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(continued from October 1999 issue of Dance Magazine)

A short bus trip away from the Bolshoi Ballet's summer season at the London Coliseum, the Royal Ballet was returning to its roots at Sadler's Wells, but to a theater refurbished and essentially renewed. This "new" Sadler's Wells theatre, on the same site and utilizing the original basic structure, does indeed look and feel brand-new, with state-of-the-art equipment, chic architectural fixings, and a large, if disturbingly shallow, stage. In July 1945, the last time the Royal Ballet played that theater, it was the plain old Sadler's Wells Ballet, four years short of the sobriquet "the fabulous" that was bestowed upon it by the enthusiastic American impresario Sol Hurok.

How different is the Royal Ballet today, impatiently awaiting its December return to the grandly reconstituted Covent Garden? In 1945 the Sadler's Wells Ballet was equally poised on the brink of its own great adventure, being due to move to the Royal Opera House and its grand postwar reopening.

The Royal is markedly different from the engagingly spirited troupe led by Margot Fonteyn and Robert Helpmann in 1945. So many of the ballets of that immediately postwar season have been lost. Ashton masterpieces such as Nocturne, Dante Sonata (Ashton's only ballet in bare feet), and The Wanderer; and old-time repertory standbys such as Ninette de Valois's The Haunted Ballroom and The Rake's Progress; or Helpmann's then wildly popular dance-dramas Hamlet and Miracle in the Gorbals--all of them have disappeared. As has something of the sheer joy of dancing.

Is the present, much more limited repertory any better? I doubt it.

The major premiere was William Tuckett's The Turn of the Screw. It is what I suppose you would call a ghost story, which is surprisingly rare in ballet. You would think that, with all those yards of white tarlatan and young ladies flitting around on tiptoe, ethereal classical dance and classic ghost stories would have found a natural affinity. Apart from Giselle, where the ghosts of betrayed maidens lure luckless men to their deaths, and the slightly younger La Bayadere, which has a spectral plane that the living can visit only in opium dreams, ballet has largely avoided the spirit world.

Henry James's novel has often been dramatized, filmed, and, memorably, made into an opera by Benjamin Britten. And now Tuckett has balleticized it--or at least tried to. Although the attempt was interesting and even worthwhile, the setting, lighting, and projections by Steven Scott fantastically evocative, and the mysteriously somber music of Andrzej Panufnik's Arbor Cosmica, persuasively apt, Tuckett unfortunately failed to add bailers one essential ingredient: expressive choreography. There was a lot of grimacing and posturing but little dancing. Even such splendid performers as Irek Mukhamedov and Adam Cooper, alternating in the role of Quint, were unable to make bricks without straw or ghosts without dancing.

The repertory program opened with over-emoted, yet under-danced and badly lit, performances of George Balanchine's Serenade, and ended with more spirited stagings of Ashton's Rhapsody. This late Ashton work to Rachmaninoff's Variations on a Theme of Paganini (the same music Leonid Lavrovsky used for the Bolshoi's Paganini to very different purpose) was created in 1980 for Mikhail Baryshnikov and Lesley Collier. Despite ugly new scenery and costumes by painter Patrick Caulfield, the work remains a gem, and among its various casts it was a particularly welcome vehicle for Carlos Acosta and Viviana Durante.

The Cuban-born Acosta, whom the Royal Ballet shares with Houston Ballet, is among the most stylish classicists in dance--a special tribute to his Houston training from Ben Stevenson--and his dancing in the Ashton was simply perfect. He found a fine match in Durante. What a lovely ballet this is; with its speed and lightning virtuosity it would make a perfect acquisition for New York City Ballet. But one would hope that any American production would not be conned, as was Paris Opera Ballet last year, into taking the new decor with the ballet.

For me the major attraction of this Royal Ballet season was the rare revival of Ashton's Ondine, the last of his four three-act ballets. Created in 1958, it has not been seen in New York since its generally acclaimed U.S. premiere in 1960. This is a classic tale of a water sprite who falls in love with a human, Palemon, with predictably disastrous results for all concerned. It is known to most American balletgoers only from the still-available video, directed by Paul Czinner, which, although badly truncated, has the ballet's original stars, Margot Fonteyn, Michael Somes, and Alexander Grant. With its brilliant, specially commissioned score by Hans Werner Henze (recently recorded exceptionally well by Oliver Knussen and the London Sinfonietta on Deutsche Gramophon 453 467-2), and miraculously atmospheric costumes and sets by Lila de Nobili, Ondine was one of the Royal Ballet's most ambitious creations. Ashton's sensuously aqueous choreography, coupled with Fonteyn's limpid performance in what was said to be her favorite role, has proved unforgettable.

Amid a number of current casts of lovers was the real-life couple of Sarah Wildor and Adam Cooper. The latter got a Tony nomination for the Broadway production of Swan Lake last season, and both starred in the London premiere (1997) of Matthew Bourne's Cinderella and danced it earlier this year in Los Angeles. Wildor has all the quicksilver magic and choreographic delicacy that Ashton, with Fonteyn very much in mind, demands from Ondine; Cooper, strong, noble, and fascinated by this iridescent sea creature, staunchly supports her. At another performance--actually the last night of the season--Cooper's place was taken by the eloquent Bruce Sansom, one of the company's few experienced Ashton dancers, who gave a performance more polished than Cooper's, yet less dramatic.

In its first outing since 1988, the ballet as a whole--with its weird, fairy atmosphere and effortlessly luminous choreography--has revived superbly, with the wizardry of its stagecraft all marvelously intact and evident, including a sea voyage realistic enough to make you seasick. This would be a treat for American audiences on the next Royal Ballet visit.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Nov 1, 1999
Previous Article:Reviews of the Century.

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