Asphodel Meadows, Enigma Variations, Gloria

Gloria Sarah Lamb & Thiago Soares Photo by Alistair Muir

The Royal Ballet: 30 November 2011

This triple bill, whilst so interesting in its parts, is melancholic as a whole. However, it is in melancholy that we become reflective, and it is in our reflection that we are kept company by the music of Francis Poulenc and Edward Elgar, and the ethereal presence of the Royal Ballet dancers.

Asphodel Meadows, choreographed by Liam Scarlett (premiered in 2010) is a flowing energetic neoclassical work, interspersed with moments of stillness between the dancers. Built around three pas de deux movements, these moments of stillness give the work an emotional depth in an otherwise abstract yet wholly consuming piece.  In the first pas de deux the audience is drawn to the beautiful face and shapes formed by Marianela Nunez. She is partnered by Rupert Pennefather and together they dance in a trance-like state. The second pas de deux was performed by Tamara Rojo and Bennet Gartside – both dancers who just know ‘how’. In the third pas de deux Laura Morera and Ricardo Cervera give us a lesson on how two become one. What a gift to see such an experienced cast and what talent Scarlett promises. My only wish is to see this piece recostumed – the unimaginative dull brown costumes are disappointing.

Asphodel Meadows Marianela Nunez & Rupert Pennefather Photo by Johan Persson

Is Frederick Ashton’s Enigma Variations anything other than a folly in 2011? Choreographed in 1968 to the music of Edward Elgar, its effect is mildly amusing, the balletic choreography limited. In recalling the creation of the piece former Royal Ballet dancer Patricia Linton reminds us that “…the genius of Ashton resides in what he gives us in the moment of watching…”.  If this is correct, then Ashton’s gift to the ballet audience is the music, which so splendidly reaches its climax during the ‘Nimrod’ variation. Bennet Gartside as A.J Jaeger and Christina Arestis as The Lady manage to push past the folly element, and offer us touching portrayals. Perhaps the key to this piece is not to fight against it but to let our emotions go and become involved in this bygone era, to become involved in the enigma that this ballet is.

In contrast, Kenneth Macmillan’s Gloria will always stand the test of time. Inspired by Vera Brittain’s memoirs Testament of Youth, this piece is an expression of grief and sorrow for those lost in World War 1.  Premiered in 1980 to critical acclaim, this piece continues to force reflection on the human carnage of war.  Set in no mans land; the audience follows the grief and sorrow of two soldiers in all their misery, longing and sadness. Is the woman on stage a figment of their imagination? They long for her, they mourn for her. The two soldiers danced by Carlos Acosta and Thiago Soares were aptly tormented and tortured, with Soares’ projection across the stage lights into the audience mesmerising. However, it is Ed Watson’s portrayal of the soldier in this ballet that is the defining of his generation (seen in an alternative cast). And so to the Woman, danced by Sarah Lamb. This is an ethereal role and her physical lightness and purity in line are gifts to the audience.

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Manon

Manon Lauren Cuthbertson & Sergei Polunin Photo by Tristram Kenton

The Royal Ballet: 8 November 2011

Manon is a role every royal ballet dancer wants to dance. And so when it is gifted to a dancer, a debut is a time of anticipation, a time of fear, a time of exploration and a time of admiration for all the dancers who have gone before. It is really only after the debut, that a dancer can really understand the role, that a dancer can shred the anticipation of the milestone.

This evening was a double debut, with the fearless Lauren Cuthbertson as Manon and rising star Sergei Polunin in the technically difficult non-bravura role of Des Grieux. When the ballet debuted in 1974 one critic described the role of Manon as a ‘slut’ and Des Grieux as a ‘fool’.

In the first Act we see the fool in Polunin, the earnest bookworm transfixed by the slightly more worldly Manon. Polunin’s first difficult solo is achieved with relative ease, though this solo often makes for uncomfortable viewing, the choreography revealing the slightest nerve, the slightest off balance. In Scene Two in Des Grieux’s lodgings in Paris the bedroom pas de deux is danced with such speed and daring, the result of which is a premature climax rather than the building of a passionate love for each other.

It is the genius of Macmillian’s choreography that comes to the fore in the Second Act as Manon is handed around – each man wanting his piece of her. Des Greiux watches from the sidelines, torn and distraught at the sight of Manon being flaunted before his eyes. With Polunin’s heart on his sleeve, his large eyes and dramatic stage presence it is him I am drawn to and his heartbreak I follow; despite him not dancing a step. We do not see the obvious slut in Cuthbertson’s Manon in this Act, rather she conveys Manon’s conflicts through her physicality – her expressive arms and upper body and her light extension. In Manon everyone has a price, and in Cuthbertsons reading, her price is low. We do not sense her prostitution has come at any great cost.

It is in Act 3 that Cuthbertson comes to the fore. We are drawn into her despair, her ability to make every step she takes look as though she thought of it only as she steps out of it. In the years to come I look forward to following her maturation in this role – it is through her brilliant technical execution and appetite for daring, that will in time, I hope, lead to a fascinating portrayal of the flawed Manon.

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