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The Judas Tree.

Popular wisdom is often wrong--even lightning occasionally strikes twice in the same place. In 1949, on that first and historic visit, Britain's Royal Ballet, then simply the penny-plain Sadler's Wells Ballet, or the "fabulous Sadler's Wells Ballet," as it was publicized by the tuppence-colored imagination of its impresario, Sol Hurok [see page 48], found a second home in New York City. And for a long time it returned, chez Hurok, at least every other year. But beginning in the mid-seventies the company found itself in shaky artistic form, and since 1983 had only been here once. Now, at last, it seems perfectly safe for it to come "second-home" again.

That appeared to be the measure and the message of the Royal Ballet's two-week summer season at the Metropolitan Opera House. One fascinating aspect of this all-too-brief encounter was the manner in which the company kept on parading out new cast changes right to the very end. It characterized a season notable for dancers rather than ballets, a season in which artistic director Anthony Dowell's revitalized and partly internationalized company probably reestablished itself as New York City's favorite visiting dance troupe, but still a season in which, unlike some of the great days in the Royal Ballet's Ashtonian past, style and technique were required to triumph over substance.

The repertoire had major flaws. Even Dowell's own new production of the company's best-revered classic, The Sleeping Beauty, although choreographically still in great shape, was left looking a mess by its modishly oldfashioned, back-to-the-thirties designs by Maria Bjornson. And the only two new ballets--Kenneth MacMillan's The Judas Tree and David Bintley's Tombeaux--hardly set the Hudson on fire. Even if they had, the revival of the evening-length Mayerling would have put it out.

Still, the dancers looked wonderful--as wonderful as at any time since Ashton's palmy days of Fonteyn, Nureyev, Beriosova, MacLeary, Park, Seymour, Gable, Sibley, and Dowell himself. Moreover, the Royal Ballet was prevailing despite having to dance--figuratively speaking--with one leg tied behind its back. For its standards had to be maintained even though, for various reasons, the company in New York City was missing four of its seven originally scheduled ballerinas: Darcey Bussell, Fiona Chadwick, Lesley Collier, and Sylvie Guillem.

Consequently the whole engagement became a veritable showcase for Viviana Durante, who was starred, at least once, in every ballet shown, and who started and ended the season with a Princess Aurora of a radiance so glistening it challenged history and memory both. Moreover, the shortage of ballerinas--for example, the four Royal Bluebirds had only two Princess Florines to share among them--also placed special emphasis on the unusually dynamic male dancing. This, not so incidentally, was led by the veteran former Bolshoi star Irek Mukhamedov, itself a signal instance of the British company's fresh awareness of the internationalism that has overtaken world dance during the past decade or so.

The production of The Sleeping Beauty, given its premiere in Washington, D.C., earlier in the year and yet to be seen in London, perhaps looked a tad better than at the Kennedy Center but remained a grave disappointment. Since Nadia Benois's designs for the company's very first production of the ballet in 1939, more than half a dozen variants have been attempted, but unquestionably the baroque palaces and Watteau-like landscapes by Oliver Messel for the 1946 Covent Garden staging (seen here in 1949) were by far the best, just as these cutely perspectived new Bjornson designs, ugly, unsuitable, and untheatrical, are by far the worst. The costumes (particularly those which, in association with disastrous makeup, contrive to emasculate the men) are as cheerfully tasteless, if not as cheerily revealing, as those for the Folies Bergeres spectacles of yesteryear. Bjornson is a fine designer who has here missed the mark with a sort of expensive expansiveness. The pity is that the company will have to live with her mistake for more years than seems fair.

The staging follows fairly closely the Petipa original, as delivered to the company by Petipa's own regisseur, Nicholas Sergeyev. Dowell's modifications of Ashton's Act III Pas de Trois--he makes it into a pas de quatre, adding the Sapphire Variation Ashton once choreographed for the Prologue--are far from improvements, and this version of the Garland Dance, attributed to MacMillan, is ill-advised. Of course, the original Petipa (last used by Mona Inglesby's International Ballet in 1948) is now lost, but Ashton in 1946 did a serviceable, albeit all-female, staging. Perhaps today the sensible course would be to ask permission to use the splendid Balanchine version.

The general production looks moderately sound, although the hunting scene is very sketchy (it would be nice to restore the brief sarabande duet for the Prince and the Countess) and the Prince's journey and the transformation scene feeble, while the new introduction of Carabosse into the episode of the knitting women is frankly illogical and nonsensical. And while we are on the subject of the birthday scene, it might be a good idea to characterize the four princes, and perhaps--with great daring--bring back the little dance for the four pages that has now been mislaid for about forty years. Still, like the productions by Birmingham Royal Ballet, Australian Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and New York City Ballet, and really no other, this can still call itself basically "Petipa" without bringing a blush to its cheek.

Of the Auroras, Durante, first partnered by a preening Zoltan Solymosi and later more satisfactorily by the elegant Bruce Sansom, was by far the best, although the piquant Leanne Benjamin, with a svelte but overeager Jose Manuel Carreno, also has the makings of a real Aurora. Young Muriel Valtat, a soloist, seemed, in Shakespeare's phrase, "o'er-parted" as Aurora, even though Jonathan Cope, suffering from a virus, nevertheless gave a strikingly bravura account of the Prince. The Japanese ballerina Miyako Yoshida, on loan from Birmingham, is certainly precise, but not all that much more. She found two attractive Princes, first in a rough-edged but powerful Mukhamedov, and later in a dashing and brilliant Stuart Cassidy.

