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BALLET REVIEW : Abstractions, Passions and Penguins

TIMES MUSIC/DANCE CRITIC

Relief at last. And not an arabesque too soon.

Thursday night at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, the Royal Ballet put aside the bland characterizations and murky scenic innovations that have marred Anthony Dowell’s production of “Swan Lake.” Just when we feared the company had lost its noble luster, Dowell restored faith with a vibrant program that surveyed three disparate schools of contemporary British choreography.

First came “Scenes de Ballet,” a fascinatingly atypical essay in neoclassical abstraction, anno 1948, by Frederick Ashton, the founding creative spirit of the company.

The flamboyant centerpiece was “Winter Dreams,” a new, unabashedly theatrical distillation of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” by Kenneth MacMillan, who now serves the Royal Ballet as principal choreographer.

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Finally, David Bintley, the young resident choreographer, provided a wildly whimsical coda with serious ecological undertones: a new-wavy, semi-minimalistic escapade, anno 1988, for preening, prancing and shuffling mock animals called “ ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Cafe.”

An unflappable purist might complain, with some justification, of certain blemishes in the triple bill. The hard-working cast assembled for the historic Ashton revival seemed more dutiful than inspired, more energetic than supple. The ultimate impact of MacMillan’s Chekhov adaptation depended more on acting than on dancing. The trendy cuteness of Bintley’s undeniably clever parable threatened, after a while, to cloy.

In context, however, the quibbles mattered little. The Royal Ballet had met three formidable challenges with abiding conviction, informed style and, where needed, bona fide virtuosity.

“Scenes de Ballet"--with its plotless scenario, piquant Stravinsky score, strict formalist patterns and stylized Romanesque decors by Andre Beaurepaire--looks like Ashton’s answer to Balanchine modernism.

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Both masters listened intently to the music at hand and translated the geometric developments, the contrapuntal implications, the dynamic variations and rhythmic nuances with uncanny sensitivity. The British master took fewer liberties with classical vocabulary than one came to expect from his Russo-American counterpart. Nevertheless, his lucid repertory of movements and gestures illuminated both the texture and the thrust of the score, literally at every turn.

The performance on Thursday was led, with determined glitter, by Lesley Collier and Errol Pickford, in roles created by Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes. Only one element in the production looked dated: the fussy costumes assigned the women of the corps, which seemed oddly evocative of commedia dell’arte. Anthony Twiner conducted con brio.

In the 40 episodic minutes he takes to explore the brooding melancholy of “Winter Dreams,” MacMillan reminds us that he is a storyteller par excellence, an expert at swift character delineation and--since the passing of John Cranko--a virtually unrivalled specialist in the art of splashy amorous duet. He makes no attempt to recreate the complexities and profundities of the Chekhov source, but he brings the basic personal conflicts into poetic focus.

At the same time, he creates strikingly colorful vehicles for an ensemble of grateful dancers--young, not so young and, yes, old--all of whom, most emphatically, have faces. Using nostalgic piano pieces by Tchaikovsky (arranged by Philip Gammon, the sympathetic onstage soloist) plus some folksy interludes for guitars masquerading as balalaikas (arranged by Thomas Hartman), the choreographer manages to juggle intimate tragedy, primitive narrative and vaudeville diversion with fine, old-fashioned panache.

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The performance in Costa Mesa was dominated by Darcey Bussell, 22, who portrayed the unhappy, vulnerable Masha. Tall, willowy, swooningly lyrical yet heroically tempestuous, she may be the charismatic ballerina this company so desperately needs. She found an ideal partner in the fiercely erotic, dangerously athletic, subtly menacing Vershinen of Irekh Mukhamedov.

A bespectacled Anthony Dowell--danseur noble turned company paterfamilias--twitched and jerked with wrenching, understated pathos in the agonies of Kulygin, Masha’s betrayed husband. Viviana Durante, so pallid as Odette-Odile, conveyed both the frustrating petulance and the redeeming charm of Irina most compellingly, while Nicola Tranah defined the repression of Olga with deft economy. Memorable cameos were contributed by two respected Royal veterans: Gerd Larsen as the resident mamushka and Derek Rencher as the drunken doctor trapped in a convoluted pas de deux with a chair.

Peter Farmer designed the apt period costumes and sparse open set. John B. Read oversaw the atmospheric lighting scheme.

Coming after MacMillan’s gloomy exercise in Sturm und Angst , Bintley’s “Penguin Cafe” resembled a delirious cartoon encumbered with a worthy message. With its pleasantly pesky songs by Simon Jeffes and its fanciful sets, costumes and masks by Hayden Griffin, this picturesque pop ballet pleads for the survival of numerous endangered species, from the great auk to the hog-nosed skunk flea to the Brazilian wooly monkey to the human.

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Bintley’s neat and witty caractere dances evolve brightly into caricature dances, propelled by the tough beat-beat-beat and sweet repetitive gurgles of Jeffes’ score. The relatively anonymous protagonists go through their ironic, dark-edged paces with elegant bravura--oh-so-adorable whiskers, snoots, tails, horns and flappers notwithstanding. The audience goes home ecstatic.


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