Ashton triple: The Dream/Symphonic Variations/Marguerite and Armand: First Night Review (ROH, June 2017)

You enter the auditorium which opens cavernous beneath you. You thank the people who twist and stand to let you pass to your seat. You sit as the oboe sounds, as the strings swarm; the lights begin to dim, drawing the red from the walls, the last murmurs from the crowd. Darkness surrounds the stage and invites you to watch for what might unfold. Polite applause greets the conductor. Art is great when it opens a portal, and you watch for what might unfold. The curtains rise and you find yourself looking out into a glade, spectral, mystical. Music rises, warming the darkness, and fairies gather and begin to dance. You know they’re fairies not only from their shifting, glittering garb: they move with an otherworldly grace. Their king and queen arrive and dote over a young prince; they chide and quarrel with lovers’ time-honoured, flirtatious steps. Men and women arrive, promenading, straying into these enchanted woods, far out of their depth. And here comes the king’s supernatural servant, leaping with the light energy of mischief. And here comes a group of country folk, vigorously celebrating their happy lot in life. All of these gathered are given unique movements to outline the difference in their characters. All of the wit, charm, comedy and romance of Shakespeare is here, you think, as the choral voices of children swell and lilt towards you. And if your mind begins to wander, the choreographer calls you back – this is a genius on a genius, you think; the lightning spins, the vitality and drama in each movement, the donkey on its toes, and the trust between the fairy king and queen who must lean into one another to form the perfect shapes they project – as the applause once again surrounds you, you realise you had travelled, you had been transported.

During the break you chat, you read a bit but your eyes catch the clothes of the crowd; you sense the shared excitement, the thrill of the people. Back in your seat you wait for the silence to fall once more. The orchestra tunes up and you watch for what might unfold. The curtains rise and a pianist plays. Only a handful of dancers gather on stage, dressed skin tight to match the slim flowing lines of the set. The patterns they perform are cyclic; the story they tell isn’t fiction; you can see they are dancing truth; you see they’re telling of the nature of life, its journey from beginning to end, its renewal through love, its simplicity, when stripped to its fundamental parts. You see a striking image you’re not used to seeing in ballet: one man stands with three women – it’s different, it carries a different emotion – and whilst dancers take turns to perform centre stage, to the side, a ballerina stands waiting, alone, staring out into the audience, poised yet calm, and you focus on the movement and the stillness of life. The cycle repeats. The ballet lasts only twenty minutes but you feel it could continue in your mind, or in your heart, forever.

At the bar time passes unnoticed. The people around you are moved by what they’ve seen. Your mind is full now of notions and ideas yet there’s more spectacle to come. Back in your seat you wait for silence to fall once more. The musicians below settle their instruments in their laps and upon their shoulders and you watch for what might unfold. This time the dancers act out the lifespan of a famous, passionate love story. They bring that love to life, but this is love grinding against death, for the prima ballerina’s character is fatally ill: she fights against her health and her desperation to live, to continue to love, pulls your heart to the surface. The music rises and falls, the pianist’s hands climb the keys and play every note in the scale with longing, with yearning; the costumes speak of glamour; the staging allows for intimacy – all come together to coax your imagination, to coax your heart to the surface. The dancers become the characters they play, and the great artistry of the star-crossed lovers makes their performance rare and spectacular. Sharing the experience of watching their performance, and the performances of all the other dancers, has brought between everybody in the auditorium, perfect strangers to one another, an understanding. Applause echoes and ricochets; bouquets are brought to the arms of the dancers as they take their bows.

On the train home people check their phones and read from crumpled dailies. The image of the heartbroken dancer clinging to the body of his lover as she dies in his arms repeats in your mind. You know you spend all your days alone inside your mind but for one small moment, the art you witnessed unified you with the crowd: two thousand people in London go home to dwell on the weight of love grinding against death, to ponder life’s stillness and its renewal, and celebrate again the delicacy of Shakespeare. This meditation is the parting gift of a choreographer whose work still lifts our hearts to the surface.


@ James Bruce May 2017

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