Posts Tagged ‘Kenneth MacMillan’

Royal Ballet Triple: Scènes de Ballet/ Voluntaries/ The Rite of Spring, Covent Garden, May 2011

29 May, 2011

The three works in this mixed bill fit beautifully together.

The ensemble of twelve from Scènes de Ballet, photo Dee Conway

Scènes de Ballet is a wonderful work by Frederick Ashton to a piece Stravinsky composed in 1944 for a Ziegfeld review. The stylised brilliance of Ashton’s choreography, with its unexpected poses and épaulement, suits the sharp elegance of music, evoking an era wiped out by the Second World War. The glorious geometric precision, with the twelve girls of the ensemble forming varying patterns occasionally split apart by the four male soloists, like four seasons dividing the twelve months in a year, is a delight. As the curtain rises, the principal male dancer is centre stage surrounded by the male soloists. The female ensemble enters, followed later by the female principal who dances with all five of the men. The idiosyncratic choreography, matching the interesting irregularities of Stravinsky’s score, is a treat.

The four soloists were excellent on both occasions, with the principal couples being Lauren Cuthbertson with Sergei Polunin in the matinée, and Sarah Lamb with Valeri Hristov in the evening. The irregular rhythms make this a difficult piece for the dancers — you really have to feel the music — and in the evening performance Sarah Lamb did so with enormous fluidity and sparkle. The female principal is the star of the show, and she brought the whole ballet to life. Although the dancing was wonderful, the orchestra in this first item sounded a bit ragged under the direction of Barry Wordsworth, though they were far better in the other Stravinsky piece —The Rite of Spring — later in the show.

Sarah Lamb in Voluntaries/ photo Bill Cooper

The second item, Voluntaries was created by Glen Tetley in late 1973 for the Stuttgart ballet. He made it as a memorial to their artistic director John Cranko, following his recent early death, and set it to Poulenc’s Concerto in G minor for organ, strings and timpani. The organ music drives the whole work and was played with huge freshness and vitality by Thomas Trotter — well done to the Royal Ballet for engaging him. In Tetley’s wonderful choreography the principal couple is supported by one female and two male soloists, along with an ensemble of six couples.

The matinée was well danced by Leanne Benjamin and Nehemiah Kish, with Sarah Lamb, Ryoichi Hirano and Valeri Hristov, but it was the evening when this ballet really came to life. The huge size difference between Benjamin and Kish, which seemed to cause difficulty in one pas-de-deux, disappeared in the evening with Marianela Nuñez and Rupert Pennefather, along with Cuthbertson, Hristov and Polunin as the soloists. The ensemble remained the same, but there was no comparison between the afternoon and evening performances. The evening exhibited far more joy and energy, and Nuñez and Pennefather were superb together.

Rite of Spring

As the last item, Kenneth MacMillan’s Rite of Spring is a wonderful work, always fresh, and it was superbly performed. The orchestra and dancers produce enormous rhythmic energy, their ritualistic movements announcing the onset of Spring. As night falls, the Chosen One emerges. This sacrificial victim can be male or female in MacMillan’s choreography, and here it was Steven McRae in the afternoon, and Edward Watson in the evening. Both were excellent, and I find Watson to be extraordinary in his portrayal of this role. More than any other member of the company he seems exceptional at being a victim — I’m reminded of his role in The Judas Tree — and his movements made me think of a victim facing his own sacrifice energised by drugs, yet still exhibiting fear at the prospect. There was terror in his eyes and huge emotion in his dancing — a riveting performance!

This wonderful triple bill continues until June 11, but there are only four more performances — for details click here.

Manon, with Benjamin and McRae, Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, April 2011

22 April, 2011

This work is one of the jewels in the Royal Ballet’s crown, and it hardly seems thirty-seven years since Kenneth Macmillan created it.

