Dance: Watered down performance

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THANK HEAVEN for Viviana Durante. With her in the title role, at least there was one person on stage (and by far the most important one) who knew what she was doing in the Royal Ballet's revival of Ondine. Her role is as a water nymph who ventures on to dry land and unintentionally brings about the death of the man who falls in love with her. Not the last word in realism; but this is by no means a fairy tale, rather a medieval romance. It needs real conviction to work, and Durante finds this.

Ideally, I could welcome a slight shift of emphasis in the way she treats the first act: more playful innocence, less sensuousness. But a programme note by the composer, Hans Werner Henze, suggests he and the choreographer Frederick Ashton could never quite make up their minds what drove the nymph, so Durante's concept is valid, and she certainly dances the role beautifully, rising to a full sense of tragedy at the end.

It was Henze and Ashton rather than the rest of the cast who gave her the context she needed. Her lover, Palemon, is essentially a wimp, so generally the role's performers have tried to work against that. But Inaki Urlezaga rides with it, blandly hopeful and inconsequent. The human bride he deserts for the water nymph could do with being a lot more bitchy than Genesia Rosato portrays. In the other leading role, as Tirrenio the lord of the sea, Shi-Ning Liu performs quite well the steps which Ashton originally set for the extraordinary virtuoso Alexander Grant, but I looked in vain for the sense of drama and the blinding authority with which Grant invested it.

So it was Durante, Ashton and Henze who made the evening truly worthwhile. Henze's music, which some found difficult when it was new in 1958, can now be heard (under Andrea Quinn's direction) as strong, expressive and melodious, especially in its evocation of waterfalls, sea and storms. A liquid flow is also the key of Ashton's choreography, not only for the heroine but the corps de ballet, which is why the dry, uninvolved manoeuvring of the present cast simply does not match what we used to see. And it isn't only the physical quality of the dancing that is lacking; its meaning is weakly conveyed too. In particular, the men representing sailors acted so poorly that I seriously wondered if they were sending it up. Something is curiously wrong with John B Read's lighting too: the famous shadow dance for the heroine did not work properly, and her later apparition in the sea was often scarcely visible.

All the same, let your imagination loose and, despite all faults, you can see what a fine ballet this is. Structurally it is not a straight drama, but a kind of concerto for ballerina and company. She must shine out against the heavy background, and Durante did, with a bright grace and purposefulness. Now we shall see what others can make of this ill- treated masterwork.

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