`Rake's Progress' stumbles

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IT'S THE thought that counts, I suppose. At the Barbican last Monday the Royal Ballet paid tribute to Dame Ninette de Valois, who was 100 on 6 June. The gala was not only to thank "Madam" for founding British ballet but also to remind everyone of her talents as a choreographer. Nice idea, but the company did not do it justice.

The Rake's Progress was made in 1935 and the 40-minute narrative animates Hogarth with precision footwork. This revival was oddly lifeless. Stuart Cassidy gave a conscientious portrayal of the young man driven to the madhouse, but he couldn't make us give a damn. Peter Abegglen's cameo as Raving Madness was far more moving. Sarah Wildor's Betrayed Girl's innocence was tele-graphed by the touches of folk dance in her steps.

Monday's central section was a series of extracts from de Valois's ballets introduced by golden oldies such as Sir Peter Wright. Irek Mukhamedov danced Satan's solo from Job and Darcey Bussell gave us her Black Queen from Checkmate. The most enjoyable snippet was Bruce Sansom and Sarah Wildor in Gods Go A-Begging. Sansom, a princely exponent of the cleanest English style, danced with aristocratic finesse and partnered with tender courtesy.

Come Tuesday and these de Valois divertissements were replaced by a new Ashley Page, Cheating, Lying, Stealing. If you hadn't seen a Page work before, you would probably have found this dislocated, cod-Forsythean, sexual sparring rather foxy and and the elliptical narrative intriguing. Veteran Page-watchers were getting numb bums after 10 minutes. The 14 dancers perform against Anthony McDonald's backcloth, depicting a road heading off to a vanishing point in the MidWest. There are some tall huts for drying fishing nets which glide about the place and at one point the seating area upstage bursts into flames. The twin scores are by David Lang and Michael Gordon and the whole thing is dressed fit for a catwalk: navy blue capri pants twinned with matching see-through blouses (and that's just the men).

But, but - the work does provide a vehicle for Irek Mukhamedov and Viviana Durante, one of the few exciting partnerships the Royal Ballet has forged in recent years. Both were superb. The smouldering Mukhamedov powered through the slicing leaps and furious turns with masterly ease. Unfortunately, Page's confrontational and doggedly humourless ballets noirs only skim the surface of this couple's emotional and stylistic range.

For pudding, we got Frederick Ashton's ravishing, but pitiless, pastiche Birthday Offering, from 1956. The women's faces were fixed in a rictus of glee as they motored through the steps but they weren't fooling anyone. Only Sylvie Guillem seemed worthy of her variation. In the pas de deux Jonathan Cope gently batted her back and forth into a languid series of two-way pirouettes as if playing with a miraculous new toy. Monday's gala was an over-generous three-and-a-half hours, but Guillem was worth the wait.

Louise Levene