The Dream with Marquez and McRae, Song of the Earth with Watson, Benjamin and Hristov, Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, February 2012

When Frederick Ashton choreographed Dream in 1964 to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, he created a magical evocation of the play with Oberon and Titania danced by a very young Anthony Dowell and Antoinette Sibley, and every time I see this ballet I recall Dowell’s performances. But Steven McRae rose to the challenge of this fiendishly difficult role, and his slow pirouettes near the sleeping body of Demetrius were beautifully executed. His pas-de-deux work with Roberta Marquez was wonderful, and she made a lovely Titania, though her performance would have been even better if she had felt the music rather than treat it as background. Laura McCulloch, Thomas Whitehead, Melissa Hamilton and Ryoichi Hirano were all excellent as the lovers, Michael Stojko was an acrobatic but ineffective Puck, and Bennett Gartside was superb as Bottom. His head movements allowed him to infuse the character with a charming wonder at what was happening to him.

Fairies in Dream, ROH photo/ Dee Conway

Mendelssohn’s incidental music for the play, originally turned into a ballet score by John Lanchbery, was conducted here by Barry Wordsworth, but the musical performance lacked sparkle and conviction. Pity.

Kenneth MacMillan originally created Song of the Earth for the Stuttgart Ballet in 1965 after the board at Covent Garden had initially turned it down, considering Mahler’s composition a masterpiece that should not be touched. It was a huge success and Ashton immediately invited MacMillan to bring it from Stuttgart to London where it was also received to great acclaim.

Edward Watson, ROH photo/ Bill Cooper

The three main roles on February 8 were danced here by Edward Watson as the Messenger of Death, with Valeri Hristov and Leanne Benjamin as the Man and Woman who are attached to one another and the transient things of this life. The dancing was superb, and Watson was gloriously powerful. Both he and Benjamin were supremely musical, but Hristov who has danced this role before seemed oddly uncomfortable, his body language lacking conviction. This was a pity because the nineteen-strong cast otherwise performed to perfection, with wonderful leading roles by Ricardo Cervera, Sarah Lamb and Lauren Cuthbertson.

Musically, Mahler’s composition to Tang dynasty songs translated into German has a sense of mystery that is beautifully encapsulated by MacMillan’s choreography, with simple costumes and excellent lighting design by John B. Read. Fine singing by Katharine Goeldner, and Tom Randle replacing Toby Spence.

There are now just two further performances, on February 9 and March 5 — for details click here.

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