You expect a new director to make his presence felt, but the most detectable change four months into Ross Stretton's directorship at the Royal Ballet looks like tweaking for tweaking's sake. Once there were mixed bills – three or four short ballets shown together to present contrasts of mood and style, with no particular regard to which. Now – in a move that smacks of clipboards and marketing men – every mixed bill is to be themed. "Memories" is the bland and unctuous title of the first. And two out of the three works it comprises are about as exciting as those mail-order porcelain collectibles promoted in similar fashion.
The memories evoked in Beyond Bach – a piece commissioned by Stretton from fellow Australian Stephen Baynes in 1995 – are not personal so much as abstract, drawing on ballet's own history and supposed links with the development of music. This is an odd thing to attempt, since the two art forms developed out of synch, their "classical" heydays peaking almost 100 years apart. Clearly, one is not expected to think too hard – just sit back and wallow in the nostalgic fuzz of Air on a G String and suchlike while pretty couples strike academic poses on an incense-befogged set that aspires to be half-cathedral, half-Versailles.
Baynes's choreography is well crafted but conventional, most effective when all 26 dancers are on stage doing the same thing at the same time, or when one is free to admire the fine musical phrasing of Leanne Benjamin and Alina Cojocaru matching each other nuance for nuance. Its worst fault is that it doesn't know when to stop. Just as the stream of baroque "Greatest Hits" begins to make Bach sound samey, so one wearies of even the most perfectly right-angled arabesque being promenaded ad nauseam.
Antony Tudor's The Leaves are Fading ought to have offered a contrast. Searching, verging-on-stringent, music from Dvor(breve)ák, and choreography from a man deemed by many to be the criminally neglected genius of English ballet. Well, perhaps he was going off the boil by the time he made this one, which has dated badly since its American Ballet Theatre premiere in 1975. It's those memories again: they're just such a soggy old cliché. The ballet opens and closes with a drooping, chiffon-clad woman sniffing a rose and remembering love's young dream. Then follows a series of duets intended to show various stages of romance – only to my eye all four relationships were equally lacking in any spark of friction that might have made them real and interesting.
So it was left to Frederick Ashton to cut through the sugar with the blast of corrosive narrative that is Marguerite and Armand. Created in the early Sixties for Fonteyn and Nureyev but kicked into second life by Sylvie Guillem – wayward, brittle, brilliant – the work is as thrilling as ever. It's worth the ticket price for just half an hour of this, though I do think someone should persuade Guillem to wear some stage make-up. Consumptive is one thing, featureless is another.
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