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Ballet in Review: The Royal Ballet’s Balanchine & Robbins Programme

Nothing quite compares with seeing the plush, red velvet curtains of the Royal Opera House stage and the sound of the harmonious orchestra, beginning to lure us in with each melodic note as the curtains begin to open and the performance commences… 

After a year of being unable to perform due to the COVID pandemic, the Royal Ballet have finally begun their Spring/Summer 2021 programme. The doors of the Royal Opera House opened in May and as a devoted Royal Ballet fan, I couldn’t resist picking up tickets for a performance.

On Sunday, I went to see the Royal Ballet’s Balanchine & Robbins programme, a triple bill of performances by leading principal dancers celebrating the world renowned, 20th-century choreographers. The works featured in this beautiful ensemble were Balanchine’s Apollo, and the Tchaikovsky pas de deux and finally, Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering.

George Balanchine was a Russian-born ballet dancer who went on to become America’s most regarded choreographer. He co-founded the New York City Ballet and remained its Artistic Director for more than 35 years and his choreography is unique in that it is characterised by plotless ballets with minimal costume and decor and performed to classical/neoclassical music.

His style was a reaction to the Romantic anti-classicism that was prevalent in Russian and European ballet. Balanchine wanted to let dance be the star of show and his work, Apollo, performed by the Royal Ballet’s Vadim Muntagirov in the lead role exemplifies this. Set to music by Igor Stravinsky, Apollo presents the young god as he is ushered into adulthood by the muses of poetry, mime and dance which were danced by principals: Anna Rose O’Sullivan, Mayara Magri and Yasmine Naghdi.

Apollo is one of the oldest Balanchine ballets and was originally created for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes and premiered in Paris in 1928. The original ballet features costumes and sets by André Bauchant and in 1929 the costumes were revived by Coco Chanel.

Apollo has three muses, Terpsichore, muse of dance and song, Polyhymnia muse of mime and Calliope muse of poetry, and within the ballet, they all act as one body, intertwined with one another. Balanchine knew how to move the body in a way which is artistic, and interesting ways which break the clean lines of classical ballet. The ballet is costumed in a minimal white and Balanchine later remarked that when he heard Stravinsky’s music all he could see was “pristine white.” Yasmine Naghdi stood out to me the most, every movement was clean, secure and emotive. Her extensions were extraordinary too!

 Vadim Muntagirov, Yasmine Naghdi, Anna Rose O’Sullivan and Mayara Magri in the Royal Ballet’s Apollo
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks via The Guardian

The second piece by Balanchine which I watched was the infamous Tchaikovsky pas de deux, I was so excited for this because I have been watching so many different performers on Youtube perform it! Including my favourite Royal Ballet dancer, Darcey Bussell!

The background to the creation of this pas de deux (step for two, dance duet, Ed.) is so fascinating. It was originally part of the 1877 production of Swan Lake. The story follows that Tchaikovsky composed a pas de deux for Act III by the request of Bolshoi prima ballerina Anna Sobeshchanskaya. Since the act was composed later than the rest of the score, it was not included in the final piece and thus, Marius Petipa did not add it into his choreography for Swan Lake in 1895. Petipa moved music from Act I to III, a piece which is part of the Black Swan, Odile’s infamous pas de deux. 70 years later, this missing piece was discovered and Balanchine decided to create a pas de deux which would stand on its own – an eight-minute piece which exudes grandeur and excitement!

In the Tchaikovsky pas de deux, the cast was originally Reece Clarke and Natalia Osipova, but after Osipova sustained an injury, Kevin O’Hare, director of the Royal Ballet came on stage to inform us that world-renowned principal dancer, Marianela Nunez would take her place. What I find so interesting about this pas de deux is that for more than 70 years it was forgotten. It had not been published as part of Tchaikovsky’s score and was believed to be lost.

Described by the New York City Ballet as an eight-minute display of ballet bravura and technique ’, the pas de deux opens with a grand adage, a series of balances and turns which transcend into the infamous fish dives and fouettes which always leaves the audience in raptures! Nela and Reece were an absolute delight to watch – there was so much excitement, fire and passion in their performance together!

