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Royal Ballet Review

June 25, 2009
The Royal Ballet began their Kennedy Center run this week with a mixed program showcasing the company’s strength and versatility. The company is the resident ballet at London’s Covent Garden and is one of the leading dance companies in the world. The ballet offerings ranged from the starkly beautiful “Chroma” by Wayne McGregor to the classic and poignant “A Month in the Country” by Frederick Ashton. Christopher Wheeldon’s crowd pleaser, DGV: Dance A Grant Vitesse” closed the evening.

“Chroma” has a commanding set design of a while wall going across the back of the stage, and has a huge picture window like cutout. The set frames the dancers in a surreal, moon-like industrial space. The accompanying score by Joby Talbot is discordant and frenetic with brief breaks of haunting softness. The costumes are gender neutral with the men and women wearing pseudo camisole-like costumes in pale pastels. McGregor’s choreography is full of quirky undulations of the spine, sharp focus changes and unusual partnering. He pairs this with ballet’s line and physicality to create a stunning sweep of movement that is filled with one surprise after next. The neutral set, costumes and movement patterns create a feeling of mannequins come alive. Duets, Solos and Trios emerge and disappear seamlessly into the larger group works that move in and out of the picture window. The piece is bracing and has the metallic tang of a summer storm and passes by just as quickly, leaving you yearning for more. It is quite obvious to see why McGregor was chosen as the Resident Choreographer for the Royal Ballet.

If the first piece was the summer storm, “A Month in the Country” was surely the hint of autumn. The piece is based loosely on Turgenev’s play of the same name and Ashton uses the foil of the play to explore an aging women’s love for a younger man. Zenaida Yanowsky plays Natalia Petrovna, the older lover with an aching grace and simplicity. Rupert Pennefather plays the young tutor who falls in love with her with a sensitive maturity that belies his youthful goodlooks. No one can dance an Ashton piece quite like the Royal Ballet, they imbue it with the subtle hues and nuances that have become the hallmark of their understated, graceful style. The dancers match their quick feet with such an elegant, expressive upper body that it is like watching silk unspool in the wind.

Ashton is a master choreographer, softly blending in pedestrian actions such as looking for a key, bouncing a ball or putting on/taking off a shawl into complicated ballet vocabulary. There is no superfluous movement and he uses every moment on stage to support the drive of his narrative. Ashton created several ballet’s that depended on the artistry of older dancers, and this one is no different.

The casting is incredibly apt, Yanowsky is in her prime, technically strong, and artistically sound, but surely she can see the future of her waning youth. In this particular piece, Turgenev’s aging Natalia is blurred with Yanowsky’s personal experience as an older ballerina. So it seems that her longing for Beliaev is as much a longing for her own youth as it is a recognition of one last chance to experience the act of falling in love. Pennefather and Yanowsky are touching and convincing as the forbidden lovers. He portays Beliaev with an earnestness even as he flirts with every woman available. And Yanowsky’s Natalia is desperate to hold on to their stolen moments. The affair is discovered and comes to an end, Beliaev comes to say goodbye one last time. Instead, he kisses the ribbon flowing down from her dress, and leaves a boutonniere she put on his chest as a token and slips away unseen. Natalia feels his presence as he is leaving and rushes to the door but never sees him. As she enters the room again, she sees the boutonniere, clasps it for a second and lets it drop as she slowly walks into darkness. Ashton ends the piece with a devastating touch of reality that is so often the conclusion of many real-life love affairs.

The program closed with Wheeldon’s “DGV: Danse A Grand Vitesse”, a well crafted, well danced work. Along with Lourdes Lopez, he directs his own company Morphoses / The Wheeldon Company based in New York and London. Wheeldon creates some beautiful stage pictures, and uses ballet’s symmetric formations to great effect. He uses Michael Nyman’s (of the movie ‘The Piano” fame) musical score but seems to settle into its structure instead of building on it. Ultimately, you are aware of the craft, and the piece doesn’t quite grow beyond a series of clever arrangements. And Doris Humphrey’s saying that all dances are too long seem particularly apt for this one. Yet the piece is a simple and accessible one, and it is easy to see why it is such a crowd pleaser.

Choreographers should take note of the McGregor’s unique approach. He uses physicality as a tool to express an idea, not as an end in itself. In addition, he has found a way to add to the ballet vocabulary and meld it to suit his needs rather than simply rearranging the old standard. It is too bad that Balanchine’s preference for robot like technical mastery still drives so many US based ballet choreographers.