Edward Watson and Leanne Benjamin are our Titus and Berenice, whose third and final meeting leaves them both distraught, which is written all over their faces and etched into the way they move.
What is interesting is that, just as Suetonius has refrained from any judgements, Brandstrup is constantly reminding his audience that it is up to us to decipher and decide what happened.
Invitus Invitam actually begins as the remaining dancers of the previous piece are still walking off stage, with the set seemingly half-ready; we are stripped of the ‘magic’ that accompanies the theatre. The three meetings between Titus and Berenice are interspersed with a black-clad couple, who appear to be stage hands but are in fact part of the action. Brandstrup is not only highlighting the superficiality of performance, but that all is open to interpretation.
However, it is admittedly difficult to stand out in this particular quadruple bill, with Invitus Invitam flanked by the choreographic heavyweights of Ashton, Macmillan and Balanchine.
In another period piece, while Invitus Invitam evoked the court of Louis XIV, Frederick Ashton’s La Valse has a pre-war glitz to it. In a grand ballroom complete with chandeliers, waltzing couples dart in and out of each other, framing three central couples. Particularly spectacular are the male group virtuoso sequences, with their every jump and turn visually enhanced by their tailed coats and ruffled shirts.
However, you are fooled into thinking La Valse is straightforward. Every time Ravel’s rich, haunting score takes a different turn, the mood of the entire piece changes with it, which is juxtaposed with the grandeur of the setting. Taken together with the ending, which sees the couples continuing to turn as the curtain draws, a sense of unease is magnified and one cannot help but think of the horror that follows this particular era, as the glamour is snatched away and replaced with someone altogether more sinister. Splendid stuff.
Kenneth Macmillan’s Winter Dreams tried to capture that cold, melancholic feeling of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Like the play, the sombre mood is at times punctuated with short comic sketches. But this does not detract from the overall mood, but rather accentuate it.
As Masha, Marianela Nuñez shows how her character is torn between her awkward husband and her love for the exotic lieutenant colonel with beautiful restraint, as someone trapped inside her surroundings and her situation. When she is on stage, you don’t want to watch anyone else. Also worthy of note is Laura Morera’s younger sister, Irina, whose springy steps and youthful zest reflect an innocent idealism that has long been lost in her sisters.
Tchaikovsky’s music also features in the closing piece, George Balanchine’s jubilant Theme and Variations – the dance that seduced the young Rudolph Nureyev to take notice of what ballet in the West has to offer.
In fact, Theme and Variations itself is a homage to Russian imperial ballet, with the lavish costume and celebratory feel of classics like Sleeping Beauty all present and correct, but without the constraint of a storyline.
It is also a celebration of the ballerina. In another twist of classical ballet, Balanchine has chosen to keep his female corps without male partners for the majority of the piece. They support each other through intricate formations and lines that unravel into other shapes, accompanied by some magnificent, feather-light footwork.
The opening night of the mixed programme was made more special by the fact that it was dedicated to Alicia Alonso (for whom Theme and Variations was created), who turns 90 in December. A respected dancer and influential founder of the Cuban National Ballet, Alonso is ballet royalty, and her presence on opening night was met with standing ovations.
How this makes this particular revival’s central couple feel is anyone’s guess, but Tamara Rojo and Sergei Polunin – newly promoted to principle – certainly seemed unfazed by this.
Theme and Variations is a technically difficult piece, but they made it look like a breeze. Rojo’s lightning-fast footwork, however, was eclipsed by the young Polunin’s super high jumps. His second variation – all ronds de jambs sautés and double tours en l’air – attracted some audible admiring gasps. Full of sparks, Balanchine shows that classical ballet does not need a narrative. This is ballet for ballet’s sake, and it really doesn’t get better than this.