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Lincoln Center Festival 2004: Ashton Celebration / Metropolitan Opera House, NYC / July 6-17, 2004

The centerpiece of the Royal Ballet’s mixed repertory program for the Ashton Celebration was a quartet of pas de deux presented back to back on a bare stage. The content varied just a little from one evening to the next and the casting varied a lot, so that a goodly number of the company’s principals had an opportunity to win New York’s hearts and minds.

Programming clusters of brief dances—pièces d’occasion that have survived their original occasion and excerpts plucked from more ample contexts—is a time-honored way of attracting the general public to the ballet and pleasing fans who are more fascinated by star performers than they are by choreography. I succumbed myself, decades ago, to the Bolshoi Ballet’s “Highlights” programs (did they really play the old Madison Square Garden or am I making this up?). What I know for sure is that it was in that downscale context that, as an adolescent ripe for indelible impressions, I saw Galina Ulanova dance the Fokine chestnut known as The Dying Swan and became a devotee for life of what her simple soul-driven performance represented. The theory behind such tapas programming is that the responsibility of appealing to a spectator is better distributed among a variety of dances in a given time slot than riskily confined to a single one. Today, American Ballet Theatre peddles its mixed-repertory programs with a similar tactic.

Once I had seen a lot of ballet, I came to prefer, vastly, more substantial dances and material preserved within its original context. Still, the Royal’s “Divertissements,” as the company called the one-duet-after-another segment it sandwiched between Scènes de Ballet and Marguerite and Armand offered welcome delights as well as revelations about the dancers it showcased and the company’s overall choices about the manner in which it dances.

The pas de deux that Ashton added to the Awakening scene in the Royal’s production of The Sleeping Beauty is, as people complained at the time (1968), stylistically at odds with the Petipa’s choreography for that ballet. However, its delicate poetry in depicting Aurora’s emotions is entirely compatible with what, reading Perrault’s La Belle au bois dormant, we imagine to be the trajectory of Aurora’s feelings in the several tumultuous minutes that follow the prince’s restorative kiss. The tale implies that the princess has dreamed of the prince during her century of sleep. Ashton’s duet seems to trace her recognition of and gradual commitment to the man of her dreams once he has appeared in the flesh. Her love, at first tentative in its tenderness, steadily expands in confidence until, with a swelling heart, she seems to cede her kingdom and soul to a prince who, being (as Perrault assures us) a gentleman of matching sensibility, will respond in kind.

For his score, Ashton chose an extended violin solo that Tchaikovsky composed as entr’acte music for the ballet but which was dropped from the original production. Balanchine later borrowed it for the passage in his Nutcracker that serves as a prelude to the young Mary’s awakening to the terrifying and ecstatic universe created by Drosselmeier’s magic. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that both heroines—the just-nubile Aurora, and the pre-adolescent Mary—are, at the moment they dance to this music, connected to the state of a dream-haunted slumber.

Darcy Bussell’s incarnation of the Ashtonian Aurora pretty much summed up for all time the state of being ready to love and be loved. It sweetness and freshness were genuine as only a mature ballerina can make those springtime qualities, its radiance almost more than the eye and heart could bear.

Bussell was captivating once again in the pas de deux that climaxed the 1956 Birthday Offering, one of several Ashton pièces d’occasion that have, with good reason, earned a place in the permanent repertory. This one was devised to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the troupe founded and directed by the indomitable Ninette de Valois that was about to be granted, by court fiat, the title of The Royal Ballet. It showcased the company’s seven ballerinas, appropriately attended by male cavaliers. For each lady, Ashton fashioned a Petipa-style solo that reflected her dancing persona, relegating the men, whose prowess did not yet equal that of their partners (how times have changed!), to a communal mazurka. The pas de deux crowning these events was danced by the reigning stars Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes. This duet eschews spectacular lifts, Ashton having been turned off such doings by the Bolshoi Ballet’s circusy tours de force, among other taste-deprived shenanigans then on the Rialto. It is compelling, however, in its unusual and challenging balances, which Ashton, being Ashton, makes look like dancing, not weird exploits. Ravishing in the ornate knee-length bell-shaped tutu designed by André Levasseur, Bussell approached the technical demands of her role as if they promised to be fun and subordinated them to a display of warm rapport with her partner, Thiago Soares.

Voices of Spring, too, began life as pièce d’occasion—being a surprise addition to a New Year’s Eve performance of Strauss’s Die Fledermaus in 1977—but, in this case, it’s a bagatelle that’s probably expendable. Its worth lies in its illustrating the fact that the trivia of genius may outshine lesser artists’ finest efforts. It takes off from bravura Soviet showpieces like Spring Waters, using some of the genre’s gasp-producing pyrotechnical devices, at the same time—and charmingly—inviting the viewer to recognize their absurdity. Two of the three teams I saw—Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg, Leanne Benjamin with Inaki Urlezaga—did it proud. Cojocaru is simply the best thing to happen to classical dancing, ladies’ division, in a very long time, and her performances with Kobborg invariably demonstrate the pair’s potent onstage chemistry. Benjamin, however, provided the most perceptive and witty rendering, as if she had somehow intuited Ashton’s intentions.

The 1971 Thaïs, set to the “Méditation religieuse” music from Massenet’s opera, qualifies as a fully worthy miniature. Co-opting a favorite ballet theme, that of the poet-lover visited by his evanescent muse, it lends it a double twist: an oriental accent and an overt—if understated—erotic dimension. This alluring mystery-laden excursion is filled with beautifully appropriate lifts in which the woman’s body is sinuously wrapped around the man’s or cantilevered from it. Its pictorial high point, though, is the work with the veil under which the woman first appears to—and then leaves—the yearning man whose imagination she animates. Drifting under its swirling apricot-tinted folds in a stream of minuscule steps on pointe, she looks like a sunset cloud. I saw the two casts for this piece (Leanne Benjamin and Thiago Soares, Mara Galeazzi and David Makhateli), both of which achieved the clarity and grace the choreography requires, neither of which fully suggested the dance’s exotic perfume.

The only dud among the “Divertissements” duets was the pas de deux from the 1958 Ondine that culminates in the water nymph’s giving her mortal lover the kiss that means his death. This excerpt wasn’t even persuasive evidence of Ashton’s stated desire to create movement that captured the fluidity of water, “the surge and swell of waves.” Tamara Rojo worked hard to evoke the willful, untamed aspect of the title role, but you could see her working, so while the effect was praiseworthy, it wasn’t believable. Perhaps only Margot Fonteyn, on whom and for whom the ballet was created, could make this material convincing.

Overall—and I’ve now seen the “Divertissements” on three evenings running—the impression I have of today’s Royal Ballet is that of a company that places its highest value on technical precision in the legs and feet, a prescribed sculptural eloquence in the port de bras, and gentleness and gentility even in the execution of bravura feats and the rendering of powerful emotions. Other factors that one might look for in dancing—spontaneity, risk-taking, the projection of an individual stage temperament—are muted by some sort of consensus decision about dancing that the company has arrived at (no doubt, in part unconsciously). As happens anywhere under these circumstances, only the great stars—the Darcy Bussells, the Alina Cojocarus—transcend the prevailing code of behavior. What I wonder about the Royal is how many potential stars (I saw several, especially among the men) are being stifled by it.

© 2004 Tobi Tobias

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