Frederick Ashton was one of the truly great choreographers of the twentieth century, and the Royal Ballet pays tribute to his genius in this five-strong mixed bill that demonstrates the sheer variety of his work, and reveals the man in all of his innovative glory.
The evening begins with La Valse, a piece that Ravel wrote in 1920 that was immediately dismissed by the impresario Sergei Diaghilev as ‘a masterpiece, but ... not a ballet’. In 1958 Ashton proved this judgment wrong (he wasn’t the first) by choreographing it, sticking closely to Ravel’s vision of waltzing couples gradually emerging out of clouds that disperse to reveal a ballroom. In responding to the composer’s music, Ashton created movements that place considerable demands on dancers to execute lifts and leaps, and generate swirling effects, with such precision and so often en masse. Although the six principal waltzers deliver handsomely, this is not a ballet that allows individuals to explore their own characters. Rather, it requires everyone to be at their most technically stylish to create the mass effects, and, a few momentary lapses on opening night aside, this cast proves particularly trim.
The evening’s two shortest pieces, the ‘Meditation’ from Jules Massenet’s Thaïs, and Voices of Spring originally from Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, see first Leanne Benjamin and Valeri Hristov, and then Yuhui Choe and Alexander Campbell, reveal truly outstanding partnerships. Then Monotones I and II of 1965, both set to the sublime music of Erik Satie, show Ashton at the cutting edge in generating pieces of such understated intensity. Each Monotone involves three dancers, and it feels that if these trios were suddenly to find themselves on another planet this is how they might explore it: sticking close and working together in many ways, but also finding the need to venture out and explore their surroundings as individuals. Monotone I also has an intriguing sense at times that a pas de deux is being prevented from evolving by the presence of a third dancer.
The evening ends with Marguerite and Armand, which is based on Alexander Dumas’s La Dame aux camélias in which courtesan Marguerite Gautier ‘scandalously’ falls in love with the well bred Armand, and finally dies of tuberculosis. Against the Monotones of just two years later it might seem a relatively reactionary costume romance, were it not to contain so many innovations in its own right. First, the story is not told chronologically, but rather Marguerite recalls scenes from their lives on her deathbed. Second, one only has to look at such movements as Armand roughly throwing Marguerite from side to side by alternating the wrist that he grabs, or the latter exiting the stage in heartbroken despair yet still en pointe, to appreciate Ashton’s ingenuity. Third, the characters prove so strong that their emotions cannot be dismissed as simply shallow or theatrical.
Much of their success in engaging us can be attributed to the performances of Tamara Rojo and Sergei Polunin in the title roles, whose dancing and gestures deliver such expressive portrayals of love, pride, pain and madness. This is Rojo’s official Royal Ballet farewell performance, having just become Artistic Director of English National Ballet, and there could surely be no finer swansong.
Until 23 February (5 performances) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London WC2E 9DD. Casts vary over the run. For further details and tickets visit the Royal Opera House website.
Photo: A love that can never be: Tamara Rojo and Sergei Polunin in Frederick Ashton’s captivating Marguerite and Armand, © Alastair Muir.