Review: The Royal Ballet reigns supreme at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival

Dancers of the Royal Ballet in "Secret Things" at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival 2024. Christopher Duggan photo
Spread the love

The Royal Ballet of the United Kingdom’s first-ever appearance at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival — the prestigious dance landmark in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts — connects two world-renowned organizations whose long histories have been intertwined since their respective beginnings. Indeed, the Royal Ballet traces its roots to 1931 (as the Vic-Wells Ballet), the same year pioneering modern dancer Ted Shawn acquired the bucolic hilltop farmland in Becket that would become the Pillow. As Pillow Artistic Director Pamela Tatge explained to the opening night crowd, in 1941, when Shawn needed a break from running the Pillow, Vic-Wells dancers Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin briefly took the helm to provide Shawn the respite he required.

The Royal Ballet’s recent appearance was also historic in that it’s the first time that one visiting company has fully taken over the Pillow campus; performances were held at both the Ted Shawn Theatre and the outdoor Henry J. Leir Stage, which is typically reserved for smaller or up-and-coming dance troupes. 

Viola Pantuso and Daichi Ikarashi of the Royal Ballet perform a pas de deux from “Le Corsaire” on Jacob’s Pillow’s outdoor stage. Christopher Duggan photo

While it would have been marvelous to have seen the selection of solos and pas de deux — ranging from iconic traditional pieces to Christopher Wheeldon’s more contemporary works — in the glorious setting of the outdoor stage, I limited myself to the indoor performance, which was in an of itself a smorgasbord of superb dance. Many of the works presented were excerpts; still, the scope of period and style made for an overflowing sampler of the range, versatility, and expertise of the company. 

As Tatge noted in her opening remarks, the evening was bookended with bold contemporary works. That would explain the negative reaction of hard-core balletomanes to the first piece on the program, an excerpt from Pam Tanowitz’s 2023 Secret Things. Some might not even have realized the dance had begun when a young woman in a short, bright, gauzy romper oddly reminiscent of Grecian garb strode down the aisle to the orchestra pit, then made her way to the stage to begin dancing. Other costume elements, like sparkly lower leg coverings, also gave off ancient Greek or mythological vibes.   

After the initial solo, the work’s eight dancers, moving into groupings and off stage without any apparent narrative, and little emotional connection beyond their keen ability to move together. The choreography, performed on a bare stage, had echoes of Merce Cunningham’s angular, asymmetric, off-kilter, eccentric movements and unexpected phrasing. Observers might also see hints of Martha Graham’s imperious postures and sharp, sweeping pose shifts — minus the high drama — plus a sprinkling of Mark Morris’ group work and insouciance. 

The dance is physically austere, but also has humor baked in. Throughout the piece, the dancers stared blank-facedly out at the audience; much of the movement is stiff and stilted, yet demanding and executed with sharp precision. The women danced en pointe, and their repeated hops in attitude devant looked charmingly awkward. In another repeated move, a dancer scuttles along in a tippy-toe belly-up table-top position, then is pulled upright, hinging only at her knees, an incredible feat of strength and control. 

Hannah Grenell and Francisco Serrano in Pam Tanowtiz’s “Secret Things” at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival 2024. Christopher Duggan photo

At the end, a sole male dancer drops the tension of the choreography and strides in a naturalistic manner offstage to the sound of whistling. “I hated that,” hissed the woman seated behind me. I wanted to see the entire work, especially with the live string quartet playing the score by Anna Clyne, who joined Tanowtiz on stage with the dancers for much-deserved applause. This ending pointed out two excellent moves by the Pillow: 1) Renovating the Ted Shawn Theater to accommodate live music accompaniment; and 2) Honoring Tanowitz with the 2024 Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award.

From there the audience was treated to an immersion into many shades of romance with a quick survey of classical ballet. It hardly needs to be said, but each piece demonstrated the mastery of the dancers. Impeccable line, precision, and musicality are table stakes for a company of this caliber; we know their splits will extend beyond 180 degrees no matter in which orientation or plane they occur (though it’s still breathtaking everytime it happens). Adding to the expected grace and technical mastering, the dancers’ expressive, emotive, and confident stage presence enhanced their every move. 

Sarah Lamb in Balanchine’s “Diamonds” at Jacob’s Pillow. Christopher Duggan photo

The Diamonds pas de deux from Balanchine’s 1967 ballet Jewels brought us Sarah Lamb and Lukas B. Brændsrød in full-on courtly courtship, posture rigidly upright and open-chested, in bejeweled brocade costumes, her tutu creating space for extreme extensions — flawlessly executed with no sign of exertion — while he provided the gentlemanly support to her precision pirouettes, arabesques penchés, and suspended jetés. 

