Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Ondine

Choroegraphed by Frederick Ashton
Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House
(2008)

Ondine, Frederick Ashton's infrequently performed 1958 ballet, is brought out of its mothballs for a brief airing - four performances this year, and eight next year - to celebrate its half centenary.

And welcome it is - a reminder of the glory that was then. Ashton, looking for a suitable vehicle for his Muse Margot Fonteyn, drew on his memory of Jean Giraudoux's 1939 play Ondine, which in turn had been inspired by Friedrich de la Motte's 1811 Undine, a tale of a water sprite without a soul who falls for a mortal only to be betrayed. Sounds familiar, doesn't it… Giselle, Swan Lake?

Other influences were the Romantic 19th century ballets, Jules Perrot's Ondine, ou La Naïade, Paul Taglioni's Coralia, or the Inconstant Knight, and Arthur Rackham's illustrations for an edition of de la Motte's tale that Ashton possessed.

A dreamy gothic three-act Romantic ballet for mid-20th century post-war Britain? Fine. Fonteyn found Ondine "the perfect character for me, naïve, shy, loyal and loving…" But, what about the music?

Here is Ashton's coup de théâtre. Rather than reproduce 'period' pastiche, he rightly chose to unsettle with a contemporary composer - Hans Werner Henze when he couldn't get William Walton to collaborate on his new creation.

A continuous piece, dramatically 'cinematic' in support of the tragedy on stage (Titanic in the middle stormy act), with Neapolitan echoes for the commedia dell'arte third act divertissement (Henze was living in Naples), Henze's music offsets the cloying Romanticism of the fairytale.

Strangely, this marriage of classical choreography and 'modern' music reminded me of Merce Cunningham's 'chance' fitting of steps to sound. Music does not have to fit the dance beats but it does have to provide a 'mood'.

But what astonishes most is Ashton's intricate demanding choreography - how fresh it still is. His solos and pas de deux are exquisite, and fiendishly difficult to perform, as evidenced by some instability in the corps of wood sprites and satyrs (in pink!) on the first night.

No stumbles from Tamara Rojo as Ondine, whose technique is rock solid. Long-limbed elegant Edward Watson emotes princely as inconstant impulsive Palemon, though Genesia Rosato in the caractère role of Berta who gains his love can, surely, be no competition for the youthful Ondine. Still, one goes to the theatre to suspend one's disbelief.

Working closely with Henze, who conducted the first performance, and his designer Lila de Nobili, Ashton also studied the properties of water, its fluidity, "the surge and swell of waves".

His water nymph darts lightly here and there, in wonder at the world she has stepped into from her waterfall, in amazement at her own shadow. Delicately flicking water from her fingertips, her wrists, hands and arms of the watery element, she is impossible to catch. Testing the firm ground with the tips of her toes, arching her back over Palemon's shoulder, escaping from his arms, borne aloft by the waves, she displays her natural element, to which she has to return.

Any ballerina will be measured against Fonteyn by the dwindling few who remember her performance. And Rojo, though technique perfect, lacks her fleet of foot innocent capriciously playful delicacy and grace. She dances securely, but not with her soul. "O, that this too too solid flesh would melt Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!"

Ondine gains a soul when she marries a mortal. When Tirrenio, Lord of the Mediterranean Sea (Ricardo Cervera very good), commands her to give Palemon her kiss of death, she is reluctant. The delaying of the kiss duet is heart-rending, and erotic - la petite mort.

It is possible that Rojo takes her craft too seriously, which is commendable, but does she love it? One needs to feel that. And some personality. A big 'ask', as they say, I know, but one needs to reach for the hidden depths, if not for the moon and the stars…

In rep 29 November - 6 December 2008 & 27 May - 6 June 2009

Vera Liber