Some thoughts on Mariinsky Triple Bill

– The Firebird – Marguerite et Armande – Concerto DSCH –

It was a real treat to see the Mariinsky at the Royal Opera House on Tuesday night. I’d not been able to get tickets for any of their full-length ballets whilst they’re here, but I do love a good triple bill too.

I find it quite useful to record my thoughts about watching ballet – and theatre – as soon as I can, and without any of the research and reading that a traditional reviewer or critic will access during their writing process. So I won’t necessarily read the programme, or research story or performance history for example. On the one hand I find this a pleasurable process, to receive impressions from the performance itself in the first instance, and on the other I think it is quite a useful record of the experience of performance with the minimum of “other stuff” in the way. So seeing all three pieces on Tuesday night for the first time and with extremely minimal prior knowledge was really interesting!

Although The Firebird was visually stunning – think the absolute height of turn-of-the-century Ballets Russes stylised glamour – it did present quite a number of problems for me. I think it was danced beautifully, but these issues of presentation did rather distract me from the patent skill of the dancers on stage. I think in many ways it encapsulated a great deal of the problems I find in traditional story ballets in one neat 45-minute package!

The ballet is divided into three sections – the Firebird appears to a hunter in a gated demesne, then a princess and her maids appear and she and the hunter fall in love, then for no apparent reason (have they stayed in the garden too long?? not sure) an army of scary monsters appears. The princess seems to be able to combat them by just being too beautiful and pure, but in the end the Firebird vanquishes them. Then some of them seem to turn into handsome courtiers who marry the maidens and the hunter and the princess marry of course too. Don’t know what the Firebird thinks to all this. There’s also been a golden tree that bears golden fruit throughout, for the life of me I don’t know what it signifies, but it does provide opportunity for some messing around with flowers and leaves and apples.

So yes, it’s one of those ridiculous ballet stories that you kind of have to accept. What I found problematic was the representation of the Firebird – who as the only character en pointe and in a platter tutu looks HUGE and supernatural and strong – as being caught. Admittedly there is some interesting choreography where she struggles against the hunter and the classical lines of a hold are broken. However the story of the dance seems to be that she’s a beautiful wild thing who struggles against entrapment but then ends up liking it. Similarly the beautiful princess (who’s clad in a lot of white along with her maidens) is extremely shy and retiring until she too is “caught”. It just seemed like two really backwards representations of women – the fiery but tamed woman and the modest virgin. And choreographically the hunter didn’t have a right lot to do – another representational problem for me that seems to obsess over women’s bodies.

And you know, the prince/hunter jumping off a stage rock and banging to the floor, the Firebird kind of galumphing across the stage a few times on her own at the beginning, and then when she bites off a bit of the golden tree….I kind of found it unintentionally funny. I sniggered a bit. Ditto for the score at some points – the orchestra winding up for the fireworks on stage, for example. Should I stop being such a snob? The dancer who played the monster king was obviously having a ball staggering about as a scary villain – but I felt like I couldn’t join in the fun.

Is this because the ballet has aged badly, maybe? We as an audience don’t find the same pleasure in the spectacle as perhaps the audience of 1901 did? I’m not sure how far this argument can go, as many ballets and other theatrical events are re-presented successfully. However this does bring to the fore arguments about keeping ballets intact, and the value of preserving a historically “authentic” piece. Personally I’m all for re-interpretation and re-presentation. However I wonder if maybe there are audiences who simply revel in the pantomimic fanfare of the piece and love it for what it is – absurdities and all?

I was on more solid ground with Marguerite et Armande, as I vaguely knew the story – she’s a consumptive demimondaine, they’re in love etc. I have to admit I was very excited to see Uliana Lopatkina, and she was just beautiful – I wish I’d been able to see her dance a full-length role. The ballet is such a mid-century British piece – made on Fonteyn and Nureyev by Frederick Ashton, designed by Cecil Beaton – and it did look stunning with its pared-back set and exquisite late-Victorian costume. The acting from Lopatkina and Askerov as Marguerite and Armande was really very good. However the switch from fairytale pantomime to this quite intricate and subtly played out tragedy I found very jarring.

This feeling continued with the final piece, Concerto DSCH, a thoroughly modern piece which premiered in 2008. Although choreographed by a Russian, it did feel very American to me, and seemed in many places to pastiche American popular culture – quite unusual when I remembered it was being performed by a Russian company. Again the switch of the quality of attention I need to pay to the different modes of performance felt unsettling.

I’ve attended a couple of Royal Ballet triple-bills before, and although the pieces performed were in some ways divergent, nevertheless there did seem to be a through-line that connected up all three. This left me wondering what the rationale might be behind the Mariinsky’s programming decision. On the one hand as a bill in a visiting company’s tour, it might seem to showcase the variety of styles that the Mariinsky can master. However as a well-recognised, world-renowned company, I’m not quite sure that we need this to be proved to us. In another sense the programme seemed to have quite a didactic tone – as if we were being shown ballet through the ages. That’s what I read ballet history for – not what I want out of an evening at the Royal Opera House.

I’m sure some audience members will have enjoyed the variety of styles on offer, maybe in a similar manner to a platter of different delicious treats, savouring each flavour. For me however, I felt as though I couldn’t quite get my teeth in to any of them, as they were whipped away and replaced by something new and completely different.

A lucky opportunity to see a talented company and an evening full of dazzle, I was far from completely disappointed. But a reminder how the kinds of decisions made beyond the dancing bodies on stage can really impact the audience’s experience at the ballet.

