Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Thoughts on a man who has since produced the goods...

I have been trying to tidy up some computer files full of out of date notes, and I found this - my thoughts after the last time I got to see two different casts in the same ballet programme at Covent Garden, back in the autumn. Since it contains a bit of musing on Nehemiah Kish, the chap I saw coming out of his shell to such excellent effect last weekend, I thought I'd pop it down in here, for my own reference as much as anything. Yes, more ballet-ramblings; sorry. But it's amusing and pleasing to see I was more-or-less on the button with him.

"I also went to a second performance of the Royal Ballet Mixed Bill; sheer self indulgence on my part. I had booked it because I read in an interview with Kim Brandstrup that he was fascinated by how his new ballet was shaping up differently depending on which of the two casts were dancing – he actually said something like “it’s almost like doing two different ballets”. Then a couple of days after I had treated myself to a second ticket for a performance with the other cast, poor Alina Cojocaru injured herself and had to drop out, and Ed Watson and Leanne Benjamin stepped up to do every night. So I got a double dose of them – at which I am not complaining (complaining? – at wonderful Leanne Benjamin and gorgeous Ed Watson?!), though I would have loved to see Cojocaru and Kobborg too. The rest of the casting for the whole bill had to shift around, too; I didn’t see quite who I had expected, either time.

Still, it is sheer luxury to see two performances of the same programme, and to be able to compare casts. I went to the Saturday matinee on the 16th, and the evening show on the 30th; the second performance in the run, and the last.

To be frank, first time around I thought “La Valse” looked a bit messy. The dancing was passionate but rather untidy and the final image was spoiled by the central sextet having trouble getting going – they were still trotting briskly in a circle as the curtain fell, when they should have been whirling madly round with the girls’ feet well off the ground. This Saturday, by contrast, everything was perfect, really elegant and polished, and the dramatic undertones came across strongly.

There is something weird about “La Valse”; Ravel’s music has a tension one doesn’t expect in a waltz, and Ashton's choreography hints at this same sense of danger. The men leap in unison as if bursting with sublimated stress, and there is an increasing feeling of foreboding as the dancing grows ever wilder without quite breaking its conventions; it is as though these people are trapped in some doomed kingdom, dancing forever in their fairytale evening dress. The best image I can come up with is of the citizens of the Land of Lost-Hope, in Susanna Clarke’s marvellous “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell”… These dancers are beautiful, yes, but also haunted and haunting.

“Invitus, invitam” knocked my socks off, and Watson and Benjamin were both dazzling, both nights. It’s one of the most nuanced pieces of contemporary ballet I’ve seen, and passing straight from “La Valse” to this was a good judgement call. It’s as if the general disquiet of “La Valse” has moved into a personal level; the device of the second couple apparently running through the blocking of the piece in rehearsal clothes, their own relationship lightly sketched in around the choreography of the central couple, suggests the timelessness of this story of heartbreak and separation. The lovers in the story must part, however much they long for another outcome, and even those to whom this is just a story to enact will have their own stories also, and their own partings.

I must say, though, following this with “Winter Dreams”, with its equally sad story, does leave one feeling pretty emotionally drained by the second interval. It started to seem as if the whole evening were one long descent into a realm of loss and sorrow.

For the first “Winter Dreams” performance I saw, the leads were Tamara Rojo and Nehemiah Kish; a mismatch, basically. I don’t want to be rude about the new guy – he dances well, but he looked oddly controlled, even cautious, for someone supposedly in the throes of an overwhelming passion. He was elegant (he has lovely arms) but his acting is on the quiet side and he looked downright subdued beside Ms Rojo, who as always was acting her socks off. But I do think it was a mismatch as much as anything. The best comparison I can think of is of what would have happened if you had ever been able to put Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi on the same stage; Callas would have acted Tebaldi into the orchestra pit, given her famously-intense histrionic oomph. And yet, in the long run, Tebaldi was the better singer, and the one who had the confidence to let the drama that is inherent in the music come through, rather than imposing her own drama upon it.

So I hope it will be with Mr Kish, as he gets the feel of the House. For all I know he’s been used to a smaller auditorium with better sight lines (CG is a bit of a barn, after all), and have developed an acting style to match – he may just need to open up and relax a bit more. He’s tall, which can only be useful in a Company with some (ahem) less-than-tall fellas, he’s got a pleasant quirky face (& a splendidly long nose), and he did a lovely job in the second cast of “La Valse”, partnering Lauren Cuthbertson beautifully, so I’m prepared to give him a chance and see how he shapes up as he settles in.

The other parts were well cast and well danced, especially Jonathan Cope as the unhappy Kulygin, and Itziar Mendizabel as Olga. I saw Cope again on the 30th, and he was even more nuanced and subtle second time around. His solos were almost painful to watch, so perfectly did they express pain. It’s a joy to see him in action again – dare one hope for more of him on stage again?

The Masha and Vershinin on the 30th were Marianela Nuñez and Carlos Acosta. Wow, is Ms Nuñez shaping up into a deeply wonderful dancer! I first saw her in action ages ago as one of Swanilda’s friends in “Coppelia” - a charming girl with a huge beaming smile; then as Lise in “La Fille Mal Gardée” – another charming smiling girl; then as the Lilac Fairy – a beautiful embodiment of warmth and goodness (and pretty charming and smiley, too). Then in “Serenade” she appeared as the girl who arrives late; somehow without ever actually acting (after all, it is a non-narrative ballet) she conveyed a sense of the loneliness of someone who always “arrives too late”, who is perpetually on the outside with no real idea of why. Her delicate and graceful dancing was deeply moving, infused with a beautiful, subtle melancholy. I think she is learning the immensely difficult art of acting within the movement – as certain great opera singers (to extend the earlier Callas v Tebaldi metaphor a little) act within the music – trusting the material to give her the drama, instead of thrusting her own upon it. The results are proving magical; her Masha was utterly heartrending – I found her far more affecting than Rojo, heresy though that may be to say. Acosta, working beside her, was also full of feeling. I keep reading critics saying he ain’t what he used to be – after all, he must be all of thirty-eight – but he still seems pretty splendid to me.

Thank goodness, though, that the bill finished up with some delightfully crisp, sparkly Balanchine; no painful emotions here, just fun and games, the ballet equivalent of downing a glass of fine champagne. After all that heartfelt feeling one really needed it, and I came out humming the Tchaikovsky music happily."

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