The week before writing this review I watched English National Ballet's splendidly over-the-top and immensely enjoyable new production of Le Corsaire on tour at the Bristol Hippodrome. Having taken my seat, I was somewhat disconcerted to find a woman in the row in front wearing a hat which she resolutely kept on in my direct line of sight throughout the performance.
When, however, in the first interval, I decided to remonstrate with her, my first words were not those I originally planned, for I recognised her at once as the company's new Artistic Director, Tamara Rojo. In a quick-thinking change of tack, I realised that the hat was, in fact, not only a delightfully chic creation but also a very sensible choice on a chilly winter evening, and instead congratulated Ms Rojo on her wonderful new production. "I am very proud of it", she told me, with remarkable grace given that it was probably the hundredth time she'd been asked that night.
That episode is of relevance here because the performance immortalised on this Blu-ray release, though marketed as a celebration of choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton on the 25th anniversary of his death, might just have easily have been headlined as Tamara Rojo's farewell performance as a Principal Dancer with the Royal Ballet. By the accounts of those present in the auditorium that night (see here) and as we can now confirm for ourselves by watching this disc, it was a memorable occasion indeed, with a positively electric atmosphere.
Ms Rojo's contribution was in fact limited to the final item, Marguerite and Armand, but that was the most substantial part of the whole programme and provided the emotional finale to the whole evening. The work had been created by Ashton in 1963 specifically and - perhaps because of its obvious resonances with the dancers' real-life May/December relationship - exclusively for the stellar partnership of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. Thus, for instance, several characteristic elements associated with Nureyev's personality and individual style of dancing were incorporated into the choreography. In her authoritative Ashton biography, Julie Kavanagh rightly emphasises the indelible link between the ballet and its original performers: "[it] exploits what he [Ashton] called 'the impact of personality', the stage presence of his stars ... The choreography itself is less memorable than the performance Fonteyn and Nureyev played as actors." (Julie Kavanagh, Secret muses: the life of Frederick Ashton (London, 1996) p.469). Actually, it would be even more accurate to say that the memorable quality of the two dancers lies in their playing as specific inter-actors, for there is no indication elsewhere - certainly not in Nureyev's abortive Hollywood career, for instance - that either was able to rise to such heights of believable drama without the other.
For decades after it was conceived, Marguerite and Armand was so associated with Fonteyn and Nureyev that no other dancers performed the work at all. It is, therefore, a great treat to see this new 2013 performance. The multi-faceted personal/artistic/quasi-romantic associations that Ms Kavanagh expertly teases out in the original partnership may, understandably, be missing from that of Tamara Rojo and Sergei Polunin. However, the sheer emotional wallop engendered by the former's final Royal Ballet performance coupled with the latter's "bad boy" image (see here and here, for instance) undoubtedly creates its own powerful, unique and memorable resonances. It also serves to ensure that the whole performance is even greater than the sum of its individual parts.
The other items on the evening's programme offer a useful tour d'horizon of Ashton's very varied choreography. They begin with a trio of user-friendly works that can easily be appreciated even by those with little knowledge of dance, although those with more experience will certainly pick up on the many subtleties embedded in them. La valse is danced to Ravel's giddy score - in this case by 21 couples, all quite literally in a whirl of what booklet notes writer Mark Monahan describes as "fearsome perpetual motion". That is followed by another crowd-pleaser as Leanne Benjamin is partnered by Valeri Hristov in the famous Méditation from Massenet's opera Thaïs, a brief but intense piece of choreography that no less an authority than Marie Rambert considered one of Ashton's great masterpieces. Voices of spring, danced by Yuhui Choe and Alexander Campbell to the familiar Johann Strauss II waltz and originally choreographed for a 1977 Royal Opera production of Die Fledermaus, may be even shorter but is sheer delight from beginning to end, with the effervescent and expert duo delighting the theatre audience as well as providing an attractive cover image for the disc's packaging.
The penultimate offering, Monotones I and II, presents more of a challenge for those who prefer their ballets to have some sort of narrative driving force. Critic Richard Buckle amused himself by drolly imagining a fantasy story - "I guess them go be ritual dances performed privately by captive Greek slaves in the houses of Smyrna merchants during the rainy season ... after those enormous dinners" (Richard Buckle, Buckle at the ballet (London, 1980) p.153). That said, as Arlene Croce rightly pointed out, the Monotones are actually "an uncompromising experiment in concentration" (quoted in Kavanagh, op.cit., p.487). With only three dancers in each, no sets and nothing more than body-stockings as costumes, each piece forces the audience to focus its attention exclusively on the performers themselves, so that even their smallest physical movements become imbued with the greatest significance.
I have my doubts whether the majority of the packed audiences who regularly flock, year in, year out, to Ashton's La fille mal gardée will necessarily warm to the sparer, more severe textures of the two Monotones. The emphasis on pared-down pure technique and the challenges, both physical and artistic, that they present make them more appealing to dancers themselves than to the general audience but including Monotones on the programme rightfully offers us a broader perspective. Ashton’s talent was wide-ranging enough to encompass a huge variety of forms, from broad narrative canvasses (La fille, Sylvia) to smaller, more abstract inventions. Quite simply, as this disc helps demonstrate, there really is plenty of Sir Fred to go around.
Neither sound nor picture quality can be faulted on this release and I saw no evidence of the judder that can sometimes affect rapid panning shots recorded in the Blu-ray format. Video director Margaret Williams has done a fine job overall and has successfully captured the atmosphere of what everyone involved clearly regarded as a special occasion. Ashton celebration is a valuable addition to the catalogue of ballet recordings, as well as an appropriate tribute to Tamara Rojo as, hats and all, she leaves Covent Garden to embark upon her challenging new career as the head of a major ballet company in her own right.
Detailed Contents List
Dancers: Hikaru Kobayashi, Ryoichi Hirano, Samantha Raine, Bennet Gartside, Helen Crawford, Brian Maloney, Artist of the Royal Ballet.
Méditation from Thaïs
Solo Violin: Vasko Vassilev
Dancers: Leanne Benjamin, Valeri Hristov
Voices of Spring
Johann Strauss II
Dancers: Yuhui Choe, Alexander Campbell
Monotones I and II
Dancers: Emma Maguire, Akane Takada, Dawid Trzensimiech, Nehemiah Kish, Edward Watson, Marianela Núñez
Marguerite and Armand
Music: Franz Liszt
Solo Piano: Robert Clark
Dancers: Tamara Rojo, Christopher Saunders, Sergei Polunin, Gary Avis, Artist of the Royal Ballet