Optimism at Royal Ballet As Company Finds Its Bearings

Ballet companies have their ups and downs, just like the rest of us. In recent years we’ve watched American Ballet Theatre rising, New York City Ballet falling, the Kirov and the Bolshoi struggling to regain their former glory. But no major company has had a more confusing time than London’s Royal Ballet, which has not only suffered from the usual crisis of uncertain repertory and underpowered stars but floundered badly during the disastrous, short-lived reign of Ross Stretton. Today, under the leadership of Monica Mason, one of the strongest and most intelligent of its dancers from the 60’s into the 80’s, it seems to be making a comeback-not through flashy innovations, spurious novelties and concocted celebrations but through careful husbanding of the company’s resources; through nurturing and developing dancers and respecting the past while trying to find a sensible road to the future.

The Royal is honoring its greatest legacy-its Ashton ballets; ambitiously exploring Balanchine (this season, Symphony in C, with Ballet Imperial and Jewels on the horizon); holding on to its MacMillan traditions (Mason was a particular favorite of his); and cautiously experimenting with newer choreographers while, of course, working to maintain the classics. After all, it was with The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake that the company conquered the world 50-odd years ago.

Two recent performances of Swan Lake at Covent Garden were both satisfying and unsatisfying. To begin with, the company’s production of this ballet, known for its unsteady performance history-everyone has a Swan Lake, and they’re all different-is solid, serious and as close to the 1895 version as any we know. There are touches that, as far as I can tell, are uniquely authentic: the introduction of young girls from the school into the ranks of the swans; certain formations of the corps. The Odile holds a long balance, interrupting the famous Black Swan pas de deux. The four cygnets are blessedly uncute. It all adds up to a welcome integrity of style, one that’s confirmed by the superb poise and gravity of the women in the corps. This is the 1987 production overseen by Anthony Dowell, then head of the company, with its ornate late-19th-century designs by Yolanda Sonnabend. Dowell’s aim was to reveal, not rethink, the ballet, and he succeeded.

But Swan Lake requires a great Odette-Odile, and the Royal, like everyone else, is short of great dancers. Its senior and beloved ballerina, Darcey Bussell, has been out with an injury, and neither of its most important young stars, Alina Cojocaru and Tamara Rojo, was on view at the two performances I caught. Half a dozen or so dancers took on the role this season; of the two I saw, neither Marianela Nuñez nor the American Sarah Lamb was more than competent in this role that must be lyrical, mysterious, exciting, tragic. You don’t expect to see a Fonteyn today (she was my first Odette-Odile, back in 1949, and still the greatest I’ve ever seen), but you have a right to expect to be stirred and moved. These swan queens were bland. Nor were their Siegfrieds any more vivid, although Siegfried is hard to make anything of-that’s why Nureyev and so many others have interpolated extended solos into the text, boring everyone but themselves. More disturbing than the underpowered leads were the unexciting casts of the first-act pas de trois, an important training ground for future stars. Only the up-and-coming (I assume) Lauren Cuthbertson made much of an impression.

It was wonderful to see Ashton’s The Dream with Cojocaru and her regular partner, Johan Kobborg, although I found his Oberon a little too feral. Anthony Dowell is in charge of this masterpiece-he recently staged it for A.B.T.-and he and his regular partner, Antoinette Sibley, on whom Ashton made it, remain the standard. But no complaints. The Dream fits today’s company beautifully, although in some regards A.B.T. outdoes them-the Royal just doesn’t have the amazing roster of male virtuosos that A.B.T. boasts and that this ballet, with the two demanding roles of Oberon and Puck, requires.

Kenneth MacMillan’s The Rite of Spring, the ballet that made a star out of a very young Monica Mason-she was MacMillan’s Chosen Maiden-suffers the fate of all ballets made to this score (except Paul Taylor’s brilliant spoof): It’s overwhelmed by the music. No wonder Taylor used Stravinsky’s two-piano version of the score. And no wonder both Balanchine and Ashton steered clear. Sidney Nolan’s imposing décor suggesting the heat and aridity of the Australian desert, the scores of dancers in clinging orange and white, the endless agitations of the choreography-for me, they’ve always been just an irrelevance and an annoyance. Nor, on this occasion, did an uninspired Chosen Maiden help matters.