I was spellbound by Reece’s jumps and double tours en l’air which he landed perfectly each time! The roar of the audience at the end when the ballerina is carried offstage, high overhead, with one leg extended in front, her arms and head flung back in rapturous abandon. 

Costume details: Marianela wore a beautiful peach coloured dress, with a floaty tulle skirt with diamonds adorning the bodice – it has to be one of my favourites! I also love how the dancers always have little rosebuds adorning their hair!

Marianela Nunez in Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, Royal Ballet Live
Photo credit: Rachel Hollings via Royal Opera House

The final ballet, Dances at a Gathering was created by the American choreographer, Jerome Robbins. Robbins worked closely with Balanchine and was also a director of musicals, plays, movies, and television programs. His works are characteristically diverse and exude lyric beauty and comedy. He creates pieces which have intensity and expressions of moods which could be introspective, joyful and rhapsodic.

Robbins created Dances at a Gathering in 1969, a ballet set to the Waltz and Mazurkas of Chopin. To me, Dances at a Gathering embodies poetry in motion. Every breath and movement is captivating. Robbins’s choreography brings ballet back to the most natural of movements.
The ballet stays and exists in the time of the music and its work , wrote Robbins. Nothing is out of it, I believe; all gestures and moods, steps, etc. are part of the fabric of the music’s time and its meaning to me ’.

Marianela Nuñez and Alexander Campbell in Dances at a Gathering
Photo credit: Foteini Christofilopoulou via Dance Tabs

Dances at a Gathering brought an array of principal dancers to the stage which was lovely to see! There was Marianela as the pink girl, Francesca Hayward as the purple girl, Meaghan Grace Hinkis as the yellow, Fumi Kaneko as the blue and Laura Morera in green followed by Alexander Campbell, Federico Bonelli, William Bracewell, Valentino Zucchetti and Luca Acri. I loved this piece for its simplicity and sheer beauty of movement. It takes the most clear, classic movements of ballet but expands upon them, making it playful, emotive and moving. Robbins wrote that the ballet has no stories, plot or roles, that the dancers are merely themselves dancing with each other to music in that place . Without a plot, the audience is permitted to project their own feelings and emotions onto the piece we see in front of us. This ballet moved me in a way I can’t describe – there is a moment in the final performance where all the dancers reunite on stage, they stand, looking out to the audience, or maybe beyond it – it is a moment of pause, a moment of emotion and gratitude – there is no movement left just a quiet feeling of contemplation.

Marianela Nuñez, Francesca Hayward and Fumi Kaneko in Dances at a Gathering
Photo credit: Foteini Christofilopoulou via Dance Tabs

Costume details: For Dances at a Gathering, I particularly loved the simple, lyrical dresses – They reminded me of the style of dress I prefer to wear for my ballet classes, a simple leotard with a loose, lyrical moving dress over top – which allows the dancer to move freely – and I loved the shades of pink and lilac worn by Marianela and Francesca.

Favourite moments 

~ Apollo: the pas de deux between Vadim and Yasmine, it was so moving! And the Stravinksy score almost brought me to tears. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vO703S4LZeQ 

~ Tchaikovsky pas de deux: Marianela’s first variation – there was so much fire, energy and excitement! And of course, the final coda where the music builds into a crescendo and we have Reece Clarke and Marianela’s speedy fouettes and fish dives! 

~ Dances at a Gathering: I loved each moment for different reasons but I particularly enjoyed the pas de deux between the pink girl (Marianela Nunez) and mauve boy (Federico Bonelli) which was so beautiful! And the pas de deux with the green boy (William Bracewell) and purple girl (Francesca Hayward), there is something so beautiful about Francesca’s effortlessly lyrical port de bras and arabesques.

Although the final show for the Balanchine & Robbins programme was on the Sunday in which I watched the performance, you can now stream it on the Royal Opera House streaming service for £13.00 from 11 June to 11 July. Just click here to watch.