The ballet is Balanchine's homage to Petipa and the Imperial Russian Court from which the splendours of 19th-century classicism were bred. Everything about the work is exquisitely and shamelessly aristocratic. Its grandeur, though, is not of the firecracking virtuosity flaunted in Don Quixote - it lies in the sweep of Balanchine's choreographic composition and in steps whose fine complexities are designed to achieve a total impression of autocratic simplicity. When the Royal Ballet last performed this ballet in 1985, the crisis in confidence and technique from which the company suffered was mercilessly exposed. Skimpiness, inaccuracy, lack of authority - all showed up in choreography where the most stringent and sublime demands are made on the dancers. To perform the ballet now, after the barrage of criticism it last provoked, is to put the company very much on the line.
At Friday's opening performance, Darcy Bussell appeared most frankly unbothered by the responsibility of the occasion. Despite a recent injury, her dancing was bold and opulent. With each curve of the choreography she seemed to push her body further and further out into space - creating air and light for herself in the complexities of Tchaikovsky's score. Viviana Durante in the central ballerina role took the opening terrors of her first solo a touch nervily - as well she might given the fiendishness of its quirky multi-directional turns. But she relaxed enough to revel in the speed and scale of her own choreography and seemed regally at ease with her partner Bruce Sansom, whose own dancing was assured.
In these three main roles it is critical that the dancers appear to be bred from another world, creatures of magnificent artifice. Yet the corps de ballet are also crucial to the ballet's atmosphere and design. The patterns they create suggest processionals, jewelled insignia, all the pomp and circumstance of the court; while in some of the ballet's more tenderly inward passages they construct a human bower in which the ballerina and her partner conduct their mysterious romance.
There was a jittery edge to some of the corps' dancing in the ballet's opening sections - yet overall Friday night's performance showed that Anthony Dowell has been fully justified in reclaiming the ballet. It's a piece through which the company can grow - though its current dancers would have a fairer chance of grappling with the ballet's difficulties if they were liberated from its stifling designs. When Balanchine revised the ballet in 1973 he renamed it Tchaikovsky's Piano Concert No 2 and elected to have the dancers perform in plain practice clothes. The choreography, he argued, contained all the grandeur the ballet needed. Dowell, however, has opted to keep the original title and return to the designs created by Eugene Berman in 1950. The dancers seem oppressed beneath the weight of fustily ornate clothes. Worst of all are the silvered wigs worn by the whole cast. Cresting the dancers' heads in stiff unflattering waves, they're suggestive less of a privileged ancien regime than of a home perm gone horribly wrong.
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