Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Royal Ballet

For those who are adherents of the Balanchine aesthetic of dance, performances of Britain’s Royal Ballet are bound to be disappointing.

To begin, and of greatest importance, technical standards at the Royal Ballet are not high. Royal Ballet dancers lack the speed, strength, musicality and sheer virtuosity of American dancers. What passes for dancing on the stage of The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, would never fly at New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theatre.

Further, Royal Ballet dancers remain guilty of the numerous clichés thrown at them over the years, clichés suggesting that Royal Ballet dancers stress “personality” over technique. “Actors in tights”, “they dance with their eyebrows” and “what they lack in muscle tone, they compensate with makeup” are the most common dismissals directed at Royal Ballet dancers. There remains a kernel of truth in all of these clichés, since such unfortunate tendencies continue to plague the company.

Moreover, the Royal Ballet seldom offers much of pure dance interest. Instead of dance, the Royal Ballet offers what must be called pageant, or at least ATTEMPTED pageant (most Royal Ballet offerings do not succeed as pageant any more than they succeed as dance). As a general rule, Royal Ballet dancers and productions are inert, ossified—and hideously overdressed and overstuffed.

All of these tendencies at their worst were on display in the Royal Ballet’s presentation of Kenneth MacMillan’s “Manon”, which Josh and I and my parents attended at the Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington last Friday night.

MacMillan created his full-length “Manon” in 1974, while he was Director of the Royal Ballet. One of the lamest ballets ever created, “Manon” was the major legacy of the MacMillan era (1970-1977). More than any other MacMillan work, “Manon” marked the death knell of English Classicism and signaled the end of Frederick Ashton’s dominance over the once-great company.

“Manon” also heralded the beginning of the Royal Ballet’s gruesome decline, a decline that has continued, with a pause now and again to attempt to recapture the Ashton magic, for more than thirty-five years. The company has yet to recover from the disastrous MacMillan epoch.

By the end of the MacMillan era, the Royal Ballet was no longer able to dance the Classical repertory or the Ashton repertory with style and conviction. The company’s focus—and capabilities—had shifted toward mastering MacMillan’s own ballets, acutely bad 1970’s versions of German Expressionism in dance.

Things got worse under the directorship of the clueless Norman Morrice (1977-1986), whose background was in modern dance. At the time of the Morrice appointment, it was hoped that Morrice would be able to identify promising new choreographers and engage them for the company. Morrice’s eye for talent-spotting, however, was blind. He was never able to identify new talent—and, more alarmingly, was never able to acquire a satisfactory grasp of the Classical repertory. Mercifully, Morrice’s unhappy directorship was cut short, after which he completely disappeared from view. At the time of his death early last year, Morrice was a forgotten figure—and his tenure at the Royal Ballet had been largely forgotten, too.

Anthony Dowell, a former Royal Ballet dancer steeped in the ballets of Ashton, was appointed to succeed Morrice. Dowell’s assignment was to return the Royal Ballet to its Classical/Ashton roots, but Dowell’s long tenure (1986-2001) was only a measured success, if that. Renewed attention was paid to Ashton, but important new works and important new dancers did not materialize, and the company’s Classical repertory remained in listless shape. The Dowell era ended up being a caretaker regime that went on far too long.

An irrelevant Ross Stretton interlude (2001-2002) yielded little more than reams of malicious newspaper gossip.

Since 2002, the Royal Ballet has been in the hands of another caretaker, Monica Mason, also a former Royal Ballet dancer. Mason was handed the reins with the remit to preserve both the Ashton and the MacMillan repertories—a task impossible on its face, as a company may choose to master Classicism or Expressionism, but not both—and to raise standards in the Classical repertory.

The result, inevitably, is a company that is neither fish nor fowl, destined to offer weak performances of every corner of the repertory. The Ashton repertory suffers, the MacMillan repertory suffers, the Classical repertory suffers. This is the perfect formula for enshrining mediocrity into stone.

And the Royal Ballet last week was undoubtedly mediocre—if it even arose to that low standard. Other than the two principals we saw, Alina Cojocaru (from Romania) and Johan Kobborg (from Denmark), the company was in dreadful shape. I was dumbfounded at the shoddiness of the dancing on the stage.

“Manon” is considered to be a classic in London, but the ballet has always pretty much been sniffed at if not outright dismissed by American dance observers. Last week, the Washington Post reviewer called the ballet “garbage”, and she was not far wrong (although I would have substituted the word “kitsch” for “garbage”). MacMillan’s work is not held in high regard in the U.S., and this is because American audiences exposed to a steady stream of Balanchine cannot be expected take MacMillan’s work seriously.

MacMillan was not a creative, imaginative choreographer in the mold of a Balanchine. His steps have no interest, and no continuity. He was unable to fashion a sequence of phrases and movements into an integrated whole. MacMillan simply had no talent for choreography, as countless experts—among them Balanchine—have been quick to point out.

MacMillan was also not a musical choreographer. He was unable to CHOOSE music wisely—he did not choose good music, and he did not choose “danceable” music—and he was unable to USE music wisely. For MacMillan, music was mere background. He did not choreograph TO or AGAINST the music—instead, the interplay between music and dance was loose, even incidental. In a MacMillan ballet, there is no essential, unbreakable bond between the music and the dance as there is in the work of a great choreographer.

