Royal Opera House, London
October 19, 2017
Concerto was created by MacMillan in 1966 but looks as fresh, choreographically, as the day that it was created. Indeed, there are a fair few contemporary choreographers who could learn a thing or two by studying its intricacies. MacMillan gives us plenty to look at in a variety of tones, with the elegiac second movement standing out.
A pity, then, that Birmingham Royal Ballet sometimes looked a little underpowered, nervous in the opening and lacking the attack and needle-sharp pointework that the ballet demands. The more there is of that in the opening, the more the beauty of the second movement shines through, before we are again swept away in the third movement.
The classy Jenna Roberts and Tyrone Singleton stood out in the second movement, however, looking very comfortable in the difficult adagio. The trio of men invested some much needed brio, but too often the dancers looked as if they were behind the beat.
Jonathan Higgins was superb on piano.
Danced by Scottish Ballet, MacMillan’s Le Baiser de la fée could not be more of a contrast to the clean, modernist lines of Concerto. It is a jewel of a ballet, a perfect miniature which Gary Harris’ designs turn into a enamelled box come to life. Fairy tutus are gorgeous, shimmering pale blue puffs, investing their wearers with the luminescence of fireflies.
It’s a dark piece thematically, although choreography and music sparkle. This is Stravinsky at his most Tchaikovsky. Like a prize pupil copying a master’s painting, the uninitiated would find it hard to distinguish this score from the real thing, written as a tribute 35 years after the latter’s untimely death.
MacMillan invests the ballet with layers of history. It harks back to brooding Romanticism, obsessed with the supernatural and determined young women, transformed by death or other-worldliness into beings that always get their man, usually to his detriment. The music, meanwhile, looks back to the golden age when the symphony was unleashed on the ballet stage, releasing it from the mostly hum-drum, hack composer scores of the late 19th and early-20th centuries.
The whole cast invest their energies into their characters, none more so than Constance Devernay as the eponymous fairy. Quietly determined, having not managed to snare the Young Man (Andrew Peasgood) in the guise of a gypsy, she nearly gets him in the second part, a glorious front of curtain section where she gradually lures him along the apron in a sequence of endlessly inventive partnerings like a spider gradually spinning a web, teasingly changing direction before continuing on, only for him to give her the slip at the last minute.
When he returns to the mill to find his fiancée and other villagers dancing, Peasgood may as well have popped up into the light from the underworld. The musicians bring a lovely touch of down-to-earth reality, straight out of the pages of Thomas Hardy as one hauls his unwieldy serpent around the stage, just managing to dodge being poked by the slide of the trombone. Understandably, bewildered, the young man is no match for the fairy who finally claims her own with the fatal kiss.
Without doubt, the highlight of the evening.
What’s not to like about Elite Syncopations? It was premiered at Covent Garden almost to the day an astonishing 43 years ago. When MacMillan made the ballet, ragtime was t athe height of its popularity having been rescued from obscurity following the use of Scott Joplin in the soundtrack to The Sting, premiered a year earlier. The music is brilliantly executed by the onstage band.
In danger of perhaps looking a little dated a few years ago, Ian Spurling’s designs now look like period pieces from the tail end of the psychedelic era. Although MacMillan gives us sequences of steps that are every bit as complex and fiendish to execute as in Concerto, the humour is broad brush and, with the drawn-out gag of Alaskan Rag, tends to stray into the vulgar.
Joyous as the work is, there was something not quite right about the performance that saw dancers from the other main British companies join those of The Royal Ballet. It seemed self-conscious, the solos more ‘Look at me, aren’t I clever’ than sharing the fun with the audience. As in Concerto earlier, the dancers seemed to be holding back and one longed for them to just fling themselves into it. It just didn’t have any pizazz. Perhaps they are just too far removed from the hippy spirit of letting it all hang out. Puzzling over why it didn’t quite work, I overheard another audience member on