Bonelli). It's quite another to retain that composure while bourréeing backwards and bent double as if reaching to cut one's toenails. But if this was a challenge for La Rojo you wouldn't know it.
The New York Times' Alastair Macaulay saw a different cast:
The outstanding performance came from Marianela Nuñez in the prima role created for Margot Fonteyn. Dancing in long phrases that contain an infinite range of dynamic subtleties, she has warmth, attack and luxuriance.
As did Jennings:
Only Marianela Nuñez… really masters the switchback subtlety of the steps, enunciating the contrast between the swooping extravagance of her arms and shoulders and the flickering precision of her footwork. Like every dancer that Ashton loved – and he would have loved Nuñez – she dances with her eyes. It's a triumphant performance but it doesn't save the piece.
Ah well, so on to A Month in the Country, which was much more satisfying.
A Month in the Country
A Month in the Country is great Ashton. Created 20 years after Birthday Offering, it was the choreographer's final masterpiece.
A masterpiece which Ismene Brown for The Artsdesk calls
Fascinating, in psychology, in storytelling, in dance.
And indeed it is, though Brown was underwhelmed by the protagonists:
The tall, gentle Zenaida Yanowsky and the tall, reticent Rupert Pennefather took the leading roles, and neither of them seized the ambivalent passions and risk of this drama by the throat.
Horses for courses; Craine loved them.
Yanowsky brings every aspect of her character's vanity and passion to vivid life. In her dancing she combines a liquid elegance with the detail of intelligent thinking… a breathtaking performance that confirms her status as the finest dance actress in Britain.
Wow. And then,
Pennefather is the dreamiest of dancers and thus perfectly cast as the young tutor… With every elongated phrase, with every enraptured gaze, Pennefather's performance burns with romantic expectation. As a partner he has the gift of touch like no other — Yanowsky practically floated in his tender arms.
They certainly divided the critics. The IoS said,
Zenaida Yanowsky is too reactive, too flappy.
Scenery was rarely chewed to less purpose.
And Crompton said,
Zenaida Yanowsky seemed too large in emotion for the subtleties of the part, more desperate housewife than frustrated wife, and Rupert Pennefather too bland as the tutor.
But Macaulay liked Yanowsky's “marvelous womanly maturity” and Pennefather's “naturally elegant expansiveness”.
He also saw another cast.
Alina Cojocaru, so well known for appearing as a fragile and innocent teenager, found unexpected qualities of weight and stillness. She also used her feet, on the ground and in the air, with a sensitivity that this ballet has not seen in 20 years. [Federico] Bonelli, at once so ardent and innocent in style, brought a marvelous range of detailed inflections to Belyaev, bewildered by his own new emotions.
With Noces, however, everyone was won over unequivocally.
Crisp has no doubts about the worthiness of the piece.
Les Noces is one of the great dance-works of the 20th century.
And Jennings was in no doubt about the suitability of this company to dance it:
The Royal Ballet… does many things brilliantly, and one of these is Les Noces, a stylised representation of a Russian peasant wedding, choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1923.
As Crompton points out, the work has lost none of its punch:
It still looks radical, shocking somehow in its depiction of a bride with long braided hair sent off for marriage, in ritualistic scenes of resignation, sacrifice and group fervour.
An opinion echoed by Jennings,
It's grimly fatalistic, to say the least, but it's also one of the most powerful and uplifting works in the ballet canon.
Brown picked out two interpreters,
The work's boldness can't be dimmed, and despite its tight constraints there's a place for individuals such as Ryoichi Hirano, the dignified groom, and Genesia Rosato, as the mother in her brief, plangent solo of anxiety for her daughter, to give you the human picture in a few seconds.
Crisp gives a thumbs-up to the whole team,
To dancers – not least the final scene's soloists, Ricardo Cervera and Deirdre Chapman – to répétiteurs, to musicians and singers, to Christopher Newton, who staged it, to Barry Wordsworth, to everyone involved in this tremendous revival, laurels.
Cast, orchestra and singers performed with a thrillingly compressed energy. Stunning.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.
Ah, what does it say that the most positive reviews came not for an Ashton piece but for Nijinska’s? The man who created the Royal Ballet’s style apparently has a style that few contemporary Royal Ballet dancers can master–if I am to believe the critics. As someone whose first love was the Royal, and who is a particular fan of Ashton’s delicate and brilliant works, this makes me sad, and I hope it is an aberration.