Royal Ballet Mixed Bill (Afternoon of a Faun, In The Night, Song of the Earth) – May 30 12.30pm

This mixed bill gave results which were truly mixed. Two Robbins pieces (Afternoon of Faun and In The Night) met with MacMillan’s Song of the Earth for this matinee.

First came Faun, Robbin’s hymn to New York barre-room bliss. In this practice room cute-meet, Vadim Muntagirov was Faun, Melissa Hamilton was um…non-Faun (Diana? Nymph? Hot girl from class?) Debussy provided the score and Barry Wordsworth (conducting) helped it happen. And yet, it didn’t quite happen as best it could.

Faun is eleven minutes of slight story. It still looks chic, but needs chemistry to flesh it out, and here the pair didn’t quite seduce.

From the moment the curtain came up, Muntagirov was every inch a handsome creature. Louchely supine, I remarked to myself (strange thought this) that, turned with grimed soles toward us, even his ballet-shoe clad feet resembled something “other”, one imagines a deliberate move by Robbins to let us know this creature was fey, but grounded, the gesture a little nod to his hoofed antecdent.

The shoes seemed unnatural appurtenances, inelegant, but his dancing did not. Muntagirov’s lengthy line unfurled as the man waked. There begun a testing of the body, like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. The music of Debussy tamed this Faun’s nature: no writhing here, no onanism: this is not Nijinsky’s Bacchic creature, this faun is metropolitan, and modern.

Melissa Hamilton appeared and sparks gently flew as a pas de deux begun. I have come to regard Muntagirov as musical to the tips of his fingers, literally, as even the line and position of his hands are polishedly musical and elegant. Hamilton didn’t quite share this same elegance but that is a small point. As a couple they paired well but I could have done with more “simmer”*. We are beyond the fourth wall in the piece, that wall being mirrored (as the setting informs us, it takes place in “a room with a mirror”) and the cool lines and lifts were well and good but a bit more ‘juice’ would have helped a lot. There’s a fine line between chic and truly cool (tepid) and it doesn’t help that the piece is so short. Played quite restrained as here, it felt a bit throwaway.

Next came In The Night: more Robbins, but more Romantic than Faun. The work itself feels a little like a museum piece, slightly dated in conceit and costuming. By contrast, something like Balanchine’s Four Temperaments, written almost twenty-five years earlier feels a world away in setting and time. One imagines that Robbins the arch-romantic, wanted to give Lincoln Center audiences a crowd pleaser, and In the Night is just that, a slice of old-fashioned romance.

Each couple danced to solo piano –  four works by Chopin. The “language” was slightly different for each: all are Robbins, but it is as if each couple dances a dialect of it.

As first couple Sarah Lamb and Frederico Bonelli were all the elegance Robbins would have wished for. Lamb was herself excellent as always, suitably winsome, and not a little bit Grace Kelly-esque. Bonelli impressed with excellent grace and his fine line, and equally fine partnering.

Hikaru Kobayashi and Valeri Hristov were up second and were a little less assured at the start than Lamb and Bonelli. The mannered writing of their steps (to the Nocturne in F minor) didn’t help, and so too, I thought Hristov’s costume looked quite dated (I assume it was the original outfit – by Anthony Dowell no less – from past productions.) The outfit is a nod to a hussar, but not something one would wear to a ball. (Perhaps they are all characters out of time?) Nevertheless they performed the steps dutifully, and gave a good account of themselves.

Roberta Marquez and Rupert Pennefather were the final couple and Marquez herself impressed the most out of the six. There were a few heavy landings (and Mr Pennefather took a shoe to the head – whoops!) but Marquez was wonderfully at ease with the demands of the writing and of the dramaturgy, such that there was (the piece is mainly a public tiff.) Technically she was very good indeed: seamless transitions through chains of steps and into and out of lifts, and a wonderful clarity of expression were all in evidence.

At the collective recognition that they had all been dancing like no-one was watching, but to the same common purpose everyone acted well – Lamb in particular. Lovely to see. The final group dance brought smiles and happiness. By the end, one imagined them high school sweethearts, debutants, or socialites. Like Proust, Robbins had a keen interest in the world of the rich* and in the end,like Proust too, became (feted as he was) part of their circle.

All in all, well danced. As needs must, musical interpretation ceded to danceability, pianist Robert Clark lost some of the magic of Chopin, the famous rubato and repose was only hinted at, but even so, nothing to grumble at. This was hardly the Chopin competition after all.

And then there was Song of the Earth, a mashup of Mahler, MacMillian and ancient Chinese poetry. Death’s Messenger (Edward Watson) stalks the stage/The Earth and Laura Morera is there too as some kind of vestal virgin/votary/woman. At her first appearance I thought she might be nursing an injury: her left foot was a bit heavier when used, in some places looking a bit more difficult in placement. If true, another reminder of how many injuries dancers carry, and yet perform with and yet she danced with conviction.

Even so I found the whole piece rather impenetrable. The tone of generalised anguish was readily identifiable, but having little German and no Chinese (and no surtitles at all) I was sadly quite ignorant of “the story” as given/sung by Tom Randle and
Katharine Goeldner
. Randle himself started quietly but sung with verve, though in places he sounded a bit strained at some higher and louder notes. As with his performance in Solaris, he was paced almost in front of the wings sidestage, though happily no one was wearing chickenwire couture. I was very receptive to Goeldner’s plush mezzo throughout, but perhaps both could have done well with some “sound reinforcement”.

No such reinforcements needed for the dancing though: Yuhui Choe was precise and well honed as she always is (being passed around, twirled around a bit much like Ferri last week in McGregor’s “Tuesday”) and was a pleasure to watch. Alexander Campbell definitely stood out in his brief solos and pairings: his musical interpretation was allied to intelligent technical execution, again a pleasure to see. And yet despite the work of all, the piece showing strong ensemble work with few weak links at all, onstage I wasn’t quite charmed or transported. I found sixty-five minutes of it quite hard going.

So there it was. A brief amuse bouche of Robbins, some old-fashioned “well met by moonlight” abandon, and then some odd and rather morose group work in McMillan. Not the worst thing I have been to, but not the best either.


*The constantly whispering girls standing on the upper slips above me could hae done with less Hamilton and more Muntagirov by the sounds of things.

* so too Robbins had read Proust in depth and attentively.


One comment

  1. It seems Isemene Brown has read my review:

    “Song of the Earth, currently on at Covent Garden, is frequently hailed as a masterpiece, but just as often you read comments by people baffled by it, lost in its length and orchestral density, and in their incomprehension of the German/Chinese verses that provided both composer and choreographer with their narratives.”


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