The Royal Ballet in London has a heritage of masterpieces created by its two legendary choreographers — Sir Frederick Ashton and Sir Kenneth MacMillan.
This world-renowned company opened its 2016-17 season in late September with Ashton’s 1960 masterpiece La Fille Mal Gardée (The Wayward Daughter).
The season also marks a significant milestone, being the company’s 70th at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden where it took up residence since after World War II.
Fille still looks fresh and newly minted 56 years after its premiere, which says much about the company’s careful preservation of its classical heritage.
This joyous two-act masterpiece is about the beautiful Lise who is in love with a young farmer Colas, but her mother, the widow Simone wants her to marry the son of a wealthy proprietor of a vineyard.
This romantic comedy offers a blissful evocation of rustic England. Ashton’s classical choreography is felicitous and inspired; his choreography for the duets is particularly heart-warming.
The cast that I saw in late October was led by the Royal’s Russian star Natalia Osipova and Australian dancer Steven McRae. Osipova, formerly from the Bolshoi, is presently the company’s biggest star.
She was expressive and caught every nuance of the role of Lise, charming and delightful and winning our hearts completely. Her dancing was as usual flawless, and her virtuosity was simply effortless.
It was a magnificent performance.
As her lover, Steven McRae matched her in his diamantine virtuosity. His multiple pirouettes were simply impeccable. His acting was full of charm as well. Company performances were all excellent.
In another cast, Vadim Muntagirov and Marianela Nuñez were also superb.
In contrast to Ashton’s lyrical English classicism is the dark expressionism of MacMillan, a good example of which is his three-act 1971 ballet Anastasia, which was revived in late October.
This ballet is not among MacMillan’s greatest and most famous works such as Romeo And Juliet.
It’s based on the story of Anna Anderson. She purported to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia, the youngest daughter of the Tsar who had survived the execution of the royal family during the Russian Revolution.
It’s only after MacMillan’s death, however, that DNA tests proved that Anderson was unrelated to the Russian imperial family.
The final Act 3, which MacMillan initially made as a one-act ballet in 1967 in Berlin, shows her in the asylum, painfully attempting to recover her memory.
The first two acts depict Anastasia’s life in her privileged surroundings before the Revolution.
MacMillan uses Tchaikovsky’s music for both acts, providing a dramatic contrast with the edgy Martinů music in Act 3.
Anastasia is however an uneven work. Act 1 depicts a picnic on board the royal yacht. The best moments are Anastasia’s dance with three handsome naval officers.
Act 2, which lacks focus and drags slightly, is her coming-out party at the Winter Palace hosted by the Tsar.
The ending is theatrical, depicting the storming of the palace by the peasants and revolutionaries. Act 3 which is austere and set in the asylum is the best.
The first cast also starred Natalia Osipova.
Her riveting performance in Act 3 alone justified the revival of this rarely performed work. Her final moments circling the stage on her bed while holding onto the bedstead as if commanding a ship is a most memorable image.
Edward Watson was sympathetic as her husband.
The Royal Ballet’s regular revivals of its heritage ballets by Ashton and MacMillan with dancers of every generation is praiseworthy and guarantees the company a place among the top few ballet companies in the world.
And the company is also at present rich with established stars and emerging talent. London audiences are fortunate indeed.
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