Joseph Sissens and Mariko Sasaki in “Giselle” act II pas de deux. Christopher Duggan photo

Next up, a tender and languorous pas de deux from Giselle, with lissome Mariko Sasaki making a lasting impression as the frail peasant girl, swaying in bourree, holding her lower body up to the waist perfectly upright while undulating her upper body with a remarkable blend of flexibility, fluidity, and control. Joseph Sissens proved worthy of her romantic attentions, combining gentle partnering with airborne finesse. 

The next piece, Diana and Actaeon, dates back to the 17th century; originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and based on Ovid’s tragic myth, it was transformed into a romantic pas de deux for the Kirov Ballet by Agrippina Vaganova. Meaghan Grace Hikis conveyed a strong, stately goddess Diana, while Francisco Serrano captured the earnestness of the young hunter as both infused the choreography with personality. 

Natalia Osipova in “Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan,” choreographed by Frederick Ashton. Christopher Duggan photo

The first half ended with a gift: Five Brahams Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan, by the Royal Ballet’s founding choreographer Frederick Ashton. Soloist Natalia Osipova surely outdid Duncan with her winsome performance of this light and breezy confection, flitting and flowing across the stage in a loose pale orange wrap dress, with or without Duncan’s signature scarf. Kate Shipway’s live accompaniment on piano added to the work’s easy appeal.

Joseph Sissens, Francisco Serrano, and Liam Boswell in “For Four,” choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. Christopher Duggan photo

This piece flowed neatly into the second-half opener, Royal Ballet artistic associate Christopher Wheeldon’s For Four, from 2006. It’s always resonant when an all-male piece takes the Ted Shawn stage, and the opening night cast (Liam Boswell, Leo Dixon, Joseph Sissens, and Francisco Serrano) did both Shawn and Wheeldon proud. Departing from the mannerisms and confines of traditional ballet, they moved lightly yet still precisely through this pas de quatre, spinning and soaring like leaves tossed by a gentle wind, the choreography (like the costumes) softer, projecting bonhomie, with none of the hard edges and conflict typically on display in dance for men. The dancers appear first in silhouette, and the lighting remained muted throughout. Two special treats: 1) The brightly lit backdrop in place up to this point in the evening was gone, treating the audience to the Shawn’s evocative bare barn-door backdrop, lit in gradually shifting colors. 2) The string quartet from Tanowitz’s piece was back in the orchestra pit to perform the music of Franz Schubert that accompanies the dance.

Matthew Ball and Mayara Magri in the “If I Loved You” pas de deux from “Carousel,” choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan. Christopher Duggan photo

Romance returned with the program’s next two pas de deux, both choreographed by the late Kenneth MacMillan, former Director of the Company and Principal Choreographer of the Royal Ballet. The Act 1 pas de deux from Manon (1974) shows Marcelino Sambe literally sweeping his lover Anna Rose Sullivan off her feet in a lush, evocative dance of happiness and passion. The Shawn’s barn doors reappear as an apt backdrop for the “If I Loved You” pas de deux from Carousel, which finds Matthew Ball’s carny soaring into the air with bravura jumps and spins, all to impress and seduce innocent Mayara Magri, who looks entirely vulnerable next to his towering stature.

The evening ended with the aforementioned contemporary bookend: the world premiere of Figures in a Landscape, created specifically for the Pillow by the Royal Ballet’s Resident Choreographer, Wayne McGregor, who was recently knighted. This piece makes use of another beloved feature of the Ted Shawn Theater. Those big barn doors open to reveal the great outdoors behind the stage. And McGregor uses this natural backdrop to great effect; dancers emerge from and disappear into the spookily lit trees beyond. 

Despite its rural roots, this piece is anything but bucolic; the score and the edgy choreography shift from dissonant to lyrical. It opens in assaultive mode with bright stacked lights glaring into the audience as the music blares. The choreography can be hard-edged, jagged, with the male dancers (Brændsrød, Dixon, and Sissens) moving into confrontation, while the women (Sarah Lamb and Viola Pantuso) dance in harmony. While the work is grounded, the dancers bring their finesse and commitment to every step, demonstrating keen ability to shift from the strictures of ballet to a more no-holds-barred form of dance.

Sarah Lamb and Viola Pantuso in “Figures In A Landscape,” choreographed by Wayne McGregor. Christopher Duggan photo

The Pillow engagement is the Royal Ballet’s sole U.S. appearance this year, and Berkshire audiences were lucky to have been able to witness one of the world’s best ballet companies in an extremely diverse and demanding program. The run was sold out; it was a true happening for balletomanes and modern dance fans alike. I’m certain that if the Royal Ballet were to return to the Pillow, even more would flock to the mountaintop campus, more than enough to sell out a two-week takeover. 

The Royal Ballet of the United Kingdom performed at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Massachusetts, July 3–7.


1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.