Everyone really only wants to hear Variation 18 from Rachmaninov’s famous piece, and anything additional is probably a bonus. A big bonus is to see Steven McRae leap and bound with some ridiculous over-the-top, laugh-out-loud moments of dancerly pyrotechnics. Scything scissorring jumps, his trademark chaine-tornado, McRae revelled in Ashton’s writing. There’s flash, flair and brio which is McRae’s metier, and he showed glorious definition in tours especially.
Natalia Osipova is not a natural Ashtonian, but a winning smile goes some way to convincing an audience that she is. More limpid lines would have helped (she is like McRae, a pint sized pyrotechnician herself,) and the result was in cantabile moments, not quite so much “cantilena” as crystalline. Which is not to say brittle, merely instead to suggest facets which aim to dazzle – literally to fascinate, rather than the suggestion of depths to lose oneself in, or lyricism to beguile and soothe.
“She is the most delicate human being” said the girl next to me to her friend afterwards. Up close, one might reconsider that statement. A body honed on dance and raised on bravura shines through. The strength of attack and address which she cannot disguise comes across in all she does. I may be mistaken, but her new found exploration of the modern styles of dance seemed to tint her dancing. One sensed a pleasure in being free from truly classical restraint. One saw it too in the rhapsody on her face (skilful acting) within the Rhapsody, and especially in that famous “18th”. Te resulting union of text and music was enough to bring a tear to my eye, but not to sustain that feeling, or admit surrender to it. I hear Francesca Hayward was in her own way, gorgeous when dancing this piece, and I regret not seeing her in it. Nevertheless, it was good to see Ms Osipova dancing again, after she has been away from Covent Garden’s stage for so long.
Corps work was largely strong, brisk beats and exuberance from all, which as always came to some more easily than others. The piece has obvious challenges for any skilled ballet technician. Once more (broken record time…) I spied a lilting grace note in the hands from an especially skilled dancer. Once more she revealed herself to be Yasmine Naghdi.
The music was given – as were the whole piano lines, with alert sensitivity by Robert Clark. One felt the baton of Vasko Vassilev yield to no-one. A Rhapsody with tempi all over the place would have been horrible to hear and see. At the curtain, deserved cheers for all. It won’t be my fvourite piece, I am too uncouth to truly enjoy hearing the dance/seeing the music – and the piece is rather Balanchine-esuqe in its aspiration to elucidate one with the other, but its designs – dreamy pinky hues, cream tones and sequins (set by Ashton himself, costumes by William Chappell and re-crafted by Natalia Stewart) are just my type of thing.
After an interval, it was time for that piece of Ashtonian fluff Two Pigeons. Once more, Yuhui Choe was sublime (in the moments of tenderness and grace therein,) and silly and cute when acting. Petulance and sorrow were strongly shown. Her wriggle through the back of the chair – complete with torpedoing hands – was fantastic. Alexander Campbell‘s painter had ecstasy of reconciliation writ upon his face at the union pas de deux which spoke of true conviction and commitment to Ashton’s text. Campbell’s facility with the demands of the piece, its quick direction changes and complex, lightning fast footwork was evident, and happily his portrayal was shaded with lyrical nuance too. Feelings became arabesques, which showed as yearning; hands appealed for love in his solo in the gypsy camp, and loss settled upon him after being cast out from their camp, with an especially fine “ropes” solo thereafter. He is a fine young dancer.
Itziar Mendizabal was perhaps the most blazing Gypsy I have seen in this piece. Shoulder shimmys were fantastic. Her seductive gazes blazed forth. (Her cheekbones are also sensational.) Choe’s imitation of Gypsy was also genuinely amusing, and I’ll always laugh when the Young Girl is abruptly carried off, fist raised in pique. And yet again (Yasmine this, Yasmine that) that young lady was delightful in her interplay with Campbell, playfully poking him with a paintbrush, and even raising en pointe to tickle him. Ashton would have been proud, and proud of the corps of girls in the first Act. Their trio of unified supported arabesques on pointe was lovely and their unison work as winsome young filles and dangerously brazen gypsies especially fine. Special mention goes to David Yudes for his dynamic “Gypsy Boy”. Again, it was one of the finer displays of the role I have seen in these recent runs of the ballet.
Alexander Campbell must have been doing extensive pigeon wrangling homework because his pigeon settled on the chair exactly as requested. At the climax of the ballet my heart was in fact beating faster, hoping for no avian stage-fright or flying flubs, hoping for an ending just as planned – no hitches. I shouldn’t have worried. No hitches. When the girl pigeon (who is, let’s face it, probably a boy pigeon in real life,) glided in from the wings, my heart soared. What a gorgeous spirit Mr Ashton had to conceive of such a piece. And what joy to see it done once more, so well.
Cinema viewers can see these pieces again or for the first time, live on January 26. Well worth the price of a ticket.