The Royal Ballet continue this season’s celebration of their founder choreographer (and my birthday buddy), Frederick Ashton, with a live broadcast of two of his works, Rhapsody and The Two Pigeons.
Everyone – including me – bangs on about Ashton’s gift for musical choreography, and the non-narrative work Rhapsody is arguably the best demonstration of his skill. It’s as if the notes of Sergey Rachmaninoff’s score have sprung from the sheet music and come to life on the stage. That’s no mean feat when you see how blisteringly fast some of the choreography is. The twelve strong ensemble nail every step with diamond sharpness, and principal dancers Steven McRae and Natalia Osipova are nothing short of sensational. McRae’s solos, interspersed throughout the piece, are like fireworks being let off onstage – a string of gravity-defying revoltade jumps made my jaw drop so fast it nearly broke. Osipova comments in the behind the scenes material that this ballet has awakened something Russian in her, which would explain why she looks so totally at home – much more so than in Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardée. Her bourrées are lightning fast and she executes every step with a regal smile on her face.
Their duet to the most famous section of ‘Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini’ is a marked contrast to the previous speedy showmanship. The gorgeous, sweeping pairing of piano and violin builds to a dramatic climax, where Osipova soars into a series of lifts. There are cheeky moments too – jazzy inflections in the music are marked with quirky head tilts or flicks of the wrists. The piece opens and closes with McRae acknowledging the audience with a knowing little bow and nod, like a court jester. The classical set – a plain colonnade that cuts a sharp and effective silhouette – and neutral coloured, simple costumes are perfectly understated foils to all the choreographic glitter. There may not be a narrative, but as I watched Rhapsody I felt a lump rise in my throat at the sheer beauty of it all. That’s why it’s now one of my favourites.
As I reviewed Two Pigeons earlier this season, I won’t go into as much detail here. Seeing a different cast made me very happy though, particularly as it included Lauren Cuthbertson and Vadim Muntagirov, whose partnership is a joy to watch. Cuthbertson is so good in quirky comedy roles – as evidenced by her creation of the title role in Alice in Wonderland – so she’s ideally suited to being the clingy, fidgety Young Girl. Her heartbreak at the Young Man’s desertion is equally convincing, and proves what an excellent dance actress she is.
It’s hard to imagine how anyone could fall out of love with Cuthbertson, but Fumi Kaneko is a worthy rival as the flirtatious Gypsy Girl. I was disappointed not to see Laura Morera dancing the part as scheduled, but Kaneko embraces the brazen hussy role with such relish (and shimmying) it’s impossible not to be impressed. As for Muntagirov, it’s clear to see why he’s just been crowned Best Male Dancer at the Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards. His solos in Act II are a display of light, nimble footwork and jumps that hang in the air. He comes across as sweet and modest in the backstage interview footage too, and clearly appreciates being able to dance Ashton’s steps.
As for the pigeons, they actually behaved themselves – flying, landing and preening on cue every time. Thank goodness.
(I won’t be reviewing the next ROH Live broadcast… because I’m going to be seeing Giselle in person at the end of March! So excited!)