The staging of the Royal Ballet’s delightfully varied triple bill coincides with the launch of the Frederick Ashton Foundation, dedicated to ensuring the long-term future of the choreographer’s legacy. Ashton, however, is only responsible for one of the three ballets on the programme, which begins with Resident Choreographer Wayne McGregor’s Limen, first seen in 2009. Using Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s cello concerto, Notes on Light, which captures a solar eclipse, there is a strong sense in which we are witnessing the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of a main event that remains tantalising intangible.
With set and video design by Tatsuo Miyajima, dancers perform first behind a blue screen upon which numbers float, and later in front of a dot matrix screen where a random pattern of blue lights appear. As with all McGregor’s works, there is no one single meaning and the characters do not move in straight lines from a narrative viewpoint. Be that as it may, almost everything about this ballet seems to speak of personal relationships in all their fractiousness and beauty. Pairs tear at each other or push each other away, but we are left feeling that the bonds that tie people together are stronger than those that divide, and that the ballet speaks predominantly about human need, longing and support.
The highlight is the pas de deux between Eric Underwood and Sarah Lamb in which the former supports the latter in an infinite number of ways. Lamb is lifted so that her chest rests upon Underwood’s own, or is suspended upside down, the two torsos locked tight against each other. She is raised so that her legs ‘swim’ through the air, or performs an arabesque with her rising leg wrapping right around the back of her body. As with all three ballets, Barry Wordsworth conducts with sensitivity, while Anssi Karttunen provides an exemplary cello solo.
Marguerite and Armand of 1963 was almost the last ballet that Ashton choreographed for Margot Fonteyn, but the first that he created for Rudolf Nureyev. It is based on Alexander Dumas’s La Dame aux CamÃ©lias in which courtesan Marguerite Gautier ‘scandalously’ falls in love with the well-bred Armand. Ashton chose not to tell the story chronologically, but to present scenes from their lives by having Marguerite recall these on her deathbed.
It must be infuriating for anyone dancing these roles that comparison is automatically made with Fonteyn and Nureyev, who combined technical precision with fluidity, panache and an unsurpassable sense of freedom in their movement. It is not helped by the fact that a production’s hair designs stay around for as long as its costumes. The net result is that Tamara Rojo and Sergei Polunin carry exactly the same hairstyles as Fonteyn and Nureyev sported (those of mid-nineteenth-century France), which leaves the unintended impression that they are playing the ballet’s original performers as much as its protagonists. In spite of this, Rojo and Polunin succeed in putting their own stamp on the characters, and mark on the piece. When they meet for the first time, they generate an overwhelming sense of stillness that momentarily stops time and space and radiates out to every observer around them. When Armand believes that Marguerite has shunned him, the degree to which Polunin’s hurt is manifested through a facade of icy coldness is remarkable. Rojo herself combines an all-embracing sense of need and devotion with relatively subtle movements and gestures.
Their final scene is as wondrous as anything Nureyev and Fonteyn achieved, Rojo quite literally putting mind, body and soul into her love for Armand, and Polunin revealing genuine pain in his face. Mention must also be made of Christopher Saunders’ beautifully understated Father, and of pianist Robert Clark, Ashton having so insightfully employed Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor.
Requiem, which uses FaurÃ©’s Requiem, was Kenneth Macmillan’s tribute to fellow choreographer John Cranko who died in 1973. It is undoubtedly an innovative piece and with the Royal Opera Chorus and soloists Daniel Grice and Madeleine Pierard in fine form, it becomes clear just how good FaurÃ©’s creation actually is for ballet. What is less obvious is what dancing really brings to the already beautiful music, but this does not stop the experience from being both interesting and worthwhile.
Casts vary over the run. For further details visit the Royal Opera House website.