Royal Ballet ambitiously expands choreography

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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Tour performances bring a snapshot of a dance company, but it is rare that the photo is as vivid as the recent performances by England's Royal Ballet at Kennedy Center.

In previous visits, the Royal Ballet put its focus on its iconic choreographer, the one who put a distinctively British aristocratic face on the company, Frederick Ashton ("La Fille Mal Gardee," "Enigma Variations" and an assortment of shorter ballets).

Last week, the company added Ashton's marvelous "A Month in the Country" to the list. But this time Ashton was accompanied by a trio of distinctive British choreographers past and present, with "Manon" by Kenneth MacMillan and two new stars on the horizon, Christopher Wheeldon ("DGV: Danse a Grande Vitesse") and Wayne McGregor ("Chroma").

I don't know of another international company that can present four such diverse homegrown talents in its repertoire.

The run began on a formal note last Tuesday, with artistic director Monica Mason making a curtain speech that acknowledged the company's happiness upon its return to the Kennedy Center. But she also paid tribute to the victims of Washington D.C.'s historic Metro train crash the day before and dedicated the performance to them.

The reason for that came at the end of the program in a mesmerizing performance of Wheeldon's "DVG," inspired by France's high-speed train (TGV or Train a Grande Vitesse). Once past the tragic circumstances, there was a ballet that underlined Wheeldon's choreographic importance on the international dance scene.

He could be the future of British ballet. The dancers were joined by Jean-Marc Puissant's segmented, curving sculpture and enhanced by Jennifer Tipton's futuristic lighting.

Wheeldon began with an oscillating group behind the sculpture and often used the space for a passing landscape of dancers, among the ideas associated with the train. A series of duets took the forefront. The clarity of line, a hallmark of the Royal, was there, but Wheeldon learned his lessons from the New York City Ballet, where he performed and choreographed before starting his own company, Morphoses.

Complex partnering coupled with sweeping extensions gave the ensemble that Balanchine accent. But Wheeldon's choreographic design was all his own.

McGregor's "Chroma," with its minimalist three-sided set, bore a passing resemblance to William Forsythe on steroids, with over-arching extensions and muscular twists and turns. The architecture behind it, coupled with Joby Talbot's driving arrangement of Jack White's music, gave "Chroma" a pounding vision, but a disconcerting alienation.

As the name might suggest, "A Month in the Country" provided a brief respite in the middle of the program. The mildly dysfunctional family, headed by Zenaida Yanowsky (Natalia Petrovna), was "freely adapted" from Ivan Turgenev's play and, despite the Russian origin, was full of decidedly British accents, from the quick footwork to sidelong glances amidst an undulating love affair.

It also pointed out the necessity of maintaining the Ashton repertoire at the Royal Ballet. While the dancers looked wonderful in the Wheeldon and McGregor ballets, they didn't define them as Ashton's ballets do.

At the Thursday performance, the company debuted "Manon," based on Abbe Provost's "Manon Lescaut," but may very well work better as an opera. Moving from Paris to the swamps in Louisiana, it traced the journey of a beautiful young woman (Tamara Rojo) who could not decide between the love of a young student, Carlos Acosta (Des Grieux), and the riches offered by a wealthy older man, Christopher Saunders (Monsieur G.M.), leading to her downfall.

Acosta was probably the closest thing to star quality that the Royal brought on this visit. But his soaring jump, which brought gasps from the audience, was rarely visible. Instead the choreographic emphasis was on various yearning manifestations of the arabesque, something that was a signature move of the role's creator, Anthony Dowell, but not Acosta.

Roja was a lithe, beautiful Manon, with the most delectably arched feet. But as a woman who seemed to toy with her men, she lacked the dark shadows needed to flesh out the character.

Without a charismatic romance and unbridled passion to carry the story, it was easy to drift to the characters in the background -- Dickensian beggars in the street and the bewigged old man checking his jowls and his stomach pooch in the mirror.

And that is the gist of the Royal Ballet -- it's all in the details.

Former PG critic Jane Vranish can be reached at .


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