22 MAY 1993, Page 36


Royal Ballet (Covent Garden)

Mint Imperial

Sophie Constanti

The Royal Ballet's current triple bill Balanchine's Ballet Imperial, David Bint- ley's Still Life at the Penguin Café and MacMillan's Gloria — is a well-balanced evening of formal brilliance, insouciant entertainment and tragedy-made-beautiful. In that order. None of these works falls foul of the territory or code of manners within which ballet functions so easily. And all of them are far removed from the kind of social realism towards which, say, MacMillan's Judas Tree veered, with its gang rape, suicide and mob of building labourers loitering with intent around the desolate urban wasteland beyond Canary Wharf.

But these days the Royal Ballet appears to believe that, just by adding a second work by William Forsythe to its repertory, the company has somehow fully entered into the Zeitgeist. All it has in fact done is bow to the flavour, rather than the spirit, of the Nineties. Bringing in recently created work is not always the way forward, as Is exemplified by the revival of Ballet Impen- al. This marvel of geometry, phrasing and teamwork was whipped up for American Ballet Caravan's tour of South America in 1941. Nine years later, Sadler's Wells Ballet performed Ballet Imperial at Covent Gar- den, making it the first Balanchine work to be acquired by a British company.

Ballet Imperial is Balanchine's tribute to Petipa and to the golden age of academic classicism at the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg. Set to Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No 2, it is a visual interpretation of the music, yet possesses its own internal voice and drama. While one is instantly reminded of the Petipa-Tchaikovsky clas- sics in terms of their structure, hierarchical organisation and grand manner, Balan- chine's choice of a symphonic score con- denses and heightens the three-act

formula. As for his choreography, it har- bours an essential modernity which, 52 years on, still surprises and thrills the eye.

Eugene Berman's design (which adorned the 1950 production) is the only aspect of Ballet Imperial which puts it in danger of looking like a dusted-down museum piece. The Berman sets and costumes have twice been replaced: first in 1963 by Carl Toms's designs, then in 1985 by Christopher Le Brun's. Anthony Dowell decided to restore Berman's painted scenes of a snowy St. Petersburg vista decorated by blue and gold columns and a huge, imperial eagle. And he claims to have created a lighter, more airy effect by using gauzes rather than canvas.

There has been much insistence — main- ly from those people who saw the first Bal- let Imperial, in which Fonteyn, Michael Soames and Beryl Grey danced the princi- pal roles — that the Berman designs are in perfect accordance with the atmosphere of nobility and elegance that Balanchine was trying to create. Yet the original produc- tion was designed not by Berman but by Mstislav Doboujinsky and when, in 1973, Balanchine revived the work yet again for New York City Ballet, the choreographer stripped it down to a plain backdrop and practice clothes. He also changed the work's title to Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No 2. In spite of the reinstated Berman set- ting, which I find more reminiscent of the pigeon-crap-encrusted fountains of Trafal- gar Square on a grey day than of the archi- tecture of the Window on the West, and in spite of the starched tutus and white-wig coiffures, which make the women look like prematurely aged albinos and Bruce San- som look like Dick Emery, Ballet Imperial emerges resplendent. While Balanchine, whose deep understanding of Petipa's choreographic concerns stemmed from his Own background and training at the Impe- rial School, shows us exactly what Ballet Imperial is about through construction, style — the dance itself, Berman appears merely to have added a veneer he thought appropriate to a particular era. What is appropriate is that the revival of Ballet Imperial has come at a time when Dowell's new generation of dancers is ready for such a challenge. The first night cast was led by Viviana Durante and Bruce Sansom, and by Darcey Bussell in the equally arduous second ballerina role, part- nered by Adam Cooper and Christopher Saunders. Whereas Durante, with her small frame, seemed quickly at ease with the complex footwork and repeated changes of direction which characterise her first solo variation, Bussell occasionally gave the impression that she was cutting corners with the steps in order to keep enlarging the space into which she travelled. After the glittering display of the first movement, the mood becomes quiet, melancholic, but n© less spectacular in its effects as the female corps divides, flanking Sansom like a giant pair of undulating wings.