Sylvie Guillem on resurrecting Marguerite & Armand | Dance reviews, news & interviews
Sylvie Guillem on resurrecting Marguerite & Armand
Is Ashton's tragic ballet for Fonteyn and Nureyev untouchable? Sylvie Guillem thought not
There's grand larceny afoot in the Royal Opera House. Two of today's stars are stealing Fonteyn and Nureyev's signature ballet, and they're leaving some spectators' cherished beliefs shattered in pieces around them. On Thursday, for the last time, Marguerite and Armand will be danced as a farewell to the Royal Ballet by its departed favourites, Tamara Rojo and Sergei Polunin, whose interpretations of the dying courtesan and her tragically hotheaded young lover have shown the heights that ballet can reach in deceiving spectators with purple romance.
The ballet was created by Sir Frederick Ashton exactly 50 years ago for the legendary Margot and Rudolf and it was believed that it would die with them - that nobody else could ever tread onto their hothouse emotional turf with sufficient magnetism and mystique. When it was resurrected in 2000 for the then Royal Ballet superstar Sylvie Guillem, the idea was greeted by some as a desecration of a tomb. There was also a rarely spoken doubt whether the ballet itself was choreographically up to scratch, or whether Ashton and his two stars had pulled off a con trick with nothing more than celebrity blaze and hot air.
Rojo and Polunin, like Fonteyn and Nureyev, and like Sylvie Guillem, bring a news backstory with them that juices up the onstage drama. Polunin was the renegade young star who fled the Royal Ballet last year, garlanded with every possible opportunity. Rojo is the prima ballerina who resigned at her peak a few months later to become English National Ballet's ballerina-director. (Picture of Rojo and Polunin by Bill Cooper/ROH)
Both left without proper farewell performances with the Royal Ballet - and this finale is proving a memorably effective one for both of them, he proving that he has gained maturity away from London, she showing that she retains every power to devastate her Covent Garden public with her dramatic artistry, particularly when partnered by Polunin. (You will find many balletomanes sobbing into their hankies at seeing so rare and astounding a partnership end barely as it had begun.)
Marguerite and Armand's two succulent-seeming roles are now drawing the world's superstars. The Bolshoi's Svetlana Zakharova will do it with Polunin in Russia later this year, Nina Ananiashvili recently performed it in Georgia, and the Mariinsky's Ulyana Lopatkina and Andrei Yermakov filmed a mopey take on it last year for a TV ballet contest, all Russian tendrils and prim sentimentality (watch below).
What is left unproven is whether this ballet has the choreographic muscle to resist the kind of eternity that Ashton dreaded, soaked in treacle and snatched like a trophy by senior ballerinas yearning to wear the fabulous Cecil Beaton dresses. It has no specific choreographic guardian assigned to it to ensure that Ashton's potent pillule doesn't turn into artificial sweetener.
Such doubts - and a certain public pressure - were on Sylvie Guillem's mind when she took to the stage for the ballet's resurrection in 2000, having refused it three times on just those grounds. When I interviewed her for The Daily Telegraph she explained how everyone involved knew they were entering an artistic minefield.
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