Opening Oddities

“Stravinsky Violin Concerto”, “Voluntaries”, “Sinfonietta”, “Coppelia”
The Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
London, UK
October 5 - November 4, 2006

By John Percival
Copyright 2006 by John Percival

Many people were puzzled by the make-up of the Royal Ballet's first programme of the new season, and for once director Monica Mason did not contribute an introductory note to the programme book to explain it. So we'll just take it from the advance publicity that the motive was to present three major composers of the 20th century, and (in some versions) three major choreographers too. Well, that's as may be. One point is that the Royal Opera's music director Antonio Pappano was making one of his rare balletic appearances on the rostrum (personally, I think it might have been more rewarding for him to conduct Delibes for the second programme, but there you are ... ).

Anyway, we had three disparate small-scale one-act ballets all made in the 1970s, which did not show the troupe to best advantage. I was unable to attend the first night and saw an alternate cast (which in some respects may have been better). The oldest of the works was Balanchine's “Stravinsky Violin Concerto”, and I wouldn't say they did it full justice. At my performance Alexandra Ansanelli's crisp, fluent account of the Aria 2 duet, partnered by Viacheslav Samodurov, showed up everyone else — which you might expect from her NYCB background, but accounts of the other cast say that there too it was Leanne Benjamin in that section who stood out. Otherwise let's say that the cast was trying hard, but Balanchine's ballet is better than they showed.

And that's true also of Glen Tetley's “Voluntaries”. I don't know whether Bronwen Curry, Tetley's regular notator who staged this revival, explained to the cast about the John Cranko connections of the work's creation, but if so its memorial intentions clearly didn't sink in, because the dancing carried little or no emotion. Jason Reilly, Toronto trained but employed since 1997 by the Stuttgart Ballet, came as guest to partner Marianella Nunez in the central roles: OK but not great, and a bit too thickset to look ideal. Stephen Westrop, the Royal Opera's assistant chorus master, was the organ soloist in Poulenc's score.

Finally, Jiri Kylian's Janacek “Sinfonietta”. I know this work was crucial in the choreographer's early career; also that many people like this frenetic music and dance. I'm not among them, in fact I find it singularly boring, so I'll say no more.

A week later began a short run of “Coppelia”. This has long been associated with the company, in fact it was their first big classic production as the little Vic-Wells Ballet back in 1933, with guest star Lydia Lopokova followed by Ninette de Valois in the lead. De Valois's carefully polished 1954 production is the basis of the present version — unfortunately much tarted up by Anthony Dowell in his 2001 revival. We do not need all those fancy added steps and tarradiddle — in fact we'd be much better off without them. At heart, though, the ballet is still enjoyable.

The opening cast, unfortunately, had a very flat account of Swanilda from tiny principal Roberta Marquez: neat, swift, but none too musical. And charm? Humour? Forget it. Her Franz, Samodurov, looked highly promising (they were both new to the roles), and his Petersburg training shone through the character dances. Next day, infinitely more enjoyable: Marianella Nunez and Thiago Soares (he also new to the part) absolutely delicious in the leads. I would have said that, after Tamara Rojo, Nunez was the Royal's best ballerina, but I have been reminded that, according to de Valois, the great Enrico Cecchetti said there was no such thing as a prima ballerina below the age of 26. He did add however that there was nothing more beautiful to see than the same in embryo in her late teens or early twenties, and that's where Nunez comes in. Such astounding footwork, such lovely epaulement, such a lively face: fantastic. And Soares responds so well to her. Also, since he is mostly praised as actor and partner, let me add that he danced his big solo excellently.

We don't have a great Dr Coppelius nowadays, but Luke Heydon isn't bad, and William Tuckett pulls some amusing faces although he adopts too many different odd walks. Some of the small roles are poorly cast, and only Ansanelli's Dawn solo really shone. There are, I should add, two more casts to come.

Incidentally, I wonder whether anyone can explain why the Royal Ballet attributes Petipa's old choreography to Ivanov, although their own programme notes make clear that he was not even an assistant ballet-master when it was staged.

Photos (all by Bill Cooper):
Front page: Leanne Benjamin and Johan Kobborg in "Stravinsky Violin Concerto".
This page, top: Darcey Bussell and Edward Watson in "Stravinsky Violin Concerto."
Rupert Pennefather in "Voluntaries."
The Company in "Coppelia."

Volume 4, No. 37
October 16, 2006

copyright ©2006 John Percival



©2006 DanceView