For the Royal Ballet’s current, impressively executed triple bill two pieces by Frederick Ashton, separated by twenty years in time, are joined by Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noce.
As its title implies, the first of the Ashton pieces, Birthday Offering, was created to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet in 1956, just months before it was granted a Royal Charter and received its current name. While Ashton frequently believed that the feelings of the entire company had to be considered when creating new work, with loyalty recognised and rewarded, on this occasion he simply picked his seven finest ballerinas and worked to their particular strengths. The result is a celebratory work that combines the movements of classical ballet (the piece uses music from several of Alexander Glazunov’s late Romantic ballets) with a joyous tone, and the kind of innovative steps that could only have come from Ashton.
The original cast featured Margot Fonteyn, Violetta Elvin and Beryl Grey, and the current cast chimes with Ashton’s original intentions by including some of the Royal Ballet’s greatest stars including Tamara Rojo, Yuhui Choe and Sarah Lamb. The opening scene sees the dancers’ individual expressive styles blending remarkably well together, before each brings their own talents to the fore in a series of individual solos. Although Ashton devised each solo in collaboration with the original dancer, they look as if they could have been choreographed for the current performers.
Yuhui Choe possesses the elegance and precision of a music box ballerina, and yet there is inventiveness in every tilt of the head and flick of the knee. Sarah Lamb seems to stretch in slow motion during her fluid and expansive solo. Although the men have less with which to work, their mazurka is profoundly polished; but it is Tamara Rojo and Federico Bonelli’s pas de deux that leaves the greatest impression, with Rojo, in particular, rotating in an almost dreamlike trance.
A Month in the Country was the final work that Ashton choreographed for the Royal Ballet in 1976, and one of few from the 1970s that has enjoyed longevity. Based upon Ivan Turgenev’s 1872 play, it focuses on the character of Natalia Petrovna (Zenaida Yanowsky). Her wealthy husband, Yslaev (Christopher Saunders), is older than her, and she finds in their son’s tutor, Beliaev (Rupert Pennefather), the love and distraction that she so desires.
All of the dancers excel in their characterisation. Yanowsky can portray both distance and warmth depending on who she is dancing with, and in her pas de deux with Pennefather she demonstrates her longing to take flight as she stretches her body backwards while being lifted by the waist. Pennefather similarly can convey emotional involvement, detachment or mirth depending on who he is dancing with. Emma Maguire is excellent as Natalia’s ward with her vibrant, fluttering pointe work, as is Ludovic Ondiviela as the innocent son with a child-like zest for life. What’s most striking about the piece is the way it handles the comic elements – with Natalia feigning innocence when she comes under suspicion – and the shifting in tone to one of tragedy at the end, with her being left all alone, Beliaev’s flower falling from her hand.
Like The Rite of Spring, Les Noces was composed by Stravinsky. It was choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska in 1923, and given the agility with which ‘traditional’ Russian steps are executed, it is a unique piece whose style really has no precedents. The iconic image of eight female heads locked together to form a pyramid, with the figure of the bride (Christina Arestis) resting upon them, is a striking one, and provides a strong ending to an outstanding and engagingly varied triple bill.