Mixed Bill: Rhapsody; Sensorium; 'Still Life' at the Penguin Café

Choreography by Frederick Ashton, Alastair Marriott, David Bintley
Music by Sergey Rachmaninoff, Claude Debussy, Simon Jeffes
Royal Ballet Royal Opera House

Rhapsody production photo by Tristram Kenton

The programming of this mixed bill does no favours to Sensorium, or even to 'Still Life' at the Penguin Café. Rhapsody, which opens, eclipses them both. A triple Rhapsody would have satisfied me.

Everything about Rhapsody is rhapsodic: the music, the choreography, the performances, the emotion, and the ecstatic response. The energy levels in the house are highly charged. Steven McRae's dancing is red hot. A roar of approval explodes from the auditorium.

Alastair Marriott's mint cool Sensorium, a lesson in how to douse the flames, soon puts a stop to that. Acrobatic but soporific, it is being eased back into the repertoire far too soon after its indifferent 2009 debut. This is interlude ballet.

At least, David Bintley's 1988 witty crowd-pleasing 'Still Life' at the Penguin Café, to an infectious rhythmic score, has our feet tapping. And Hayden Griffin's designs touch the sentimental animal lover in us all. The audience is sent home happy.

But it is Ashton's Rhapsody, a non-narrative twenty-seven-minute ballet, created on Lesley Collier and Mikhail Baryshnikov for the Queen Mother's eightieth birthday in 1980 to Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, that stirs the blood.

With new designs from Jessica Curtis, and lighting by Neil Austin, the freshness of Ashton's expressive and rich vocabulary outclasses the choreographers exposed alongside him in this programme, though this is not to denigrate Bintley who is/was considered his successor.

Coached by Collier, Alina Cojocaru and Steven McRae are outstanding. A Turner-esque blazing sky lights and frames these fabulous Olympians as they consume the air promise crammed.

McRae proves himself equal to Baryshnikov's twisting corkscrew turns, leaps, and impish charm. The slight wiggle of the hips, the cocksure flick of the hands, Ashton captured his personality exactly, and McRae recollects his performance whilst scoring full marks in his own right. The Royal Ballet has a star on its hands.

The choreography is taxing and demanding. Baryshnikov's nonchalant grace masked its difficulty, as he revelled in the challenging firework display Ashton set him. Well, McRae, too, rises to the challenge, maybe not with the Russian's flamboyance, but certainly with an Australian confidence and élan.

The path to consummation is never smooth: McRae seeks out Cojocaru from amongst his and her companions, six men and six women, the men galants, the women muses. Musical phrases provide a pseudo-narrative from joyous effervescence that has the dancers popping like organ stops to solemn promenades, from rippling suspense to tempestuous dramas.

McRae's romantic duet with Cojocaru is lush with emotion, and she, so dreamy and delicate, is exquisite. The music's lyrical heart is realised with supreme sensitivity and fluency in her interpretation of Ashton's dance.

Ashton's visualisation of Rachmaninoff's music astounds anew. The dance opens one's ears to the music, as the music releases the dance.

In a different ballroom (or should one say ballpark ) David Bintley's use of Simon Jeffes's world music styles to highlight his concerns about the world's endangered species brings us back down to earth from Ashton's Elysian fields.

Comical penguin waiters serve men in black tails dancing with elegant ladies - the Utah Longhorn Ram's (Zenaida Yanowsky) head's resemblance to Ginger Rogers's coiffure inspired her duet with Gary Avis' Fred Astaire figure.

The restless Texan Kangaroo Rat (sprightly James Hay) dances a hoedown, and the poor little Humboldt's Hog-Nosed Skunk Flea (Iohna Loots) can't see her way through the Morris dancers.

The punk-haired South Cape Zebra (a powerful Edward Watson) with his flywhisks and undulating back is a ravishing creature, yet the herd of White Mischief women in the African veldt are indifferent to his fate.

The Rainforest Family's tiny fragile child (Minna Althus, a junior associate of the Royal Ballet) haunts the stage with her white face and panda eyes, staring into a future that bodes ill.

This is crusading dance. Look at what you are destroying. The Noah's Ark tableau pushes the point further. But the funky Brazilian Woolly Monkey's (Steven McRae again) Caribbean rhythms bring a lighter tone to the party. Are we dancing too long whilst the world implodes? It seems so.

In rep till 28th March 2011

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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