Leanne Benjamin in Act I, all photos by Bill Cooper

The performances had a wonderful freshness, and Leanne Benjamin brought Manon beautifully to life, showing her complexity: frivolity and teasing, anguish, fecklessness and the desire for pretty clothes, jewellery and a good time. She entered the party in Act II looking like a little girl surrounded by grown ups, seeming so pleased to see her brother before exhibiting a catching vivacity and zest for life as she engages the lecherous attentions of eight ‘gentlemen’. Steven McRae as her lover was a brilliant partner in their various pas-de-deux, and although Des Grieux is a bit of a cipher in this ballet, he performed with such perfect control and élan that his dancing took on an ethereal mix of nobility and youthful energy. This was McRae’s debut in the role, and from his first solo adagio in Act I to his remarkable spins in the scene where he knifes the gaoler, and his final attempts to console the dying Manon, he was superb.

Ricardo Cervera was wonderful as Manon’s brother Lescaut with his amoral attitudes, followed by later regrets and failed attempts to rescue his sister. His drunken performance in Act II was convincing without ever being over the top, and he was well aided by Laura Morera as his mistress, showing just the right amount of sexiness without in any way overshadowing Manon. Christopher Saunders portrayed a brutally powerful Monsieur G.M., and Gary Avis was riveting as the gaoler, from the moment he entered front stage left in Act III. This was altogether a terrific cast, and Martin Yates conducted with great sensitivity and emotional tension.

Leanne Benjamin in Act III

The music by Massenet contains nothing from his opera of the same name, and was originally compiled by Leighton Lucas, with collaboration by Hilda Gaunt. However, it seems that Martin Yates has re-orchestrated it, with fine effect. This was the first performance in the present run, and although Steven McRae was due to take the role of Des Grieux later, he replaced Edward Watson in today’s first night and I was delighted to witness such a marvellous debut in the role.

Performances with various casts continue until June 4 — for more details click here.

La Valse/ Invitus Invitam/ Winter Dreams/ Theme and Variations, Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, October 2010

16 October, 2010

The high point of this lovely mixed bill was Theme and Variations, created by Balanchine in 1947 for Alicia Alonso and Igor Youskevitch. The following year Ms. Alonso founded the Cuban National Ballet, and now at almost 90 years old did us the honour of attending, and appearing on stage at the end flanked by Monica Mason and Carlos Acosta. More on him later when we come to Winter Dreams, but in the meantime, what wonderful dancing from Tamara Rojo and Sergei Polunin in Theme and Variations. Their main pas-de-deux was flawlessly executed, and Polunin’s solo, involving a double tour-en-l’air followed by a pirouette — repeated perfectly time after time in perfect harmony with the music — elicited cheers from the audience. This was a wonderful show of classical dance, and indeed Balanchine intended this ballet: “to evoke that great period in classical dancing when Russian ballet flourished with the aid of Tchaikovsky’s music.” The dancing from the entire cast was excellent, and it’s only a shame that the music — the final movement of the Suite No. 3 for Orchestra (opus 55) — was unevenly conducted by Barry Wordsworth. It was lifeless at the beginning but too loud when the trombones all roared into action, though it settled down later.

The first item — Ashton’s choreography for Ravel’s La Valse — was beautifully performed by the company. The music was completed in 1920, encouraged by a commission from Diaghilev, who then rejected it as “untheatrical” and not a ballet but “a portrait of ballet”. Since then it has been choreographed many times, most notably by Balanchine in 1951, and Ashton in 1958. Ravel envisaged La Valse as set at the imperial court of Vienna in 1855, and saw it as “a choreographic poem … a sort of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz … the mad whirl of some fantastic and fateful carousel.” The waltz themes in the music are subject to unexpected modulations and instrumentation, but the conducting did not quite bring out the macabre quality of Ravel’s creation, though the dancing was, as I said, excellent.

