Without fanfare or apology, the Royal Ballet appears to have rehabilitated Liam Scarlett, but what a tragic balls-up it has been. In 2019, having been accused of unspecified sexual misconduct, the choreographer and his work were cancelled both at Covent Garden and abroad. An internal report into his activities has never been published, so rumours and allegations persist, but the official line exonerated him without explanation. Shockingly, Scarlett killed himself last April.
Now he has been restored, smilingly pictured without mention of any unpleasantness in the programme book for the Royal Ballet’s current revival of his production of Swan Lake. There’s been a chaotic cover-up, and it’s just not good enough.
How much talent did he have? I never sensed creative genius, though his first big success Asphodel Meadows was a perfectly agreeable pastorale. Subsequent efforts such as Frankensteinand Sweet Violets misfired, to put it kindly. Yet there could be no question of his skill and potential (he died when he was barely 35), and my guess is that his largely traditional reading of Swan Lake will prove his enduring legacy.
Quibbles are inevitable. I’m irritated by his emphasis on the dramatically redundant role of the prince’s chum Benno and what amounts to a repetition of the Act One pas de trois in Act Three. Promoting the dastardly sorcerer Von Rothbart to the post of court chamberlain raises more questions than it answers. And the downbeat ending, with Siegfried left carrying a lifeless body, strikes a false note that runs counter to Tchaikovsky’s redemptive music. But there’s plenty of atmosphere and spectacle in John Macfarlane’s designs – audiences get their money’s worth of gilt in Act Three – and Scarlett has honoured what little we know of Petipa and Ivanov’s original conception.
Over the two performances I saw, the company danced it very well indeed. The swan maidens were melancholy spectres in lyrical unison; James Hay and Luca Acri both bounced merrily as the tiresomely ubiquitous Benno; the folkloric shenanigans in the ballroom scene were executed with panache; and Bennet Gartside and Gary Avis channelled their inner mad bad Vlads into a sneery Von Rothbart.
Yasmine Naghdi replaced Marianela Nunez as Odette-Odile for the first performance. Naghdi is technically champion: she jumps as powerfully as she turns, sparking her Odile into a firecracker, but her hard-edged Odette never suggested the wounded, terrified, betrayed creature, all sighs and tears, that Natalia Osipova embodied so movingly two nights later. Naghdi’s Siegfried Vadim Muntagirov was his usual exquisite feline self, nothing exaggerated or effortful as he miraculously eliminated all corners and edges from his immaculately fluent bodily line; drop-dead handsome Reece Clarke partnered Osipova elegantly and conscientiously.
The run continues in repertory until the end of May: of later casts, I’m most intrigued by the pairings of Mayara Magri and Cesar Corrales (22 March) and Lauren Cuthbertson and William Bracewell (10, 13 and 19 May).
In a fortuitous bit of levelling up, one of the Royal’s most stalwart and versatile principals Federico Bonelli has just left the company to become director of the Leeds-based Northern Ballet, succeeding David Nixon who’s been in the post 20 years and made a good job of it. Bonelli will bring not only metropolitan expertise but also intelligence, taste and charm to an ensemble focused on full-length narrative-based work, embracing the classics and adaptations of everything from Dracula to The Great Gatsby. Can dance really add anything to the prose of Scott Fitzgerald? I think not. But Jane Eyre, for instance, was surprisingly successful. The company always dances with gusto and draws a loyal following, very largely female, but Bonelli will need to remedy the shortage of leading dancers with outstanding histrionic gifts.
Northern Ballet’s spring tour features a revival of Kenneth Tindall’s Casanova, first seen in 2017. Skating through the libertine’s life story as related in his memoirs, it is much too plot-heavy. The synopsis in the programme runs close to a thousand words: I think Bonelli should set the limit at a hundred. Nobody could possibly understand all the twists involving cardinals, nuns, castrati and Inquisitors from what we see on stage. A character looking like a fugitive from RuPaul’s Drag Race turns out to be Voltaire.
But the show is superbly lit by Alastair West, magnificently designed by Christopher Oram and fired up by a cheap but effective original score by Kerry Muzzey. Joseph Taylor makes a boyishly engaging Tom Jones of a Casanova, and the company’s one real star Javier Torres offers a brilliant comic cameo as a lascivious aristo. Tindall’s choreography is high-octane if unsubtle. Exotically simulated copulation abounds, and it’s all quite amusing.
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