The penultimate programme of The Royal Ballet’s season takes the audience on a journey, from a joyous celebration with seven imperially dressed ballerinas, to a summer dacha filled with tense emotions, and finally back in time to the ceremonial rites of a Russian peasant wedding. The link to the three ballets is the great English choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton, who created two of the works and personally arranged for the third to be re-staged, thus saving it for posterity. Each ballet is choreographically different, allowing the company to show its fine dancers and their different technical skills.
Birthday Offering is not often performed – this was only the 61st performance since its creation in 1956 – so it was exciting to see it again. Created for the 25th anniversary of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, it celebrated just how far the small group of dancers formed by Ninette de Valois in May 1931 had come. (Only a few months later, the company would receive the Royal charter and be renamed The Royal Ballet.) Ashton decided to show off the company’s seven brilliant ballerinas, including Margot Fonteyn, and gave them solo variations to perform: pieces that expressed their characters, like those danced by the fairies in The Sleeping Beauty.
The ballerinas, wearing bell-shaped, heavily decorated long tutus, are partnered by seven cavaliers. They waltz on stage, and as the men stand on guard behind them, they perform their solos. Yuhui Choe was a pert porcelain doll-like dancer with neat and speedy footwork; Laura Morera was more fiery, bourée-ing backwards and spinning fiercely; Sarah Lamb’s variation was slow and elegant, showing off her expressive port de bras and expansive graceful back. Roberta Marquez had a bouncy solo filled with joyous, spirited movement and stayed in the air in her long jetés; Hikaru Kobayashi was given a gentle flowing waltz which she danced with grace and lyricism; while Helen Crawford had a combination of slow and fiendishly fast movements. And finally the leading ballerina, Tamara Rojo in gold costume, exuded charm and confidence as she performed, with exacting technique, the intricate and challenging steps that Ashton had created for Fonteyn, a broad smile on her beautiful face.
The cavaliers danced a lively mazurka where Rojo’s cavalier, Federico Bonelli, showed off double tours en l’air before partnering her in a flowing pas de deux, in which she was hardly lifted off the ground. Then, as she spun slowly in her pirouettes, her arms open wide, he gently touched her hand to change her direction. The whole ballet was elegance personified.
And elegance is the quality which also describes Ashton’s A Month in the Country. It is a concise and dramatic condensation of Turgenev’s play. Ashton focuses on the heroine Natalia Petrovna, a mature woman who is somewhat bored with country living and enjoys flirting with Rakitin, apparently with no objection from her husband Yslaev who is prone to losing his keys. Their son Kolia is a jolly young lad who plays ball and flies kites, and Natalia has a pretty young ward named Vera who is as speedy and vivacious as Natalia is languid and bored. There’s also a cheery maid and a well-behaved footman, but it is Kolya’s tutor who causes the passions of all three ladies to flare up. Vera is infatuated, Katia flirts, but it is evident that he only has physical attraction for the mistress of the house, and she for him. There is a lot of anguish evidenced and, as the strains of Chopin crescendo (played strongly by Kate Shipway), so their emotions surge. Alas, all ends unhappily for everyone, but the short ballet is one of those wonderful gems that can be watched over and over and still make the heart race with romantic anticipation.
Zenaida Yanowsky as Natalia Petrovna danced with maturity and deep understanding, reflecting her inner feelings and turmoil. She is a tall and gracious ballerina with a beautiful line, so made a convincing character. Emma Maguire as Vera was pretty, animated and fizzed with overt emotion, while Kolya (Ludovic Ondiviela) smiled at everyone and enjoyed life to the full, darting enthusiastically and bouncing with joy. It was obvious why Rupert Pennefather’s Beliaev made hearts flutter. Handsome in his duck-egg blue, belted Russian shirt, his face gave little away, which made him all the more mysterious and attractive to the three women. He showed neat and accurate footwork in Ashton’s complicated choreography and his emotional acting was believable.
The hummable strains of Chopin’s piano music gave way to the erratic rhythmic complexities, gutteral singing and percussion of Stravinsky’s score for Les Noces. This is a stunning ballet, created by Bronislava Nijinska, the sister of the great Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky for the Ballets Russes in 1923, and revived by her, at Ashton’s request, for The Royal Ballet in 1966. In four short, simply told tableaux, it depicts old Slavic wedding rites. The set is stark with plastered walls, the costumes are brown and white, the bride has ten-foot-long plaits and there is no expression on any face. The women dance on pointe but the men wear peasant shoes that lace up the leg. Christina Arestis and Ryoichi Hirano were the bridal couple and were well supported by the company in the taxing timings and synchronized non-balletic jumpings of the acclaimed work.
Royal Opera House, Covent GardenBow Street Covent Garden
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2E 9DD
Duration: 2 hours 45 minutes
Christina Arestis and artists of The Royal Ballet in Les Noces © Tristram Kenton, courtesy of ROH
Tamara Rojo and Federico Bonelli in Birthday Offering © Tristram Kenton, courtesy of ROH
Zenaida Yanowsky and Rupert Pennefather in A Month in the Country © Tristam Kenton, courtesy of ROH