The Dream / Short Works / Rhapsody

Choreography by Frederick Ashton, music by Mendelssohn, Brahms, Delius, Liszt, Rachmaninov
The Royal Ballet and Sarasota Ballet
Royal Opera House

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Lauren Cuthbertson as Titania and Vadim Muntagirov as Oberon in The Dream Credit: Andrej Uspenski
Daichi Ikarashi and Sae Maeda in Rhapsody Credit: Andrej Uspenski
Natalia Osipova as Isadora Duncan in Five Brahms Waltzes Credit: Andrej Uspenski
Macarena Giminez and Ricardo Graziano in Walk to the Paradise Garden Credit: Andrej Uspenski
Macarena Giminez and Ricardo Graziano in Walk to the Paradise Garden Credit: Andrej Uspenski
Vadim Muntagirov as Oberon in The Dream Credit: Andrej Uspenski

If music be the food of love, play on… Frederick Ashton (1904–88), prolific founder choreographer of the Royal Ballet, whose musicality, as well as his wit, nifty footwork and épaulement, is so distinctive, makes music visible in his choreography. Delicate, delicious, delightful, and not a hyperextension in sight.

Just look at tonight’s music: Mendelssohn, Brahms, Delius, Liszt and Rachmaninov. The dances are about love in all its forms, joyous, jealous, confused, spirited, lyrical. They stay in your mind.

Anna Pavlova his constant muse (his ‘poison’ he said) since he saw her in 1917, Isadora Duncan and Bronislava Nijinska followed close behind, as did Cecchetti’s grace—lyricism could be his benchmark, elegant soft arms, upper body, fleet feet and dainty footwork.

The second programme of two celebratory mixed bills, tonight’s overlaps with the first just the day before, but of course the casts are different. The Dream (1964) and Rhapsody 1980) make up the bulk of both.

Where the previous night they shared the stage with Les Rendezvous (1933), tonight we have three short works: Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan (1976), The Walk to the Paradise Garden (1972) and Hamlet and Ophelia (1977) sandwiched between the two. Of these three, I’ve only ever seen the Isadora Duncan.

The last time I saw The Dream was in 2017, Rhapsody in 2016, which shows the need for the Ashton Worldwide 2024–2028 extended celebration, instigated by his Foundation. Its chair, Jeanetta Lawrence, is concerned about maintaining his style and passing it on to the next generation. Apparently, many companies are eager to take part.

One of the companies that has kept his flame burning is Sarasota Ballet, run by two former Royal Ballet dancers, husband and wife team Iain Webb and Margaret Barbieri. Webb won this year’s National Dance Awards De Valois Award for Outstanding Achievement. Sarasota Ballet is making its Royal Opera House debut in the Linbury studio. Tonight they perform The Walk to the Paradise Garden in the main house.

The hour-long Dream is led by Lauren Cuthbertson and Vadim Muntagirov, as the petulant Titania and Oberon: Vadim a naughty child making mischief over not getting his way. Oberon and Titania were made on Anthony Dowell and Antoinette Sibley. Ashton was known for bringing out the character of his dancers in his creations… tonight there doesn't seem to be much of a spark between the two, fine dancers both.

Liam Boswell is the bouncy Puck. I remember Wayne Sleep in the role many moons ago. Ashton has fun with the warring couples—in Victorian dress and fisticuffs—whom Puck confuses when trying to pair them off in love. Thomas Whitehead is a ‘clumsy’ Bottom dancing on pointes (hooves you see).

But the whole company, sixteen fairies, and rustics are perfect, as is Mendelssohn’s dreamy score, delineating character just so. One sees Ashton’s proclivity for pantomime and music hall, as in his Cinderella and La Fille mal gardée—I see its Alain in Bottom.

Mendelssohn’s worm in my brain is soon nudged aside by Brahms's gentle waltzes played on stage on grand piano by Kate Shipway. Natalia Osipova, in red wig and apricot loose dress, joins her, wafting about with a gossamer shawl, scattering petals in that last lullaby—one wonders if this is a reference to the tragic loss of Isadora Duncan’s children. It was made on Lynn Seymour. John B Read’s lighting bathes the stage in seasonal colours.

The Walk to the Paradise Garden, to an excerpt from Delius’s A Village Romeo opera, is performed by Macarena Gimenez, Ricardo Graziano and Daniel Pratt of Sarasota Ballet. I think Dante; I think Orpheus and Eurydice; or Romeo and Juliet.

Against William Chappell’s dark, smudged backcloth, two lovers (originally created on Merle Park and David Wall) are about to face their maker. As the man holds the woman in inverted cruciform… death in loincloth and embracing cloak stands waiting at the back. He swallows them then spits them out at his feet on the steps below. Definitely Romeo and Juliet.

Hamlet and Ophelia (for Fonteyn and Nureyev, recreated and staged tonight by Wayne Eagling) follows fast upon, another couple heading for their maker. William Bracewell (in black) is astonishing, swirling his body as his mind swirls, loving and rejecting Francesca Hayward’s Ophelia in white, passion on display.

Liszt’s music, jagged and volatile as Hamlet’s brain, catches their moods. Sara Armstrong-Jones’s new set design, an ever-changing painting, reminds me of Eric Ravilious and Paul Nash with a touch of abstract expressionism.

After all this moodiness, the evening ends on a high with men popping like champagne corks and women as graceful as nymphs to Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody. A classical temple, the dancers are animated friezes—are we on Mount Olympus?

Six male dancers, six female are led by first artist Daichi Ikarashi and soloist Sae Maeda, who won this year’s National Dance Awards Emerging Artist. Ikarashi has to follow in Mikhail Baryshnikov’s footsteps—no pressure then. He does remarkably well. Maeda, coached by Lesley Collier from the original cast, is a joy to watch, soft, pliant, she makes it look effortless.

Balanchine comes to mind. I think Apollo and his muses. Their musicality and precision sends shivers down my spine. English and Russian styles mix and match in a bravura display from the men and gentle lyricism from the women. Fast choreography, stage patterns to maintain, look on this mere mortals and sigh.

Three hours of pleasure, distraction and elevated inspiration—the audience is very appreciative.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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