Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed Stephen Hough’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini at the First Night of the Proms recently. His was a typically delicate, understated performance, throwing off those tricky passages with lightness of touch, and revelling – though not too much – in that glorious Variation XVIII. Hough’s artistry has never been in question and this performance showed why – he’s a natural musician, through and through, who always puts the music, rather than the show, first.
So why did I find myself enjoying a performance of the same work two weeks later at the Coliseum – part of Carlos Acosta’s ‘Classical Selection’ gala – by the Royal Ballet’s head of music Robert Clark even more? Clark is of course an accomplished pianist but he’s not of the same calibre as Hough, and he wouldn’t profess to be. As a ballet répétiteur, his job is to adapt, to be flexible and to accompany – not to shine on stage as a soloist.
No, the reason for my increased enjoyment was not because of his performance and that of the Royal Ballet Sinfonia – good as these both were – but because of the glorious choreography from Frederick Ashton the music was accompanying. As Sir Simon Rattle said to Gramophone recently, the best choreography mirrors the music – in other words, what you’re seeing is what you’re hearing. And Rhapsody was the perfect example. When the music soars, the dancers soar. When it reaches its climax, the pas de deux culminates in a breathtaking lift. Danced here with grace and emotion by the Royal Ballet’s Ricardo Cervera and Yuhui Choe, Rhapsody was the embodiment of everything I’ve ever felt when hearing Rachmaninov’s timeless variation.
The dancer and choreographer William Trevitt of the Ballet Boyz once told me that good music had the power to elevate bad choreography but not the other way round. I understood what he meant, but this evening of glorious entertainment from Acosta and friends to celebrate his 40th birthday actually suggested otherwise. Take for example Diana and Actaeon, by the little-known composer Riccardo Drigo, which closed the first half. This wasn’t great music by any means – but it was sufficient for its purpose, namely to showcase the talents of two dancers in choreography by Agrippina Vaganova. When Marianela Nuñez was doing her multiple spins, when Carlos Acosta was leaping powerfully into the air, we didn’t really care if the music was sub-standard – it was simply a vehicle for fabulous dance artistry. The same went for Tryst, Christopher Wheeldon’s first creation for the Royal Ballet. James MacMillan’s score just doesn’t do it for me I’m afraid but the choreography is so cutting-edge, so boundary-pushing – danced to perfection by Melissa Hamilton and Eric Underwood – that I didn’t really notice it – and when I did, it didn’t jar as it has in the past.
Then there was the interesting example of when a classic score is brought down by naff choreography, in this case Fokine’s version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade. I love this score, and know it inside out, but somehow it wasn’t allowed to unfold to its full potential because the dancing was just so ‘silly’ (Acosta and Nunez did their best, but it wasn’t enough – it was hard to believe this was the work of The Firebird’s choreographer).
But oh, when the music and the choreography are on an equal pegging, how wonderful the results can be! This was evident not only in Rhapsody but in all the Kenneth MacMillan-choreographed numbers – Manon (set to Massenet, and danced with unhinged passion by Leanne Benjamin and Nehemiah Kish), Mayerling (Acosta and Benjamin, set to music by Liszt), Gloria (Hamilton and Kish, set to Poulenc’s Gloria in G, and performed ably by the Pegasus Choir), and Requiem (Acosta and Benjamin, set to Fauré, with capable solos from soprano Moira Johnston and baritone Graham Kirk). And let’s not forget the two Stravinsky excerpts from Jewels and Apollo – restrained neo-classical scores mirrored by Balanchine’s clean, elegant choreography.
For something different, the programme ended with Memoria – an electronic minimalist score by Mexican electronica artist Murcof, with choreography created by Miguel Altunaga with Acosta’s input – that featured Acosta, alone on a spot-lit stage, showing us exactly why he is one of the greatest male dancers of his generation. Angular lines, head spins, moments of calm repose juxtaposed against frenetic movement, he was magnificent – and the music, with its cool vibe and incessant beat, worked a treat. Would I have listened to it on its own? Probably not. But in this context, I couldn’t have asked for anything more.
Perhaps this experience made me more aware than ever of the enormous power of music to influence dance, but also vice versa. Yes, it can elevate bad choreography, as Trevitt said, but it can also blend into the background in a perfectly pleasant way if the choreography it’s accompanying is gob-smackingly amazing (as in Tryst or Diana and Actaeon). It can also, sadly, be under-served by choreography that just doesn’t work (Sheherazade). Yet, when both elements are punching above their weight, the experience cannot be bettered – the sum really is greater than its parts.