But MacMillan was a master compared to the youngish Christopher Bruce, a modern-dance choreographer who this season gave the company Three Songs-Two Voices, set to the-violinist-known-as-Kennedy’s “arrangements and improvisations on original compositions by Jimi Hendrix.” There are three couples and a small corps; everything is derivative; Bruce doesn’t know how to deploy principals in front of a corps-all is confusion; it’s too long; and it takes itself far too seriously. The astounding Zenaida Yanowsky (she’s in the Plisetskaya-Guillem tradition) dominates the stage-she would dominate any stage-but to what end? The music, despite its fancy trappings, works like almost all rock music in ballet-against the dancing. Here is Kennedy on the subject: “Like Beethoven, Miles Davies [sic] and others, Hendrix was a hugely influential composer and, as with his famous forebears, he managed to reflect his fears and feelings through his music: such major composers are truly society’s mirror upon its times.” Think what the musical godfather of the Royal, the brilliant, witty Constant Lambert, would have made of this idiocy!

Finally, the main event of the season: the revival of Ashton’s three-act Ondine, which he created for Fonteyn in 1958 and which has been out of repertory far more than it’s been in. Presumably, Hans Werner Henze’s “modern” score has been partly responsible for Ondine’s lack of popularity (or for Ashton’s reluctance to see it revived during his lifetime), yet when you listen to it away from the theater, it’s a beautiful and effective piece of music. It can’t, however, claim to be at one with the highly romantic 19th-century story.

Very briefly: Palemon is all set to marry Berta when he encounters the sea nymph Ondine. If you know your Romantic ballet, you know that when a mortal falls in love with a magical creature, no good can come of it: La Sylphide loses her wings and dies; Siegfried and the Swan Queen are doomed from the start. In Ondine, in place of La Sylphide’s Madge or Swan Lake’s Rothbart, we get the vigorously anti-Palemon Tirrenio, Lord of the Mediterranean, and the jealous Berta, counterpart of Giselle’s rival, Bathilde. There’s the famous Shadow dance, when Ondine, beginning to grow human, plays with her new shadow; there’s a storm at sea, with the sailors and principles swaying back and forth to suggest the motion of the waves; there’s an innocent betrayal, à la Swan Lake, when Palemon forgets Ondine and marries Berta; there’s his death through Ondine’s fatal kiss. No doubt Ashton meant it all as a tribute to the period he so loved, but you can’t create a real 19th-century ballet 100 years after the fact any more than you can write a true Victorian novel today: It comes across as pastiche.

Ondine was, however, a perfect role for Fonteyn, and she held the ballet together and gave it life. Even so, the one time the Royal brought it to New York, in 1960, I found it peculiar and unconvincing. By 1966 it was gone, and it stayed gone for 22 years, when, at Dowell’s request, Ashton sanctioned its first revival. Of course, being by Ashton, Ondine has endless felicities, and perhaps if I had seen it with Cojocaru I would have succumbed to it, or at least to her. Tamara Rojo is a very different kind of dancer (the London public and critical establishment are divided into a Cojocaru camp and a Rojo camp); she’s strong, secure, on top of things, while Cojocaru is feminine, romantic, radiant.

Rojo worked hard to suggest Ondine’s sea-nature, and stayed consistently and persuasively in character. Yet the magic wasn’t there-the magic with which Fonteyn made you believe, against your better judgment, that the ballet made emotional sense. Nor did her Palemon, Jonathan Cope, help. He’s been a principal for just under 20 years, and he still has his long, beautifully shaped legs, but that’s about it. The much younger Ricardo Cervera, as Tirrenio, outdanced him by a mile.

Of course Ondine should be performed by the Royal-we need to see it, just as we need to see Balanchine’s comparably problematic Don Quixote (which Suzanne Farrell will shortly be reviving at the Kennedy Center). But neither will ever be central to the repertory.

So if there were obvious weaknesses among the principals and soloists and a washout of a new ballet, why be upbeat about the Royal? Because there are enough strengths to compensate. And because the company is performing with unmistakable optimism and appetite. Strong, intelligent leadership, even when it makes mistakes, pays off. The Royal is beginning to look not only as if it knows where it’s come from, but where it’s going.