Thursday, 23 October 2014

Ashton Mixed Programme with the Royal Ballet - Choe, Zucchetti, Padjak, Muntagirov, Osipova and more.

View from Amphi E-81, seated
The rich variation and frequency of triple (or, in this case, quadruple) bills by the Royal Ballet puts a wealth of talent on display all at once. Accordingly, this evening's offerings of Frederick Ashton involved an impressive array of artists, from the starry Natalia Osipova and Vadim Muntagirov, to rapidly rising stars Francesca Hayward and Melissa Hamilton, to solid house favourites Yuhui Choe and Valentino Zucchetti.

The first offering of 'Scenes de Ballet' presents a ballet visualised from almost purely geometric perspectives. Described as Ashton's answer to the Rose Adagio, it needs to be cool, calculated and dramatically sharp. In this regard, the delivery was not perfect. Sloppiness marred impact of the corps, forsaking collective regimentation for unevenness. Even so, the four men in Matthew Ball, David Donnelly, Tomas Mock and Donald Thom performed excellently, with good understanding of Ashton's vision. The two principles. Choe and Zucchetti, danced valiantly, with Zucchetti perhaps stretched to his technical limit. Yet, they still lacked the air of authority that gives this ballet personality. No doubt their partnership is an effective one - they have recently shone as Lescaut and his mistress and in leading the Giselle pas de six. But this ballet suits neither - where Zucchetti lacked the dynamism (most notably in the spins), Choe needed to curtail her natural softness for a harder geometrical edge.

Scenes de Ballet
Immediately following was the curious 'Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan", starring Romany Pajdak in place of the injured Lauren Cuthbertson. With a show of great maturity, Pajdak danced with real sensitivity, and feeling for the piece's namesake - the feeling of a free-spirit who simply loves to dance. Her steps when she crossed the stage were not languid, but excited and hyper feminine. Along with Kate Shipway's tender accompaniment on the piano, the entire performance had a sort of velvet smoothness, an inwards intensity. On pure aesthetics, it was luxurious; the plain background with the solitary piano and swathes of silken scarves dappled in the spotlight. It was an introversive performance by Pajdak as she conveyed a smooth feeling of progression from bohemian freedom to compulsive decadence to the emotional frailty that characterised the dancer's late life. The Five Waltzes is not a piece to 'wow', but it was performed as well as could be.

Five Waltzes - Pajdak, Shipway & rose petals
Next was 'Symphonic Variations', based on music of the same name by Franck, and perhaps the most lauded of Ashton's considerable body of work. The curtain rose on the sinewy silhouettes of the six dancers, poised and assured in front of a lurid yellow background stamped with accents of black. We are bereft of all contextual indicators - neither time nor place nor situation has been conveyed. Yet, it is a powerful sight, potent in its display of solidarity and strength - 'utopia' was the word that sprung to mind. In this vein it continued, most prominently buoyed by Vadim Muntagirov, who seems to have taken to classic roles at Covent Garden with great relish (his recent des Grieux was superb.) With Muntagirov, everything seems to flow seamlessly as a constant harmony of movement and art. Each movement of his is beautifully articulated, with his elegant line cutting an imposing figure. There is never any apparent tenacity or grit required in his dancing; everything seems to be in moving in one continuous languid movement from beginning to end, relying on momentum and the natural grace of the human body to illicit wonder. And indeed, this is what Symphonic Variations embodies; there are very few, if any, dazzling leaps. Extraordinary gravity defying lifts are thin on the ground, and there is a distinct lack of emotional trauma. In their stead, Ashton feasts handsomely upon a celebration of the beauty of movement. That is not to say that the piece is purely aesthetic and hence devoid of emotional attachment; rather, that the emotions that pass between dancer and audience is that of infinite intangibles. What matters is not the lofty jump - it is the tilt of the head, the arch of the foot that makes this piece lend its radiant joy. Overall, tonight's Symphonic Variations perhaps faltered short of its full climatic potential. While the partnership between Muntagirov and the delightful Melissa Hamilton was surprisingly effective, the overall synchrony between the six dancers was not quite as exuberant as it could have been. More authority was required to grasp nirvana fully.

Symphonic Variations

A Month in the Country, the final ballet billed, is a stark contrast to the minimalism of Symphonic Variations, with bonnets, armchairs and miscellaneous props aplenty. The only plot-driven ballet on the programme, it also starred the superlative Natalia Osipova in her role debut as the voracious and lonely mistress, with Federico Bonelli's Beliaev, Francesca Hayward's Vera and James Hay's Kolia completely an impressively strong cast. But among them, one star shone brightest - Osipova, whose acting prowess is once again confirmed. Very few play the imperfect woman better than Osipova; she caries with her a complexed pool of emotions from coquettishness to vengeance to, ultimately, vulnerability.
Here, it is interesting to consider the trajectory of Osipova's career, which has altered significantly since her move to Covent Garden, seen by many as the ultimate coup given her lack of experience with the English style. An undisputed heavyweight in the ballet world, she is one of those rare dancers who could perform nothing but her signature role of Don Quixote every night for the rest of her career, and still be met with a standing ovation night after night. Yet, such is her appetite for a challenge, her time with the Royal Ballet has transfigured her dancing with much more finesse. Her dazzling technique remains thankfully intact, but now it is augmented by real depth of character. In A Month in the Country, which aims to highlight the nuances of drawing-room politics, her character conveys a myriad of conflicting emotions through an arabesque alone. The pas de deux with Bonelli was delightful in its illicitness, and drew the audience wholly into their small world within a world.
Alongside Osipova, there were several performances of the highest calibre. Hayward as her young ward was girlish and unaffected, truly a potent contrast to Osipova's womanly conflict. James Hay as her son spun faster and faster around the stage in a blaze of gold. The entire cast seemed to move in perfect tandem, conveying the minutia of the tale perfectly. It is a story of stolen caresses and missed moments, told through blazing glances of secret longing. In this regard, the cast delivered in its entirety, painting a realistic and tender picture.

A Month in the Country

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