Dance / Whatever happened to the laughter?

Push Comes to Shove Royal Ballet, Covent Garden
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The Independent Culture
I suppose that Push Comes to Shove must be Twyla Tharp's most popular work, although not her most subtle or inventive. Yoking together two contrasted musical animals (a rag by Joseph Lamb and the Bear Symphony of Haydn), it pokes fun at ballet while exuberantly exploiting its bravura possibilities. The success it enjoyed on its creation in 1976 was caused by the performance Tharp got from Mikhail Barishnikov in the central role: a superb classical dancer plunging unexpectedly, wholeheartedly and with entire success into the world of Americana. Unfortunately, Tetsuo Kumakawa, who takes that role in the Royal Ballet's new production of the work, is no Barishnikov, as classicist or clown.

Yes, he can do all the virtuoso steps; his pirouettes, in fact, are even more spectacular than the Russian star's were, although without his style or timing. But Barishnikov made the easy-looking bits in between just as important, whereas Kumakawa cannot do that even if he tries. He gets a bit lost under the bowler hat that provides a running gag, although he handles neatly its repeated snatchings and catchings. Kumakawa has other disadvantages, too. For one thing, he seems to have no feeling for jazz, so his attempts at jazzy movement are pathetically perfunctory; for another, if he has a sense of humour, he manages to stop it showing.

Actually, he is not alone in that; whatever happened to the laughter that used to accompany this ballet? There were only occasional sniggers at Covent Garden on Thursday. Darcey Bussell and Sarah Wildor look miscast in the other two big roles: nice dancers, attractive young women, but without the irony that the more mature and sophisticated originators of the roles brought to the American Ballet Theatre production. All the ABT dancers used facial expression far more, even the supporting ensemble. Perhaps nobody thought to tell the Royal's corps de ballet that their sequences are meant to be a parody.

The dancer who comes nearest to the real spirit of the ballet is Deborah Bull, briefly featured in the second movement. But as a whole the work needs more wit, sharper timing, and bigger, more sardonic, personalities. Sorry if that sounds like lese-majeste. Luckily, the principals all have vociferous fans to cheer them on who, unless they watch the Barishnikov by Tharp video, will not know how much more of a treat they could be having.

The premiere came last on a somewhat bedraggled triple bill; one of those curious Covent Garden evenings when the intervals are longer than the ballets. This was to allow time for assembling and dismantling the hugely cluttered building site that accommodates Kenneth MacMillan's The Judas Tree, a tale of friendly neighbourhood whoring, rape, murder and blasphemy. It is nasty and brutish, but not very short.

Before this came a revival of David Bintley's Consort Lessons, none too well danced except by Belinda Hatley and Jane Burn as the secondary soloists. For a ballet intended as an exercise in style and exactness, this is hardly good enough.

John Percival