Winter Dreams with Acosta and Nuñez, photos by Johan Persson

 

Winter Dreams, to music of Tchaikovsky arranged by Philip Gammon, was beautifully performed by Gammon himself at the piano, along with a small band at the rear of the stage, playing traditional Russian music, and including traditional Russian instruments. This ballet by Kenneth MacMillan is a distillation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, but its genesis was a pas-de-deux for a gala celebrating the ninetieth birthday of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother in 1990. After he’d created it MacMillan said, “When I saw it, I realised that this was the farewell between Masha and Vershinin from Three Sisters, and I had to go on and make Winter Dreams”, which he did in 1991. The central pas-de-deux was superbly performed by Marianela Nuñez and Carlos Acosta as Masha and Vershinin, and Masha’s husband was wonderfully portrayed by Jonathan Cope. The other two sisters were beautifully danced by Mara Galeazzi as Olga, and Laura Morera as Irina, and the whole cast performed with elegance and emotion. The ballet is not a rendition of Chekhov’s play, but recreates its melancholy and atmosphere of quiet despair.

Invitus Invitam with Benjamin and Watson

The new item on this mixed bill was Invitus Invitam by Kim Brandstrup, a ballet inspired by the relationship between the Roman emperor Titus, and Berenice, queen in the Roman province of Judaea. Racine created a play Berenice on the story of their ill-fated love. When Titus’s father Vespasian died it seemed he would be free to marry Berenice, but public opinion was against marriage with a foreign queen, and Titus chose duty to Rome over his love for Berenice. The ballet involves three meetings between them. In the first she senses something is amiss, in the second she knows it but resists it, and in the third they meet for the last time before parting forever. The title comes from a single sentence in Suetonius where he says that Titus, who passionately loved Berenice and intended to marry her, let her go invitus invitam (against his will, against her will). Berenice and Titus were danced with subtlety and restrained emotion by Leanne Benjamin and Edward Watson, and this was a fine sequel to the unworldly quality of La Valse. The setting by Richard Hudson, with clever lighting by Lucy Carter, involved lines, circles and spirals appearing on a vast blackboard, with rulings like a piece of graph paper, showing mathematical constructions of angles. This created an atmosphere of calculation and inevitability, and later morphed into brick walls from the Royal Opera House’s Rigoletto set. On the other hand the presence of two people with notes, who seemed to be preparing the scene, suggested that things might always have gone differently, but that is life. It always seems more inevitable in hindsight. Music was by Thomas Adès after Francois Couperin.

That the Royal Ballet could put on these four works in one evening, and do them all to perfection, is a testament to the strength of this company. A single ticket buys an eclectic evening’s entertainment, and further performances will take place on October 18, 22, 28 and 30 — for more details click here.

Triple Bill: Concerto, The Judas Tree, Elite Syncopations, Royal Ballet, March 2010

24 March, 2010

These three ballets by Kenneth MacMillan are from different stages in his career, and form a nicely eclectic triple bill.

Steven McRae in Concerto, photo by Johan Persson

Concerto was created in 1966 for the Deutsche Oper Ballet in Berlin, one year after his full-length Romeo and Juliet. The music is Shostakovich’s second piano concerto, a lively, witty work, played here by Jonathan Higgins under the baton of Dominic Grier. It starts with a bassoon and two oboes, closely followed by the piano as the dancers step out into the first movement, where the principal couple was Yuhui Choe and Steven McRae. Both danced beautifully and I thought she was particularly graceful. In the adagio of the second movement, Marianela Nuñez and Rupert Pennefather gave a wonderfully smooth performance. They reappear in the third movement, as do Yuhui Choe and Steven McRae, along with Helen Crawford. There are three levels of dancers in this ballet, the principals in orange leotards, the second level in red and the third in yellow. Watching them all from the front of the Amphi one could see very clearly the precision of their placing on stage, and the whole effect, like the music, was ebulliently energetic.

