It’s been a memorable 12 months on the New York dance scene, with the world’s leading ballet companies visiting the city: Bolshoi (July), Canadian National Ballet (September), Mikhailovsky (November), Mariinsky (January), Royal Danish Ballet (January), and now The Royal Ballet. The Royal last performed in New York in 2004.
Fortunately for New Yorkers, the company is presenting two interesting mixed rep bills from British choreographers rather than the familiar warhorse Don Quixote full-length production done earlier in the month in Washington, D.C. and Chicago. On Wednesday and Thursday, the company presented two dissimilar classics: Frederic Ashton’s The Dream (1964, coinciding with the 400th year anniversary of Shakespeare’s death) and Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth (1965). The Dream is a whimsical, upbeat classical work adapted from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream while Song of the Earth is a dark, somber contemporary piece set to a Mahler score.
New York audiences are familiar with The Dream as ABT has performed the work periodically since 2002. It is a weird, lighthearted ballet that is difficult to follow without a background in the story. The work centers around two young couples in love, Oberon, king of the fairies, his queen, Titania, fairy Puck, and Nick Bottom. In the mix are various love triangles, magic love potions that makes the victim fall in love with the first person on awakening, and spells that transform a workman into a donkey.
Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae were leads Titania and Oberon on Wednesday and Natalia Osipova and Matthew Golding on Thursday. Sarah has a nice line and is very lyrical with her phrasing to the Mendelssohn score, although at times too subdued. Natalia was more outgoing with more energy. Natalia did fall as she moved upstage in preparation for a jump in the early part. Her foot did not hold and she slid to the ground. She got up quickly, finishing the remainder of the work in fine form.
Steven McRae was impressive as Oberon, particularly in his rapid, almost violent chaine turns on a diagonal. Matthew Golding gave a nice, nuanced portrayal. Both are attentive partners.
The above leads are nice, but Puck is the character I favor in this ballet, performed by James Hay Wednesday and Valentino Zucchetti Thursday. The character has a number of athletic steps, although never a formal solo: entrechat six, double cabrioles devant, plenty of music for turns, and numerous stylized leaps, all performed in a goofy, puckish comedic form. ABT’s Herman Cornejo sets the standard in the role, with super-human execution, with Daniil Simkin a close second. The Royal’s Pucks were also good, but not at the same level as the ABT duo. James had nice skater-type turns, with his leg lowered in passe as his turns progressed. Valentino is not as proficient at turning, but was good in the jump and beat sections.
Supporting dancers that played the young lovers were expressive, with nice dramatic timing, an area Royal seems to excel. Olivia Cowley as Helena and Thomas Mock as Lysander gave inspired performances as did the Wednesday cast. Unfortunately, the program only listed the leads. Why can’t they list all of the dancers? It is a shame that all dancers aren’t mentioned given the effort they put forth
The New York City Ballet orchestra was in fine form led by Barry Wordsworth, with nice chorus sections by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.
In contrast to The Dream, New York audiences are not familiar with Song of the Earth. Mahler composed the score in 1909, composed of six songs for two singers. It was composed during a difficult period in his life with the songs translated into German from Chinese poems.
I found the work tedious and drawn out at times and wondered what the unifying theme was (it would have helped if the lame program notes had some background on the work). It seemed like movement without a purpose as dancers carried on from one segment to the next. It is a work that must be viewed a number of times to derive meaning, and even then, is difficult to interpret. Alastair Macaulay of the New York Times says: “Over 40 years, I have changed my mid about it perhaps more often than almost any other ballet.” While puzzled over the meaning of the work, I did enjoy Marianela Nuñez, a central figure in the work along with Carlos Acosta as the death figure.