The charm of Ashton’s choreography: ‘The Dream’ truly dreamy, ‘Symphonic Variations’ simply visionary, ‘Marguerite and Armand’ emotionally arresting
The Royal Ballet bring clarity and refined classicism to Frederick Ashton’s charming choreography in a beautiful Triple Bill that encapsulates the versatility, vitality, and affectiveness of their founder choreographer’s wonderful work. Dancers past and present – from the original Oberon in The Dream, Anthony Dowell, to Henry Danton, one of the original six in Symphonic Variations – provide invaluable insights into Ashton’s timeless style and expectations of his dancers: impeccable musicality with fast footwork and expressive épaulement, performed purely, effortlessly, and with emotional intensity – it’s a lot to ask, but when mastered, as it is here, the effect is magical.
Opening this Ashton triptych is The Dream, a sharply streamlined adaptation of Shakespeare’s sprawling play that story-tells much more efficiently than its source. Ashton’s movement creates character as clearly as Mendelssohn’s magnificent music: the fairies flit and suddenly freeze in the moonlit forest to a flurry of fluttering strings and choral singing; Bottom – a brilliant Bennet Gartside – and his rustics move in earthy bounds to a braying march, and the height of playful Puck’s – a blossoming Valentino Zucchetti – bravura and ballon find reflection in high-pitched flutes. The lovers are also full of character, especially Matthew Ball’s funny, foppish Lysander and Itziar Mendizabal’s hopelessly bewildered Helena. Steven McRae’s leaps and pirouettes as the oppressive Oberon are superb, and he seems to embody Dowell in his fine performance alongside Akane Takada as his Titania, who really relaxed once in the romance of the last pas de deux, its final sliding splits and développés as smooth as silk and iconic mirrored penchés as impressive as ever.
Following this are twenty minutes of technical mastery, a harmonious marriage of Franck’s music, mastered by pianist Paul Stobart, with Fred’s movement. Wearing little more than white leotards and tights and staying onstage the whole time, the six-strong cast of Symphonic Variations are exposed, exhausted, but unequivocally excellent. The piece is led by Vadim Muntagirov, who’s really matured and developed as a dancer at the Royal, no doubt aided by his partnership with the unparalleled Marianela Nuñez, and it’s on fine form here: the crystalline, canon choreography is practiced, precise, and almost perfectly synchronised, with only a few instances where the otherwise faultless Yasmine Naghdi’s enviable extensions strayed slightly out of line. Naghdi’s partner, James Hay, has the most expressive hands and exquisite line, and Yuhui Choe and Tristan Dyer complete a consummate sextet.
Closing out the program was the most emotionally charged – in more ways than one – and challenging partnering piece, Marguerite and Armand. La Dame aux Camélias distilled into a series of passionate pas de deux and set to Liszt’s piano sonata – played by Robert Clark – the staging leaves a little to be desired, but the dance is all desire, caught between the coughs of Marguerite’s consumption. This performance was also a triumphant swan song for one of the Royal’s finest and most respected – see this post from fellow company member Olivia Cowley – principals, Zenaida Yanowsky. With Guest Artist Roberto Bolle as an arresting Armand, Yanowsky gives Marguerite grit and a tragic emotional resonance, her long extensions exquisite in the romantic lifts and freely expressive pas de deux. After her final curtain, it was beautifully poignant to see her partners from the Royal Ballet’s roster past and present, including Carlos Acosta, Jonathan Cope, and Nehemiah Kish, present her with bouquet after bouquet of flowers. A truly fitting finale to both a wonderful career and an evening of charming works.