Carlos Acosta in The Judas Tree, photo by Johan Persson

Carlos Acosta in the Judas Tree, photo by Johan Persson

Edward Watson and Leanne Benjamin in the Judas Tree, photo by Johan Persson

This fine start to the evening was followed by MacMillan’s last and perhaps darkest and most brutal work, The Judas Tree, to music of Brian Elias, written relatively freely without a set scenario. I find it a powerful dance work, on the themes of betrayal and guilt, showing MacMillan to be a master craftsman when it comes to using abstract movement to tell a nasty story. The action involves a foreman and thirteen workmen on a building site in a run-down part of town. Leanne Benjamin, as a provocative and skimpily dressed young woman, seems to have a mutually abusive relationship with Carlos Acosta as the foreman. He ignores her and she flirts with one of his friends, portrayed by Edward Watson, the two of them forming a bond together. The action is very physical and aggressive, with fights among the men and an assault on the woman, who finds some protection from Edward Watson and another friend, portrayed by Bennet Gartside. In the end she is gang raped by the other eleven workmen, and when she blames the foreman, he murders her, then beats up and murders the friend represented by Edward Watson. In a final act of guilt the foreman climbs up the scaffolding and hangs himself. There’s a Biblical, or at least gnostic Christian, background to all this, and when the girl reappears at the end as a wraith-like figure it signifies the indestructibility of the purified soul, but . . . it can simply be taken as a story to be interpreted as one wishes. MacMillan’s choreography is done with his usual finesse, and Acosta, Watson and Gartside all performed it very well in their interactions with one another. Watson in particular portrayed his character very sympathetically, and Leanne Benjamin was superb in her physically demanding role, maintaining integrity and stage presence throughout. Both these two had danced their roles before, unlike the others, but there was also a direct link from the original production in 1992 to the present cast as Irek Mukhamedov, who created the role of the foreman, helped in coaching this revival.

The final item of the evening, Elite Syncopations, MacMillan created in 1974 immediately after his full-length ballet Manon. Where Manon deals with seduction, rape, robbery and violent death, albeit in the context of a great eighteenth-century romantic novel, this is a light-hearted, almost flippant work. The dance is performed to rag-time music, mainly by Scott Joplin, played by a jazz band at the rear of the stage. They and the performers are dressed in extremely colourful and elaborately stylized costumes by Ian Spurling, and the whole effect is delightful fun. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, and the dancing was glorious. Mara Galeazzi was the first female soloist, and Sarah Lamb the second. Both were excellent, and Lamb danced very well with Valeri Hristov in the waltz. Laura McCulloch and Paul Kay were hilarious in their deliberately absurd Alaskan rag, and the dancing could hardly have been better, until suddenly Steven McRae came on for his solo and was electrifying, with excellent precision and attack, and superb musicality.

If you need a reason to go to the ballet, the final item alone is worth the price of the ticket, but there are only six performances of this triple bill, with the last one on 15th April.

Mayerling, Royal Ballet, 29th October 2009

30 October, 2009

Tamara Rojo as Mary Vetsera, Royal Ballet photo by Bill Cooper

This was the October 29th performance with Carlos Acosta as Crown Prince Rudolf. A brief discussion of the story appears in my review of an earlier performance with Johan Kobborg as Rudolf. Certainly Kobborg was very good, but Acosta was arguably better, portraying Rudolf’s angst with emotional restraint and superb physicality. Tamara Rojo as his mistress Mary Vetsera was prettily seductive, and their pas-de-deux at the end of Act II writhed with passionate intensity. Rudolf’s wife was very well danced by Iohna Loots, and Countess Marie Larisch was well performed by Mara Galeazzi. Last time, Laura Morera took that role, but on this occasion she was Mitzi Caspar, the courtesan, and danced beautifully. This ballet has a large cast of soloists, and I won’t list them all, but I did particularly like Ricardo Cervera as Bratfisch.

Liszt’s music, arranged and orchestrated by John Lanchbery, came over very well under the baton of Martin Yates. The designs by Nicholas Georgiadis are still fresh and entirely in keeping with the story, and the whole cast worked well together in reviving this Kenneth MacMillan ballet. As the programme noted, it was on this same day 17 years ago that he died back-stage at the Royal Opera House — his creative talent is sadly missed.

