La Valse/ Invitus Invitam/ Winter Dreams/ Theme and Variations, Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, October 2010

The high point of this lovely mixed bill was Theme and Variations, created by Balanchine in 1947 for Alicia Alonso and Igor Youskevitch. The following year Ms. Alonso founded the Cuban National Ballet, and now at almost 90 years old did us the honour of attending, and appearing on stage at the end flanked by Monica Mason and Carlos Acosta. More on him later when we come to Winter Dreams, but in the meantime, what wonderful dancing from Tamara Rojo and Sergei Polunin in Theme and Variations. Their main pas-de-deux was flawlessly executed, and Polunin’s solo, involving a double tour-en-l’air followed by a pirouette — repeated perfectly time after time in perfect harmony with the music — elicited cheers from the audience. This was a wonderful show of classical dance, and indeed Balanchine intended this ballet: “to evoke that great period in classical dancing when Russian ballet flourished with the aid of Tchaikovsky’s music.” The dancing from the entire cast was excellent, and it’s only a shame that the music — the final movement of the Suite No. 3 for Orchestra (opus 55) — was unevenly conducted by Barry Wordsworth. It was lifeless at the beginning but too loud when the trombones all roared into action, though it settled down later.

The first item — Ashton’s choreography for Ravel’s La Valse — was beautifully performed by the company. The music was completed in 1920, encouraged by a commission from Diaghilev, who then rejected it as “untheatrical” and not a ballet but “a portrait of ballet”. Since then it has been choreographed many times, most notably by Balanchine in 1951, and Ashton in 1958. Ravel envisaged La Valse as set at the imperial court of Vienna in 1855, and saw it as “a choreographic poem … a sort of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz … the mad whirl of some fantastic and fateful carousel.” The waltz themes in the music are subject to unexpected modulations and instrumentation, but the conducting did not quite bring out the macabre quality of Ravel’s creation, though the dancing was, as I said, excellent.

Winter Dreams with Acosta and Nuñez, photos by Johan Persson


Winter Dreams, to music of Tchaikovsky arranged by Philip Gammon, was beautifully performed by Gammon himself at the piano, along with a small band at the rear of the stage, playing traditional Russian music, and including traditional Russian instruments. This ballet by Kenneth MacMillan is a distillation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, but its genesis was a pas-de-deux for a gala celebrating the ninetieth birthday of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother in 1990. After he’d created it MacMillan said, “When I saw it, I realised that this was the farewell between Masha and Vershinin from Three Sisters, and I had to go on and make Winter Dreams”, which he did in 1991. The central pas-de-deux was superbly performed by Marianela Nuñez and Carlos Acosta as Masha and Vershinin, and Masha’s husband was wonderfully portrayed by Jonathan Cope. The other two sisters were beautifully danced by Mara Galeazzi as Olga, and Laura Morera as Irina, and the whole cast performed with elegance and emotion. The ballet is not a rendition of Chekhov’s play, but recreates its melancholy and atmosphere of quiet despair.

Invitus Invitam with Benjamin and Watson

The new item on this mixed bill was Invitus Invitam by Kim Brandstrup, a ballet inspired by the relationship between the Roman emperor Titus, and Berenice, queen in the Roman province of Judaea. Racine created a play Berenice on the story of their ill-fated love. When Titus’s father Vespasian died it seemed he would be free to marry Berenice, but public opinion was against marriage with a foreign queen, and Titus chose duty to Rome over his love for Berenice. The ballet involves three meetings between them. In the first she senses something is amiss, in the second she knows it but resists it, and in the third they meet for the last time before parting forever. The title comes from a single sentence in Suetonius where he says that Titus, who passionately loved Berenice and intended to marry her, let her go invitus invitam (against his will, against her will). Berenice and Titus were danced with subtlety and restrained emotion by Leanne Benjamin and Edward Watson, and this was a fine sequel to the unworldly quality of La Valse. The setting by Richard Hudson, with clever lighting by Lucy Carter, involved lines, circles and spirals appearing on a vast blackboard, with rulings like a piece of graph paper, showing mathematical constructions of angles. This created an atmosphere of calculation and inevitability, and later morphed into brick walls from the Royal Opera House’s Rigoletto set. On the other hand the presence of two people with notes, who seemed to be preparing the scene, suggested that things might always have gone differently, but that is life. It always seems more inevitable in hindsight. Music was by Thomas Adès after Francois Couperin.

That the Royal Ballet could put on these four works in one evening, and do them all to perfection, is a testament to the strength of this company. A single ticket buys an eclectic evening’s entertainment, and further performances will take place on October 18, 22, 28 and 30 — for more details click here.

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