The night’s question: Can Steven McRae chaîné any faster?
As the seasons began, so it ends – with Ashton.
The Royal Ballet draws their season on the Covent Garden stage to a close by performing three works by the founding choreographer, Sir Frederick Ashton.
First in line is The Dream. Based on Shakespeare’s play, Ashton has created a one-acter that lasts nearly an hour, but as though by some magic Titania and Oberon make the time fly by.
Through what could only be Ashton charm, the fairies and lovers take the audience on a comedic ride laced expertly with romantic allure.
On opening night, Steven McRae reprised his part as the King of the Fairies. Here too he triumphs, as he did in La Fille Mal Gardée at the start of the season – Ashton’s speedy, musical choreography pose no challenge for him. And by god’s grace, can he chaîné any faster?
As his Queen, Akane Takada made her début. She wowed with lovely footwork and generous, melting bourrées, but try as she might she was no comparison for second cast’s Titania, Francesca Hayward, a true Ashtonian dancer and a natural actress – no matter the part. Alongside Marcelino Sambé’s high flying Oberon (his début as well), she is impeccable.
Among the lovers – Hermia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius – First Soloist Itziar Mendizabal takes the crown as Helena (and the men too it might seem). She acts the part perfectly – throwing her gestures to the back of the theatre for all to see.
For extra comedic relief, in case there wasn’t enough already, Ashton put Bottom (Bennet Gartside) en pointe when after Puck transforms him into an ass. The music for his variation really does sound like a donkey’s bray.
And finally there is Puck, in many ways the ballet’s true star, who is portrayed by Valentino Zucchetti this opening night. Sadly, as with his Rhapsody, there are several times Zucchetti decides to give greater import to the height his jumps can attain than to the music – something Ashton’s ballets rely heavily upon.
As with Takada, the second cast for this character appears superior.
Spanish Artist David Yudes – who previously danced alongside Hayward and Sambé in Fille – asserts energy, power and musicality as Puck, though he could take a tip or two from Sambé on how to land softly. In years to come his Puck will surely be one to look forward to.
After The Dream, the programme moves into Symphonic Variations. The ballet premiered in 1946 and has been a signature of the Royal ever since.
Six dancers take to the stage in white costumes, only slightly tainted by black bands on some, and dance to César Franck’s 20-minute Variations Symphoniques.
The piece is abstract and it is in this piece we as an audience are able to explore Ashton’s more refined sides, away from the laughter and giddiness of works like The Dream.
Yuhui Choe and Yasmine Naghdi dance beautifully – Choe has already made her name in Ashon’s works and Naghdi uncanny articulation of her feet are only surpassed by Marianela Nuñez as the third female.
Even in the piece’s sombre moments, Nuñez makes you want to smile – her phrasing is otherworldly and you can tell she loves what she does, there is no greater pleasure.
Vadim Muntagirov is princely as ever, commanding the stage, especially when put with Tristan Dyer and the smaller yet James Hay. While the three dance with expertise, there is something missing.
That something is found in the second cast males – Reece Clarke as the lead with Benjamin Ella and Joseph Sissens in their débuts, the three are stately and react to the music with great ease.
Sissens, who graduated from the Royal Ballet Upper School and joined the company at the start of the season, will surely be the company’s star in years to come – kudos to Kevin O’Hare for giving him this chance so early.
The final piece is Marguerite and Armand, danced by Zenaida Yanowsky and Roberto Bolle respectively. Yanowsky retires from the company at the end of the season and this is her final piece on the stage of the Opera House.
After hearing great things about the piece I found myself disappointed and Ashton’s attempt at La Dame aux camélias fell miles short of what I expected.
Maybe Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nuryev danced it better – it was created for them and danced only by them when they lived – or maybe taste has something to do with it.
For me, the characters are never developed and the scenes are cut short. For their part though, Yanowksy and Bolle acted wonderfully and I couldn’t help but remember their Manon in 2014, a true triumph. Armand’s theme in Liszt’s music is dreamy and heart-wrenching at the same time.
Alas, it is a shame that Yanowsky’s retirement cannot come next season. Brining Bolle back to perform alongside her in Manon… well, that would be a retirement fitting the jewel she is to the Royal Ballet.
The triple bill remains in rep until 10 June, 2017 and will be broadcast on Wednesday 7 June, Yanowsky’s final performance. For tickets, casting and further details please visit the website of the Royal Opera House.