Mayerling, Royal Ballet, October 2009

10 October, 2009

Leanne Benjamin as Mary Vetsera, Royal Ballet photo by Bill Cooper

This was the second night of the present run, with Johan Kobborg in the main role as the 30-year-old Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary. His death, with that of his mistress, the seventeen-year-old Mary Vetsera, in January 1889 inspired Kenneth MacMillan to create this ballet in 1978. The state authorities in 1889 attributed the two deaths to a suicide pact in which Rudolf killed her and then himself, but this was almost certainly a cover-up. When the Viennese Medical Institute examined Mary Vestera’s remains in the 1990s they concluded she had suffered severe blows to the head and there was no bullet hole. Rudolf had been shot, but not by his own gun. Although I’m not a conspiracy theorist, the events at Rudolf’s hunting lodge at Mayerling were certainly different from the official version, but there is no need to spoil a good story and MacMillan’s ballet is a darkly dramatic piece.

Kobborg portrayed the prince with care and restraint, allowing the choreography to show his libertine and allegedly sinister side. With Leanne Benjamin as Mary Vetsera we had a superb pair of dancers, and their pas-de-deux at the end of Act II flowed with freedom and spontaneity. Rudolf’s ex-mistress, Countess Larisch was beautifully danced by Laura Morera, showing great stage presence. Emma Maguire as Rudolf’s wife Stephanie did a fine job, and Helen Crawford as Mitzi Caspar, a courtesan and regular mistress to Rudolf, danced with panache. These are just a few of the dancers in a huge cast that worked very well together.

The music is by Liszt, arranged by John Lanchbery, and was conducted here by Barry Wordsworth. The present run continues until November 10th, and I shall report again after seeing a further performance.

Sleeping Beauty, English National Ballet, London Coliseum, Dec 2008

31 December, 2008

The choreography was by Kenneth Macmillan after Petipa, but it was a disappointing evening with indifferent conducting by Gavin Sutherland. There was not the slightest comparison to Valery Gergiev’s magnificent concert performance at the Proms in the summer. It may be hard to bring out the excitement of the Rose Adagio in Act I when the conductor has to slow the music to suit the action on stage, but this problem does not apply to the journey to the Sleeping Kingdom in Act II where there is no dancing at all. Here one of the high points of the music failed utterly, and the same was true for almost every part of Tchaikovsky’s magnificent score — the waltz in Act I, for instance, was just lost in a morass of correct notes played with no incision or feeling.

Having panned the conducting, what about the dancing? By far the best part of the evening was Andre Portasio’s superb performance of Carabosse — his stage presence was riveting and his arm movements well expressed his role as a witch exercising immense power. In the Prologue the fairy variations were well enough performed, and Adela Ramirez was particularly good in the final variation, but Jenna Lee was a very insipid lilac fairy. In Act I the Rose Adagio was disappointing, and the unknown prince who partnered Agnes Oaks, as princess Aurora, did a poor job. He looked nervous, and her pirouettes were all off centre. In Act II the conducting and the lilac fairy formed a fatally weak combination, and although Thomas Edur looked good as the prince, he has almost nothing to do here. Finally Act III fell pretty flat. Edur and Oaks were very fine in their pas-de-deux work, but in his solos Edur disappointed by marking some of Mcamillan’s steps, and it would be an understatement to say that the whole thing lacked fizz. The fairy variations were partly cut, Nicholas Reeves as the gold fairy lacked power, and is the Macmillan choreography really so weak here, or was it due to the cuts? The bluebird pas-de-deux was danced by Crystal Costa and Anton Lukovkin, and while he had some excellent jetés-en-tournant, his entrechat-six were not as well executed, and his upper body showed weakness. Carping aside, Andre Portasio stood out as a magnificent Carabosse, but even he couldn’t overcome the plodding work of the conductor, and that is what killed this performance. The dancers tried their best, but there was no sustained applause, and it was a sadly dull evening.