Birthday Offering/ A Month in the Country/ Les Noces, Royal Ballet | Dance reviews, news & interviews
Birthday Offering/ A Month in the Country/ Les Noces, Royal Ballet
Dame Monica Mason closes her 10-year directorship with a final choice of favourites
A birthday offering, a wedding celebration - with that, and one further creative collaboration ahead, Dame Monica Mason makes her farewell as director of the Royal Ballet after 10 years. The last programme of favourites from the store cupboard must always be a tricky one, but true to form the mistress of the great occasion (anniversaries have been a mainstay of her programming) picked rituals and ceremonies that stressed company ethos and values.
Those 10 years of her reign have been steady, stable, conservative - mostly restricted in programming to the box-office comfort zone; and while the fecundity of the Royal Ballet’s repertoire has attracted an awesome range of star dancers, essentially those stars have been firmly subsumed to the Mason company ethos - and if they didn’t like, as Sylvie Guillem didn’t, tough.
The line-up was not a blinding A-1 team of ballerinas consistently throughout
For her last triple bill Mason took for its themes Frederick Ashton, ballerinas, Russia and company cohesion: Ashton’s Birthday Offering (a traditional company pièce d’occasion), his heartbreaking chamber drama A Month in the Country, and the remarkable, still bewildering Ballets Russes work on which the Royal Ballet’s founder Ninette de Valois fed for inspiration: Bronislava Nijinska’s 1923 Les Noces, in which a peasant marriage is devastatingly arranged to a strange, vivid Stravinsky score.
Birthday Offering was created in 1956 to show off ballerinas to the new young Queen Elizabeth, and if one could have cast it from the stars who have illuminated Mason’s years, the seven ballerinas would have dazzled - from Guillem, Darcey Bussell, Leanne Benjamin and Miyako Yoshida to Tamara Rojo, Alina Cojocaru and Marianela Nuñez today. Most of them are not native to the Royal Ballet, which shows how powerfully its repertoire appealed worldwide. And that was another Mason storyline, the dominance of foreign dancers over native products.
But there’ve been injuries and also Mason’s own dislike of flamboyance, and so the line-up was not a blinding A-1 team of ballerinas consistently throughout. With Rojo naturally centre, it called up sweet Yuhui Choe, crisp Laura Morera, courteous Sarah Lamb and dainty Roberta Marquez and a goodly selection of male cavaliers, but I wondered why Cojocaru and Nuñez weren’t in that A-team. We ought to gorge on ballerinas in Birthday Offering. And the second cast could be all the youngsters rising whom Mason puts her bets on.
The style is powerfully studied of Petipa’s Sleeping Beauty, a lifelong source for Ashton - the ballerinas’ solos strongly suggest the fairies' variations, and the half-hour work proceeds like an Anglicised 19th-century grand pas, with soloists as beauteous heralds for a succulent pas de deux. Ashton is said to have done this one for a bet that he could make a pas de deux without a lift in it, as a riposte to the smash-hit acrobatic tendencies of the newly revealed Bolshoi Ballet, who had just made their debut in London. The spun-gauze result is the work of a genius, using the woman like tumbleweed, skimming the floor weightlessly on her toes, wafted along by the man with feathery sweeps of his arm. Rojo and Federico Bonelli (pictured right) make a satisfying classical couple, his gentlemanly correctness warmed by her intense presence.
Still, the dancers hadn't generally got under its skin, and the result was slightly stilted. I suppose it’s not a ballet one loves more than one appreciates it: it’s a grand ballet but not a great one, full of excellence but conscious of its dignity and not given good enough music to take flight from its vocabulary. The Glazunov arrangement has the feel of flamboyant costume jewellery, big golden tunes, scintillating bling, Russian flutes all a-flutter, the Hollywood feeling enhanced by the white drape behind.
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