The music for “Manon” proves the point. The score for “Manon” is an ineffective hodgepodge of pieces by Jules Massenet, none borrowed from Massenet’s opera of the same name. The score neither sustains nor supports the story that unfolds on the stage. Further, as might be expected, the score lacks coherency. I cannot imagine a capable choreographer even agreeing to work with such piffle.

However, a bad musical score hardly proves fatal for “Manon” because the ballet itself is the problem. There is not a single moment of choreographic interest.

In fact, I’m not even sure that “Manon” is a ballet.

It is, mostly, a story told in “movement”. Its foundation is not Classical ballet, but the provincial British theatrical. Specifically, its genesis is the world of British pantomime, here transferred to the ballet stage. British pantomime is not now and has never been exportable, and the pantomine-based “Manon” truly should never have been permitted to leave the confines of the British Isles. The rest of the world is very much better off without it.

Why did the Royal Ballet drag this meretricious nonsense halfway around the world for display to a Washington audience?

I wish I knew the answer to that question, because “Manon” was a woeful artistic blunder. (It was a commercial blunder as well—performances in Washington, the only stop on the Royal Ballet’s 2009 U.S. tour, were sparsely attended, even with heavy papering of the Kennedy Center Opera House—and I understand that the Kennedy Center took an ugly financial bath on the engagement.)

Last week’s “Manon” was the second time I have seen the ballet. My middle brother and I saw the Royal Ballet perform “Manon” at Covent Garden in, I think, 2002 (but it may have been 2001 or 2003). I hope never to see the silly thing again.

Ironically, I enjoyed last week’s performance immensely, but this was solely because I focused all my attention on Miss Cojocaru, who gave what must be called a star’s performance.

And Miss Cojocaru is indeed a star. She has riveting stage presence. She can bring anything she dances fully to life. She even managed to give the impression that she believed passionately in the ballet, which had to be quite a trick, as the role of Manon is an inherently ungrateful one, and completely unworthy of Miss Cojocaru’s vast talents.

My parents were delighted to see the Royal Ballet again, but they were not delighted to see “Manon”. Alas, “Manon” was the only ballet on the Royal Ballet bill all last weekend, so we had no choice but to see “Manon” if we wanted to see the Royal Ballet. At least we had our pick of four different casts, and were able to obtain tickets for the finest of the four casts.

My parents had seen “Manon” before, too, in 1978 in Chicago, and all they remembered from that long-ago “Manon” performance was that the ballet itself had been a cipher, the score dreadful, and the physical production sumptuous. Having now seen the ballet a second time, my parents are sticking with their original assessment (although they certainly appreciated Miss Cojocaru).

Josh was diffident about “Manon”. He, too, thought Miss Cojocaru was the best thing about the performance, but he also enjoyed—and laughed at—the shameless mugging of the supporting cast, derived from the silent screen.

Josh was not the only member of the audience smirking and snickering at the silly goings-on onstage. There was more than a little giggling during the performance.

We found the Washington audience’s reaction to “Manon” to be very interesting.

Applause was polite but nowise enthusiastic, not even for Miss Cojocaru. Applause died out even before the large cast managed to take a full round of bows, which is very, very uncommon. The Kennedy Center Opera House emptied within three minutes of the house lights coming up. A fire alarm could not have cleared the house so quickly.

We overheard persons talking at intermission and after the performance, and most persons were comparing the Royal Ballet with the Bolshoi Ballet, which had appeared in Washington the previous week.

Of course, the Bolshoi Ballet continues to maintain very high technical standards while the Royal Ballet does not, and the chitchat we overheard was mostly shock and dismay about the current shabby state of the Royal Ballet. The company is in a veritable state of crisis.

I have always welcomed the chance to see the Royal Ballet. I’m glad I saw the Royal Ballet again, and I’m glad my parents saw the Royal Ballet again, and I’m glad Josh had his first opportunity to see the Royal Ballet.

However, the Royal Ballet’s Washington appearance was altogether embarrassing. The company is in dreadful shape.

I am going to write further about the Royal Ballet.

I am going to write about the Royal Ballet next week, while we are all up at the lake. I have an extensive history of following the Royal Ballet, my parents have an extensive history of following the Royal Ballet, and my sister-in-law has an extensive history of following the Royal Ballet (she, of course, grew up on the Royal Ballet), and I want to record my and their memories of past performances we have attended in different cities at different times.

I will also tell the story of the time my parents met Edris Stannus. (I resolutely refuse to call that foolish woman by the ridiculous public name she chose for herself. The woman was the daughter of an Irish glassmaker. She had no connection to the House Of Valois and she was not a descendant of the Capetian Dynasty.)


“To me, the stage is alive only when there are ideas on it. And there are no ideas in ballet.”—British Stage Director Peter Hall

A sentiment applicable to the ballets of Kenneth MacMillan, Mr. Hall, but surely not to the ballets of George Balanchine.

1 comment:

  1. It's really very puzzling why you made the choice to see Manon at all. And twice.

    I don't agree with the majority of your comments about the Royal Ballet, though I do concede that they were wrong to take Manon to the U.S. where it most surely cannot be appreciated. Your review confirms my view.

    The Company are far from perfect; but a lot of your remarks are simply your view and to be honest, are pretty unkind to the hard-working dancers. They certainly don't spend their time in "pantomine" or any of the other genre's you mention.

    Yes, they were unwise to take Manon to the US, but watch the reaction in Cuba if you really want to see appreciation.