Wuthering Heights, Linbury Studio, London<br/>Ondine, Royal Opera House, London

A classic novel is reduced to meteorology and put to music while a classic ballet loses a rising star
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

If you were to condense the plot of Wuthering Heights and put it in a teabag, the result would make a pretty thin brew. This may be why Emily Brontë's wild and blustery love story has proved such a draw for the stage. What people tend to remember from the book isn't who did what to whom, but what it felt like. Atmosphere is all – howling gales, moorland crags, hard box-beds, the glowering dark – which partly explains why, just as a Bollywood musical version closes in the West End, a contemporary dance treatment has blown in from Switzerland. Directors can't leave it alone.

And sure enough, the best thing about Cathy Marston's 70-minute Wuthering Heights for Bern Ballet is the feeling it captures with minimal means. A few irregular blocks do for the upland scenery, providing slopes for the lovers to gambol on and clifftops to wuther them. Designer Jann Messerli also does drop-down bamboo blinds which clatter oppressively like anger darkening a mind. David Maric's score, for electronics and live double bass, is a meterological marvel with its high, sighing melodies and rumbling climaxes that threaten to burst into heavy rock but never do.

At the start, too, Marston's choreography is thrillingly outdoorsy, suggesting endless space as Jenny Tattersall's Cathy flips and scampers, repeatedly flinging herself, spread-eagled, into Gary Marshall's Heathcliff to hook a leg around his shoulder and wind around his neck. It's fast, free, virtuosic stuff, joyfully executed.

The trouble comes when other characters intrude. There is Hindley (Cathy's nasty brother), Edgar (her rich husband-to-be), and Isabella (Edgar's prim sister), yet little of consequence happens. No wonder Marston felt obliged to amplify the leading pair with four other Cathy and Heathcliff couples, who echo their steps at moments of heightened emotion. And that's most of the time. All praise to Tattersall for her intensity, but, frankly, after Cathy's fourth or fifth tortured duet with the moody hunk she apparently doesn't want but can't keep her hands off, I was itching to give the girl a hard slap. For all its ingenuity, this Wuthering Heights serves only to highlight the frustrating aspects of the original.

Ondine, the 1958 ballet by Frederick Ashton, comes with no such narrative snags. It straightforwardly tells the story of a water sprite who falls in love with a mortal and quits her watery world for his, with disastrous results: think Hans Andersen's Little Mermaid for grown ups.

It's always been a difficult sell at the box office, partly because when people see that Hans Werner Henze did the music they fear difficulty (how wrong they are!), and partly, I suspect, because they think it's going to be fey. Yet this three-acter, back for a short run, is not only the most satisfying story ballet of the mid-20th century, with the most perfect balance of spectacle and intimacy, action and reflection, but it's also the most mysterious and alluring. It may have taken 50 years, but the Royal Ballet at last seems to realise what a sexy little treasure it has in its vault.

Wednesday's cast was of particular interest with Alexandra Ansanelli in the title role. This striking 28-year-old hasn't been long with the company (she was formerly a principal with New York City Ballet), but last month, out of the blue, she announced her retirement. She's simply stopping, and hasn't said why.

Sure, she hasn't had the easiest ride. Trained on Balanchine, she had to learn from scratch the softer, cooler English style. She also had to learn to inhabit character, and in some of her roles the effort showed. Yet with her lovely long limbs, delicate oval face, and her whip-crack speed and lightness, she promised a delicious Ondine. And so it proved. Gone were the spiky angles of the old Ansanelli. In their place were flowing arms and soft hands, and feet in which every tiny watery allusion of Ashton's choreography registered, from the little quivering foot that signalled a newly beating heart to her wriggles of pleasure in every novelty of her new life on dry land.

Who could know that this is a ballerina who has overcome real physical obstacles (spinal curvature, no less) to reach this pitch in classical dance? Her going is a mystery, and so it will remain. Perhaps meeting that challenge was enough.

'Ondine': Ansanelli's final performances are on Mon and Sat (020-7304 4000)