The cheers that greeted the Royal Ballet at the start of its short summer Opera House season were genuine enough, and surely it has earned them this year. But, oh dear, the company is looking very end-of-termish after its gruelling Australian tour. Tired dancers are liable to become injured dancers, and the revised cast sheet for Onegin bore witness to this. Of the four protagonists on the first night, only two were as advertised – a cruel blow to those who had been waiting since last October to catch Tamara Rojo and Alina Cojocaru together on the same stage. Should it matter so much? Well, yes, because in ballet two plus two do not always cohere as four.
The trouble with late replacements – even a pair as intelligent as Mara Galeazzi and Jane Burn – is that they undermine the careful underpinning of the drama. The problem is exacerbated in Onegin with its four juicy principal roles instead of the usual two. But another feature of John Cranko's 30-year-old ballet is how so much dramatic clout hinges on individual readings and the way they spark against each other to make a fire. It's a ballet closer to straight theatre than most.
Adam Cooper's Onegin was clearly conceived by him as a strong-blooded counter to Tamara Rojo's palpitating Tatiana. She flung her young and foolish heart at him, and he crushed it under his foot with a sneer. Brutish in his every gesture, cruelly aware of his allure, Cooper played Onegin as the arch romantic shit. It was never a subtle reading but it worked. Now along comes Mara Galeazzi – at 28 the oldest of the Royal's Tatianas – with quite different ideas about character and motivation. Her long mask of a face assumes a bookish indifference to the arrival of the handsome stranger from town. Why should she lose her head to anyone so rude and churlish? Why disgrace herself at a party trying to get his attention? The once carefully tied threads of cause and effect come undone. Cooper tries to adapt his original game to the new rules, but all it amounts to is toning it down, like lobbing easy tennis balls to a child. Bland ennui is now all that's left of the dastardly cad he presented last autumn. He pulls out the emotional stops later, but too late. Galeazzi's subtlety remained opaque for me throughout.
The pairing of Lensky and Olga – the flighty younger sister – comes unstuck for other reasons. Ivan Putrov, the Royal Ballet's most exciting prospect among the younger set, is a gorgeous solo dancer and a lovely actor. The indignation and startled fear that fought for control of his boyish features when he summoned the guts to challenge Onegin to a duel made you want to rush on stage and mother him. And his strange, lonely solo before the fatal duel was full of the tenderest premonition of loss. It created one of those moments of communal breath-holding that an audience hopes for once in a performance but isn't always blessed with.
Whether it was that Jane Burn (tiny as she is) was too heavy for Putrov, or that first-night shakes unmanned the pair of them, their big duet failed to go much beyond marking the steps. A man sitting near me started to hum the luscious Tchaikovsky cello tune that ought to carry the audience into a state of emotional dissolve. He stopped. It seemed less hummable that night.
In the pit Birmingham's visiting Royal Ballet Sinfonia revealed their lack of familiarity – or lack of compliance? – with conductor Charles Barker by parting company with his beat several times. More shabby standards came with the ageing sets (also borrowed) including an Act I backcloth that looked like something pulled from the bottom of my laundry basket. We are told there weren't the funds last year for new designs. But surely someone backstage at the Opera House has an iron?
Over at the Barbican the BITE season took the risk of inviting an unknown company from South Africa with a cumbersomely titled show and hoping punters wouldn't mind standing up to watch it for an hour and a quarter. Happily, Robyn Orlin's Daddy, I've seen this show six times before and I still don't know why they're hurting each other is a lot more appealing than its title. The show is very funny. And while one expects a fringe satire from Johannesburg to come politically loaded, this one proves to have a feather light touch.
Daddy... begins with the conceit of a foreign dance company turning up at their London debut only to find that their director has deserted them and they must make up the show as they go along. The cheerful mayhem that ensues breaks down any reservations one might have about the credibility of this scenario, or sitting on a hard floor, thanks largely to the comic talent of Gerard Bester, a freckly white beanpole who can't dance for toffee but neurotically takes on the job of compere and general whip-cracker for the evening. "Nelson Mandela worked very hard for us all to get on with each other," he frets as the mixed race dancers fall to squabbling over who stands where.
Hidden among chaotic gags involving red plastic plates, aerosol deodorants and jungle printed underwear is an intelligent if low-key expose of South Africa's dilemmas in its fragile new democracy. How to create a unified identity when you don't even speak the same language? How to create a new dance culture out of the dregs of tribal tradition and the defunct South African ballet? How, simply, to share a space. When a Dame Edna-style arts fundraiser storms the stage attempting to raise money for her troupe of classical dancing ducks, you know this will be of no help to the likes of lovely Neli Xaba, with her shaved head and her mesmerically rhythmic black limbs.
Most of these questions come leavened with muddle and laughter. But Orlin's most inspired images are underlined in calm: a black girl in a tutu silently sifting flour over herself; a Grace Jones catwalk figure who peels off her elegant pink gown to reveal a blue one, a green one, and then a yellow. Is this what they mean by "rainbow nation", this fetishising of black beauty by the fashion industry? Daddy... left you with plenty to ponder, as well as an ache in your side.
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