The Winter’s Tale – a review

It was a crisp and still-sunny spring evening in London on Tuesday , and I was an audience member in the opening run of the Royal Ballet’s The Winters Tale, adapted from Shakespeare by Christopher Wheeldon.

Shakespearean plots are hard to write in summary. Even Shakespearean scholars can struggle with it, with all the various characters and to-ing and fro-ing. (The Royal Opera  House provides a pretty good summary here.) But on the page and in performance all this potential  confusion is solved as we see the characters living and developing the plot. I wondered – how this might this work in dance? Could silent storytelling adequately handle the plot? Added to this, Shakespeare is much more than the story- can dance be Shakespearean?

The first act takes place in the courtly setting of King Leontes’ Bohemia. Amidst twirling snow, the scene is set with some lovely work from two young boys as the growing King Leontes and King Polixenes. Handing their crowns to the adult characters, Edward Watson and Federico Bonelli, one little one becomes the young prince Mamillius. The robust and yet moving male friendship  between the two kings is beautifully danced as Watson and Bonelli mutually support and lift each other. The friendship between the two kings then interweaves with the queen Hermione, and in a touching moment Polixenes lifts Hermoine and she flows downwards to kiss Leontes. The onset of Leontes’ jealousy is pushed back slightly later in time compared to the text, an effective choice that lets the audience read the physical vocabulary of intimacy between the royal couple, and follow it as it becomes grotesquely contorted in sexual jealousy.

Edward Watson at Leontes is an absolute joy to watch. Bonelli of course is an accomplished dancer and a delight as Polixenes, but Watson is transfixing in his fluidity of movement and command of performance. His acting is seamless; he utilises the tinest gesture of his fingers, not just in dancerly grace, but to communicate a stunning depth of character. His jealousy is beetle-like as he scurries on demi-pointe; at moments his hands become skittering insects that consume him. At another moment in his tortured suspicion he appears cheshire-cat like on Polixenes’ shoulder, rolling with his rictus grin slowly down his arm to eventually face the queen. This is an illumination, rather than simplification, of the Shakespearean character, and an incredibly engrossing theatrical experience.

Act Two opens as an effective contrast to the intense psychological drama of the first act, with a pastoral pas de deux leading into country dances, the trilling birdsong woodwind of the orchestra accompanied by musicians with traditional instruments on the stage itself. The corps are engaging and the choreography here makes reference to renaissance jigs and capers with feet becoming turned in  – and caprioles, of course. Sarah Lamb as Perdita is dressed in royal purple, perhaps referencing her  birth and innate royalty, however this works visually to set her apart from the pastoral scene; she never seems to inhabit the role of a blithe and innocent shepherdess. Her incredibly lean and languorous physicality lends her an ethereality that makes her breathtaking in the second act of Giselle, for instance, but reads at odds with Perdita as the simple pastoral maid. Her dancing is beautiful, and her Perdita sweet and delicate, but she seems framed and choreographed as a classical porcelain ballerina, not a complex narrative actor.

The Giselle comparisons are perhaps inevitable for a bucolic scene of dancing villagers; and, similarly to the Romantic ballet, the villagers do seem to caper for extraordinarily long time. The unravelling of Florizel’s identity takes place in-and-amongst, and so the young pair’s flight from Polixenes seems somewhat abrupt as the act comes to a close. Act Three ties up the story, and the statue moment as Hermoine is restored to her family is nicely executed, however the third act lacks the power of the intense and tragic first, and the cast here have little opportunity to engage in complex work as the denouement cracks on at a brisk pace.

The costuming throughout is simple and effective, with good use of colour and sparing embellishment. Leontes’ costume is especially effective, as subtle costume changes allow for an exciting variety of movement within the regal silhouette. The country maidens in the second act are gorgeously attired in flowing georgette with bodices that reference Renaissance girdles with under-bust stays, and Perdita’s country wedding outfit is exquisitely simple. There is also some incredible use of fabric in the mise-en-scene.

My musical knowledge is nil, but Ballet Friend really does know her stuff. She wished the music had been more powerful, a sound wall to reflect the power of the story, and called to mind some orchestral shipwrecks that could have been drawn upon for the storm in the abandonment scene. Wheeldon worked with the composer Joby Talbot on the Royal Ballet’s Alice in Wonderland and the score in that production worked well to accompany the storybook fantasy. However, the undercurrent of tragedy in The Winter’s Tale didn’t quite stir in the depths of the music.

The Winter’s Tale can be quite thorny, as the violently jealous Leontes remains unpunished. The statue of his young son, dead in shock at his fathers jealous rage, remains on stage as reminder of the tragedy Leontes has caused. But all is well, and the young royal couple are bedecked in white for a courtly marriage. Maybe ballet is a world where the improbable coincidences of the story and the happy resolution of an unambiguous ending are tropes that are expected and enjoyed, similar to Shakespeare’s audiences’ taste for marvellous romance?

Watson’s portrayal of Leontes could be read literarily, and his ‘diseased’ jealousy, his ‘tremor cordis’ and tortured isolation could all be neatly matched up with his characters’ choreography. Well-read though the production undoubtedly is, Watson’s performance is more than a physical translation of words on a page. He brings the dance production into dialogue with the Shakespearean text, with his eloquent phrasing and nuanced acting – the different medium acting as a new dimension.

Watson is very diffident taking his bows, preferring to indicate Hermione, Paulina and Perdita as recipients of the audience’s affection. I was on my feet for him, though. His dancing is Shakespearean.