Review of Asphodel Meadows/ Enigma Variations/ Gloria performed by The Royal Ballet.

Asphodel Meadows, choreographed by 24 year old dancer in The Royal Ballet Liam Scarlett

This week [November 29, 2011]  the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden performed ‘Aspohodel Meadows’, ‘Enigma Variations’ and ‘Gloria’. This is only the eleventh performance of this work  choreographed by Liam Scarlett to music by Poulenc.  This featured two solo pianos, played by Robert Clark and Kate Shipway, while ‘Gloria’,also with music by Poulenc, featured the rich soprano voice of Madeleine Pierard. I have seldom attended a ballet performance in which so much attention has been paid to the quality of the music, and certainly  the dancers seemed more inspired because the music was a force in itself.

Asphodel Meadows

The Asphodel Meadows was where the souls of people who lived lives of finely balanced good and evil rested. It essentially was a plain of Asphodel flowers, which were the favorite food of the Greek dead. Edith Hamilton suggests that the asphodel of these fields are not exactly like the asphodel of our world but are “presumably strange, pallid, ghostly flowers.” Other traditions have stated that all residents drink from the river Lethe before entering the fields, thus forgetting who they were. ‘Asphodel Meadows’ is a concert piece choreographed by Liam Scarlett, which required ensemble work from the company and depended on a high standard throughout to sustain it. Even though we saw some fine technique from the pairings of Sarah Lamb and Johannes Stepanek, Leanne Cope and Jose Martin, Yuhui Choe and Steven McRae, others of the company were as responsible for the moving cohesion of its anonymous inhabitants. One was reminded of Balanchine at his best- with a dash of Jerome Robbins’ sense of adventure in lifts. The design element was strong.The lifts and pas de deux work were beautiful and spritely, and with such a recent birth, this piece could still evolve.  It was an unusual opportunity to be able to compare ‘Asphodel’ with the Kenneth Macmillan ‘Gloria’, which was later to follow  to Poulenc’s music.

Enigma Variations, choreographed by Frederick Ashton

Next to follow was Elgar’s powerful ‘Enigma Variations’. Choreographer, Frederick Ashton, had chosen to follow Elgar’s description of this this work, a theme and its fourteen variations. Elgar dedicated the piece to “my friends pictured within”, each variation being an affectionate portrayal of one of his circle of close acquaintances.The enigma is not the identity of the persons portrayed, as those are known, but rather a hidden theme that is, in Elgar’s words, “not played”. This hidden theme has been the subject of much speculation, and various musicians have proposed theories for what melody it could be, although Elgar did not say that it was a melody. I found the set nostagic and melancholy, perhaps because the music is so haunting. I felt the characterisations  presented by the choreographer were rather slight and unformed, with the exception of Christina Arestis as Elgar’s wife ‘whose life was a romatic and delicate inspiration’. Ashton does hint at the nature of the enigma- it is his interpretation -as three dancers are centre stage, utterly still, as the exquisite theme rises. There is Elgar’s wife between Elgar and another man. Is she a woman with two loves? At this moment the audience was so still one could have heard a pin drop. They were moved by the physical stillness juxtaposed to the feeling of soaring on sound. There was an emotional tension. Elgar’s wife departs on her husband’s arm.  Afterall, this is the Victorian Era, and such chapters always remained closed. It suggests the secret, inexpressed life of a woman. The dancing was excellent, but there needed to be more dramatic development, although this was difficult in the brief, funny, tour-de-force dances of Thomas Whitehead or Paul Kay or Ricardo Cervera. Iohna Loots was charming as ‘Dorabella’.

Gloria, choreographed by Kenneth Macmilan

The evening concluded with a strong composition, ‘Gloria’ by Kenneth Macmillan. I felt that there was something of a mismatch between the rust or flesh -coloured body suits  worn by the men and the glittering body suits and caps with a suggestion of a skirt , worn by the women. As the set concept was structural and abstract, it seemed that the women should be costumed with the same austerity as the men. There were some awkward moments when the choreography seemed torn between contemporary dance and ballet. Overall, the dance design thrust powerfully through the music with a most amazing exploration of lifts, not always from a pas de deux base. Leanne Benjamin’s presence elevated the piece because she was so technically lovely. She used her torso and back fully to heighten her emotional vocabulary,while possessing a delicacy which made her seem vulnerable amid so much masculinity. It is interesting that Liam Scarlett, who danced in this, was the creator of ‘Asphodel’. Both artists, Scarlett and Macmillan, refused to be limited by gravity. Hurrah for them. May Scarlett feel free to swing from the chandeliers!

More Leanne Benjamin in The Firebird.

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