Thursday, March 01, 2007

American Ballet Theater, Sadler's Wells

How often do ballet critics mention the music? Sometimes they even omit the names of the composers. And when they do they don’t seem to sense the difference between Stravinsky and those dreadful rum-ti-tum purveyors of musical fodder, Minkus and Pugni. Of course, there are exceptions but on the whole.... So permit a few thoughts on the recent visit to Sadler's Wells by the American Ballet Theatre by a music critic who scarcely knows a jetée from an entrechat-dix. But over half a century I have often visited the ballet ever since a blessed day in the early thirties when the headmaster of my prep school took us to a matinee which included in the programme Petrushka with the great Leon Woizikowski in the title-role, a knock-out experience, almost equalled later by seeing the new ballet danced to Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini (my Covent Garden gallery seat cost all of sixpence in 1959). Then in 1947 I got together the orchestra for a Covent Garden visit by the Colonel de Basil company; I got to know the interesting repertoire and also some of the dancers.

My favourite ballets are both by Bronislava Nijinska, genius sister of the great dancer: Les Biches and Les Noces - Sleeping Beauty comes next, then Agon and anything choreographed by that most musical of ballet creators, George Balanchine. He, above all choreographers, understands the relation between music and the dance. Which brings me to the ballet, which featured in American Ballet Theatre’s opening night. O.K., you have to accept the convention of classical ballet and if you don’t, the wedding of Mozart to dancing on pointe in tutus may seem twee and an artistic mistake. Accept it and you enjoy Balanchine’s poetic analysis of Mozart's early masterpiece, his Sinfonia Concertante for violin, viola and orchestra. The solo instruments are mimed and danced by two ballerinas, the tuttis by a female corps de ballet, the girls sometimes grouped even to differentiate between those that are strings only and others which have pairs of oboes and horns. Tutus apart, the marriage of Mozart and dancing is absolutely complete but never academic, there is no nudge-nudge. At the beginning of the profound and heart-touching slow movement a male dancer is introduced to very the supports and groupings. (Am I right in thinking that American girls have longer legs, two or three inches, which add to the beauty of the movements of their limbs. In this ballet the arm movements are especially beautiful.

On both evenings there were pas de deux. Outstanding was Xiomara Reyes as Le Corsaire and Julie Kent as Odile in the duo from Act 2 in what all dancers call Duck Pond. An extra mid-programme item was Twyla Tharp's Sinatra Suite songs taped by King Frank, showing just a pair of dancers who begin decorously but then get a bit rough in a way that Fred and Singer never did. Twyla Tharp's In the Upper Room (the title's significance was not explained) pleased the whole of the audience except that chap sitting in my seat. It dates from the first wave of aerobics and consists of energetic clichés of gymnastics and ballet accompanied by a score by Philip Glass in his minimal music style. Pierre Boulez once laconically declared that Minimal Music was correctly named. The score was played at the same time as the dancing (big cast) but seemed independent of it. All I enjoyed was the way that the costumes gradually turned red: shoes first, then shorts, then shirts. I willingly vacated this Upper Room.

My companion was unaware that The Green Table was created as long ago as 1932 and seems to reflect the politics of the times. An opening scene of a (presumably Versailles) group of statesmen is one of the great coup de theatres of all time. Ten men in masks round the eponymous table. (Incidentally, why isn’t there more use made in the theatre - remember Michel St.Denis’ marvellous use of them in his production of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex at Sadler’s Wells.

The Green Table (flatfooted as opposed to On Your Toes) is a savage, agit-propelled, dance of death with Death on the stage, powerfully portrayed by David Holmberg, kitted out as a medieval paining lookalike. The eight tableaux come in-yer-face fresh and horrifying, backed up by Fritz Cohen's music crashed out on two pianos, not great music but effectively redolent of its time. I met him several times at Darlington where Jooss's company nested for a awhile after their escape from Nazi Germany (Cohen told me to address him as Cohaine - a bit poncey, I thought that was). These were great evenings performed by our friends from the other side of the Big Pond. The enthusiasm of the audiences made it clear that this company will be more than welcome any time it cares to come again.

Ouch, I did just what I complained of in ballet critics. So, here are the composers' names: 1, 3 and 5 Stravinsky, 2 Poulenc, 4 and 7 Tchaikovsky, 6 Adam. 8 five Golden Oldies.

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