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Birthday Offering / A Month in the Country / Les Noces

Choreography by Frederick Ashton / Bronislava Nijinska
Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House
to

Lyrical Frederick Ashton and avant-garde Bronislava Nijinska on the surface seem worlds apart, yet there is a direct line that links the two choreographers on display in this Russian-themed triple bill, the last of Dame Monica Mason’s valedictory ‘Director’s Choice’ season.

Ashton learnt much from studying Nijinska’s work as a young man in her company in Paris in the 1920s, and it was he, as the then Director of the Royal Ballet, who invited Nijinska to re-stage Les Noces at the Royal Opera House in 1966 a few years before her death.

In honouring both in one programme, the Royal Ballet not only demonstrates the many links and influences that entwine ballet tradition, but also the strong hold of the Russians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in their repertoire.

Birthday Offering created in 1956 was Ashton’s celebration of twenty-five years of Ninette de Valois’s Sadler’s Wells Ballet, soon to be the Royal Ballet, its ten-year residence at the Royal Opera House, and its stable of talent.

In Petipa Imperial Ballet grand style to Alexander Glazunov’s music Birthday Offering is a thirty-minute palate-cleansing confection showcasing seven ballerinas. In 1956 these included Margot Fonteyn, Svetlana Beriosova, Nadia Nerina, and Beryl Grey, “the ones with the gifts”.

Against a chill blue backcloth draped in white swagged curtains and gilt chandeliers, seven courtiers bring on their partners, and then stand back in tidy tableau as the seven princesses perform their variations like perfect little ballerinas turning on a musical box in André Lavasseur’s colour-coded knee-length bell-shaped skirts.

Ashton choreographed to the ballerinas’ strengths and personalities: this is made apparent by Yuhui Choe’s delicate steps, Laura Morera’s bouncy flair, Sarah Lamb’s dandelion blown by the wind lightness, Roberta Marquez, Hikaru Kobayashi and Helen Crawford. Mason in her casting has mixed “the ones with the gifts” with the up-and-coming, principals with soloists. The golden couple are Tamara Rojo and Federico Bonelli, and their pas de deux are unquestionably a regal demonstration of poise and balance.

Twenty years later thirty minutes fit for a tsar give way to Turgenev’s Month in the Country distilled to an intense forty-four minutes in Julia Trevelyan Oman’s classically grand aristocratic house in the vast Russian countryside, where feelings run high to Chopin’s emotive music channelling Mozart’s Don Giovanni (pianist Kate Shipway).

Chekhov’s “five poods of love” settles on the Islaev household upon the arrival of Aleksei Belyaev. Both twenty-nine-year-old Natalya Petrovna, the bored mistress of the house, and her seventeen-year-old ward Vera fall for this handsome young tutor to her ten-year-old son Kolya.

Married to a man older than herself, with admirer Rakitin in attendance, Natalya Petrovna is momentarily brought back to joyful life, but is betrayed by Vera. Belyaev has to leave. Dreamily romantic, impossible love and harsh reality Ashton paints in subtle shades and wonderful steps, each personality clearly delineated within the compressed narrative.

Sian Murphy’s maid and Sander Blommaert’s footman are not overlooked, Gary Avis broods attentively as Rakitin, and Islaev’s (Christopher Saunders) lost keys moment is charmingly acted, all bumps-a-daisy. Ludovic Ondiviela deservedly gets spontaneous applause for his ebullient Kostya, Emma Maguire is a petulant little minx set on snaring Belyaev, but it is the solos and pas de deux for Rupert Pennefather and Zinaida Yanowsky that set the heart aflutter.

And the final scene when Belyaev returns, is about to make his presence known to Natalya Petrovna, but instead gently kisses the ribbons on her dress, drops the rose given to him by her, and leaves unseen, has the audience collectively holding its breath. She turns, sees the rose, and understands.

From unrequited love amongst the Russian landed gentry to arranged marriage amongst the peasantry, Nijinska’s 1923 Les Noces depicts an even harsher scenario to Stravinsky’s percussive dance cantata, libretto written by himself from songs collected by folklorist Pyotr Kireyevsky.

Nijinska lived in the Soviet Union till 1921 and experienced the upheaval of the worker’s revolution, the symbolism of the clench-fisted hammer and curved-arm sickle very much in evidence in her potent work, a Bride’s tragic rite of passage from girlhood in ten-foot long plaits to womanhood under a headscarf, “an act of immolation”.

In Natalia Goncharova’s earthy colours of brown and white, on a plain brown imprisoning set, amongst geometric pyramid, mound, and phalanx tableaux, and stomping squatting dances to liturgical chants, a pure young girl is given away by her parents. The inevitable blessings by the holy icons, the departure of the Bride to her in-laws, the wedding feast, and then the final sacrifice as the door opens and she is led towards the bed piled high with pillows. Blackout—the dark waters close over her.

Twenty-five minutes of Stravinsky’s brutal relentless score and Nijinska’s shattering constructivist formalism, what she called “a choreographic concerto”, Les Noces confers doom-laden profundity on a simple peasant ritual. Nijinska said that the girls elongated on pointe resembled "the saints in Byzantine mosaics". And Russian folk songs that send shivers down the spine are still sung of these barbaric customs.

Vera Liber