Strangely enough, the company couldn't come up with one truly satisfactory Lilac Fairy, so this time round Carabosse--brilliantly portrayed first by Stephen Wicks and later by Derek Rencher and a wickedly diabolical Dowell himself--had it all her own way. The Bluebirds, Errol Pickford, William Trevitt, Tetsuya Kumakawa, and Cassidy, were all buoyantly high-flying, while their Princess Florines, Belinda Hatley and the excellent, but this season underused, Deborah Bull, fluttered gamely. But, perhaps best of all, was the whole company's ensemble sense of style and authority, from the Prologue fairies on down, in this ballet that the company has, over the years, carefully claimed as its signature classic.

One reason for the company's decline from grace--and certainly from America's favor--was its apparent belief that Sir Kenneth MacMillan was a choreographer on much the same level as Sir Frederick Ashton, which would be tantamount to an American company taking the view that Agnes de Mille was as significant as George Balanchine. A serious mistake. MacMillan's contribution to this New York season was the American premiere of his last ballet, The Judas Tree, and the revival, for four performances, of his full-evening Mayerling, previously seen in New York City for only a handful of performances in 1983. Undoubtedly part of any justification for the present stagings--and together the two ballets took up nearly a third of the repertoire's total playing time, whereas Ashton was allocated a scant sixteenth--was the opportunities they offered the company's two exotic male stars, the Russian Mukhamedov and the Hungarian Solymosi.

The Judas Tree is set to an excessively boring commissioned score from the English composer Brian Elias, has a complicated building-site decor by Jock McFadyen, and is even emblazoned with a quotation from, of all things, Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet. Yet, in mood and pretension, although certainly not in choreography, MacMillan's new ballet offers strange reminders of a work he himself performed in his youth, Robert Helpmann's 1944 dance drama Miracle in the Gorbals. Actually, the Helpmann, now long and fairly discredited, was better, clearer in its dramaturgy, and sharper in its dance imagery. What MacMillan was trying to convey in this muddled piece involving, among much else, a gang rape and Mary Magdalene, seems at best open to interpretation, and while the sexual grapplings (here and, for that matter, in Mayerling) he uses in his duets now seem to be taken at least as innovative, to me they don't do much more than recall the truly original pas de deux in Roland Petit's 1949 Carmen.

However, it must be admitted that The Judas Tree does provide a strong and sweaty dramatic role, the Foreman, for both Mukhamedov and, almost equally effective in an even coarser fashion, Solymosi in the second cast. They are matched, respectively, by a long-suffering Durante and Benjamin, as the only woman in the ballet, and the male dancers, particularly two soloist mates of the Foreman, played variously by Trevitt, Cassidy, Sansom, and Christopher Saunders, get a good workout.

Mayerling is altogether a different matter. A spectacular extravaganza--it has music lifted from Liszt but could well have had a commissioned score by Andrew Lloyd Webber--its finest moments are probably provided by Nicholas Georgiadis's magnificent designs. The Vienna of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the last century has rarely looked lusher. And the story of the mad Archduke Rudolf, including, when it finally arrives, his suicide pact with the young Mary Vetsera, is impressive. From David Wall, who created the role, onward, quite a few Royal Ballet dancers have excelled as Rudolf, but few have been as splendidly distraught and passionate as either Mukhamedov or Solymosi. (And at a matinee, the young Adam Cooper also gave a finely hysteric dramatic performance.) But all the acting in all the various roles with their varying casts would have done even the Royal Shakespeare Company proud. The current generation of Royals--with people like Rencher, David Drew, and all the others--have made recitative acting into a dance art.

If The Judas Tree reminded me of Miracle in the Gorbals, then Bintley's Tombeaux, set to Walton's Variations on a Theme of Hindemith, reminded me of Ashton's Scenes de Ballet. But not enough! The structure is strangely similar, but Bintley, while an adequate choreographer--and this is one of his better works--has yet to leave his creative imprint. (Perhaps someone ought to start a twelve-step program called Choreographers Anonymous. Of course, perhaps someone has.) Still, the ballet was nattily designed by Jasper Conran and very persuasively danced, with one cast, slightly the smoother, led by Durante and Sansom, and the other by Bull and Pickford. It was elegant--and elegance does as elegance did.

For me, and I imagine quite a few others, the choreographic highlight of the triple bill, and indeed of the entire engagement, came with the closing ballet, Ashton's The Dream. When I first saw Ashton's reverie on Shakespeare, Mendelssohn, and Victoriana in 1964, I initially compared it unfavorably to Balanchine's earlier version. How wrong I was. The Balanchine is a pleasant and very useful, if overextended, ballet, but the Ashton is a twentieth-century masterpiece. It was exquisitely danced by three separate and very different casts which I name with awe and record with honor--the superb Oberons were Carreno, Sansom, and Kumakawa (who at another performance made an unusually athletic Puck), and their Titanias were Benjamin, Durante, and a young junior soloist on the brink of ballerinadom, Sarah Wildor.

Taken as a whole, warts and all, it was a lovely, exciting season. In 1949 America was struck by what it took to be the English classic style. Is there still--when quite a few of the company, though mostly Royal Ballet School-trained, are not even English--an English style? Not really. There never was--that style was always a mix of English taste with Russian and Italian fancy dancing. This mix, oddly enough, seems to have survived. Dowell's Royal Ballet is the Royal Ballet still. Indeed, from the general way it is dancing, some would say it is the Royal Ballet again.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Metropolitan Opera House, New York, New York
Author:Barnes, Clive
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Dance Review
Date:Nov 1, 1994
Words:2005
Previous Article:The Sleeping Beauty.
Next Article:Mayerling.
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