Wednesday, March 09, 2011


The Royal Ballet

I remember the first time I looked at a black and white book of two dancers named Nureyev and Fonteyn. My father had found the book in the library and recalleded seeing these two legends on television in his youth. For the next few years, I regularly checked and re-checked this and other dance books (mostly of Nureyev and Fonteyn), poring over every page. From that point, I had a dream of seeing the Royal Ballet. Actually at that point I had a fantasy of actually joining the Royal Ballet, but reality and the completely wrong body type intervened.

A few weeks ago, I finally went to see the Royal Ballet for the first time, in a production of Giselle. I'll write about the production and dancing in a moment, but first want to point out that the shop at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden sells these nice Nureyev-Fonteyn mugs. The rim is silver (which hisses in the microwave. Translate: don't microwave). There are also nice Nureyev-Fonteyn tea trays and tote bags. Tacky? The photo was taken by Frederika Davis, who is still taking pictures of the Royal Ballet, though she's in her 70s. It's a gorgeous, not-at-all tacky shot.

Why do I bring this up? Aside from the fact that of course I came home with a mug, tote bag and tea tray, I mention this because I was enormously moved to see that there would even be a market for this kind of nostalgia. It's been years since Fonteyn danced at Covent Garden, and yet I love that the Royal Ballet is paying tribute to its greatest star and to its history. Do we have anything even approximating this at home in the Met when ABT performs? I do recall once going into the Met shop and seeing a dozen or so people transfixed in front of the giant monitor, watching Baryshnikov on screen in something (Swan Lake, I think, with Makarova). But we don't seem to have the same national and cultural pride in our greatest dancers--even if those dancers were born elsewhere.

I was also struck by the fact that there are many more dance magazines--ones I've never heard of--for sale in the shop, and you can bet that I bought as many as I could and read them cover to cover before giving them to Tonya. Some of the articles even focused on Nureyev and you see that his shadow is very, very long in Europe. Of course, ballet is essentially a European creation. It is their culture, so it makes sense that it would continue to be celebrated.

But there was a great deal more to note. I saw Mara Galeazzi as Giselle, and Thiago Soares as Albrecht. I liked them both. I didn't love them, but I have been spoiled in the past few years by the Giselles (Vishneva) and Albrechts (Halberg) I have seen. I didn't believe that Galeazzi was a young village girl. I was surprised when she came off point during the "hopping" portion of her variation--and surprised that I minded. I couldn't figure out what Soares' Albrecht was doing. Was he just fooling around, which is the way some dancers portray Albercht (Nureyev was famous for this, laughing at Giselle when his fiance shows up). Or was he sincerely in love with her and embarrassed to be found out? I couldn't tell. On the other hand, there were signs early on that this was be an unusual production. Giselle's mother has an elaborate pantomime sequence, whose full translation is given inside the beautifully printed and bound program. Why the pantomime? It adds to the story, for one, and foreshadows the gestures and movements that the Wili will take. Pantomime is also a part of ballet's history.

There were other unusual sequences in the ballet. In the ABT production, Giselle dies of a broken heart. The notes in the synopsis make this clear:

The shock of learning of Albrecht's duplicity is too great for Giselle's frail constitution. Her mind becomes unhinged and she dies of a broken heart--her love unrequited.

In the somewhat more violent British version, Giselle stabs herself--she wills herself to die. I found Galeazzi's mad scene thus incredibly compelling and upsetting both.

But then we got to the second act. In the past, when I've gone to see Giselle, I have to admit I've chosen productions because there was a specific dancer I really wanted to see in the role. ABT encourages this kind of viewing with its "star" structure. As a result, the corps can be under-rehearsed and appear haphazard. Last year, for example, I was incredibly disappointed by the entrance of the corps in the Kingdom of the Shades. And yet, in the 80s, I remember being absolutely floored by the progression of young women in white.

But the Royal Ballet has a beautiful corps. And I realized just how much this can add to the story--with the young wili echoing Myrthe's gestures of: "no." It's an awesome sight to see the young girls work together and sets up a wonderful contrast to poor Giselle's efforts to maintain a connection to the land of the living one more time. And when Galeazzi sank into the floor, as if swallowed by the earth, there was not a dry eye in the room.

In other words, the production I saw had a tremendous sense of mwork and of company te, and not just bravura dancing. This was a new experience for me. I have seen Giselle so many times, I've forgotten to look for the story--and I say this as a writer who is hopelessly interested in narrative structures! It also have to commend the orchestra. After the strange, breakneck pace at which the New York City Ballet's orchestra sometimes played, I was impressed by the Royal's tremendous sensitivity and attention to its dancers.

I take away two things. One: a single visit to the Royal Ballet is insufficient. There are so many dancers to see, and I look forward to Alina Cojocaru, a Royal Ballet principal, returning to New York this summer. Two: I look forward to seeing more Giselles, to see how productions and storytelling differ. I will also be looking at the corps, and hoping for that feeling of being immersed in a dense world of ethereal, severe and talented women.

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