sat 01/04/2023

Royal Ballet School Matinee, Royal Opera House | reviews, news & interviews

Royal Ballet School Matinee, Royal Opera House

Royal Ballet School Matinee, Royal Opera House

A young man shines out in a well-drilled crop of graduates

Sander Blommaert (right) and Imogen Chapman in 'Concerto': Blommaert is joining the Royal Ballet, and one to watch forPhotographs by Johan Persson/Royal Ballet School

The annual tradition that is the Royal Ballet School Matinee at Covent Garden isn’t just some prestige indulgence for the nervous parents of ballet children fortunate enough to survive the militaristic training and dogged enough to want to continue into the beckoning career where there are such frail job prospects. It is a place where the gap between a good student and a potential artist comes clear through the sheer size and one-offness of the occasion.

That’s a big stage to conquer, a stage of dreams and fame, where Fonteyn and Seymour danced, where Guillem and Bussell and Dowell lit fires of inspiration, and even a cub artist has got to make dreary little classroom steps something better, add a fleck of poetry to routine, a chink of imaginative light to academic correctness, and perhaps find any excuse to bring emotional colouring and response to music to a stage bedecked with lights, scenery and a full orchestra.

So there’s a high bar for the youngsters to surmount. No wonder so few of them at 17 or 18 hit you in the eye the way Laura Morera or Sergei Polunin did when they graduated. Yesterday’s matinee showed a well-drilled output of students, all crisp and synchronised in line of leg and arm, able to do six-o’clock leg splits with ease - and if that’s what ballet schools are all about, the RBS is doing a fine job.


The big school ensemble dances displayed a lively complement of boys and girls of all ages, with the boys perhaps slightly more enlivening in their numbers and zeal. The destinations of the 23 graduates offered jobs this autumn range from New Zealand to Boston, via Estonia, Cape Town, Scottish Ballet, BRB and the Royal Ballet itself.

To achieve such a high global employability entails pressing a lot of buttons in balletic styles, and one’s used to the fact that the choreography they do at the RBS matinee has less a care for a precious house style (as the Parisians and Russians do) than a whiff of Ready, Steady, Cook!, as if choreographers have been handed bags of requirements to cook with.  One bag has “Euro-pud, contemporary ballet, long rust dresses, democratic ensemble” in it, another has “Britisher light-classical, tunics, three movements around a nice pas de deux”, a third is “six o’clock legs, see-through black footless tights, electronic music, Attitude”  - yes, our old friend school-of-Forsythe.

Dutifully cooked by Liam Scarlett, Antonio Castilla and Parrish Maynard, none of these was a memorable dish, but they did sort out the interpreters from the rest. My eye was constantly drawn in Scarlett's Toccata to a boy called Sander Blommaert, who has an interestingly melancholy and contained concentration on the finesse of his dancing but also a flying jump of liberated joy. He is joining the Royal Ballet in the autumn, and I shall certainly look out for him.

The cod-Forsythe by Maynard, Fractals, probably identifies best the difference between school choreographic needs and those of the adult audience. This must be less valuable for its derivative and halfbaked steps than for the bold attitude and self-confidence it demands - that street slouch thing for the boys, those revealing costumes for the girls, they can’t be carried off faintheartedly, and teenagers need to be drawn out of themselves and learn to seize the stage.

However there were two major ballets on the programme of far more demanding nature, Kenneth MacMillan’s familiar and lyrical neo-classical Concerto and Antony Tudor’s remarkable compressed drama of 1936, Lilac Garden.

Blommaert again shone in Concerto’s adagio, with care and imagination partnering Imogen Chapman, a more robust and less eloquent interpreter of the gorgeous female role than Yasmine Naghdi, his partner in an invitation performance of this at Birmingham Royal Ballet’s 20th anniversary gala. The gifted Naghdi has already left for the Royal Ballet, and alas we weren’t given the chance to see her, but I liked the tiny, perky Laura Day in the first movement, with a lushness to her arms at odds with her size, and an innate performer’s communicativeness.

Lilac_Garden_Tudor_1936Lilac Garden (Jardin aux lilas), though, is a step too far for teenagers - of deceptively compressed steps, this Edwardian marriage drama may be Thirties (picture above, the original 1936 cast), but how it throbs with tragically suppressed feelings, deceivingly accompanied by Chausson’s sinously romantic Poème for violin and orchestra (beautiful, perfumed playing by Sergey Levitin, the Royal Opera House orchestra’s leader under Paul Murphy's sympathetic baton). It’s nearly Ibsen, so tight and confined is its drama and so coiled the passions. A young couple are betrothed, but each has another in their thoughts - and the two flames are at the betrothal party.

The emotional situation is precisely indicated in the names of the characters: Caroline, The Man She Must Marry, An Episode In His Past. In this knife-edge situation a single clue is enough to give the game away, and while Angela Wood made an arresting start with her opening gesture to her lover, and instant cover-up of it with her fiancé, later when she has just a few seconds of solo on her own, she couldn’t make that little fragment of secret desperate thought wing out. William Bracewell, a well-made lad who's off to Birmingham Royal Ballet, made a  strong and attractive Lover, an easier role than the complex threesome around him.

Miniature this ballet may be, but it’s a highly distilled potion. Sylvie Guillem was devastating in it 10 years ago, and the present Royal Ballet could make this devastating on stage, should they programme it with their current troops.

The choreography they do at the RBS matinee has a whiff of Ready, Steady, Cook! about it

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