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Royal Ballet Premieres Two Dances

July 11, 1991

NEW YORK (AP) _ With its new artistic facelift and triumphant return to the Metropolitan Opera House, London’s Royal Ballet has served notice that it’s doffed some of its stodginess and is willing to take risks.

The big treat of Wednesday night’s performance was the New York premiere of a jazzy, whimsical modern ballet by David Bintley, ″ ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Cafe.″ Simon Jeffes’ peppery music ranges from a conga beat to a hoedown to various Caribbean and South American flavors.

Overall, though, the program was uneven and something of a letdown after the company’s dazzling and exceptional opening night of Tchaikovsky’s ″Swan Lake.″

The Wednesday night performance opened with a somewhat weaker work, Frederick Ashton’s ″Scenes de ballet,″ set to music by Igor Stravinsky. The dance is not among Ashton’s better choreography, nor is it among Stravinsky’s better music.

The dance has the look and feel of a 1950s Hollywood ballet ″scene.″ And that is precisely its origin. Producer Billy Rose had asked Stravinsky to write the piece for a revue Rose was taking to Broadway. The dance never made it.

It is somewhat geometric in feel, with corresponding geometric costumes to match the dissonance of Stravinsky’s score. But the staging is pedestrian and much of the movement - especially for the men - is not very demanding. The women, who were nicely turned out, did their best with sets of sharp bourrees.

The American premiere of Kenneth MacMillan’s ″Winter Dreams″ followed. Set to music by Tchaikovsky with sprinklings of traditional Russian folk music, the dance is a retelling of Anton Chekhov’s classic play ″Three Sisters.″

Italian ballerina Viviana Durante was marvelous as the sister Irina, fluid in movement and lyrical in her pas de deux with Adam Cooper as the lovesick captain. Nicola Tranah (Olga) and Darcey Bussell (Masha) also excelled. Their opening pas de trois was a tangle of emotions and lovely.

″Winter Dreams″ is a story ballet, requiring not only precision of movement but also dramatic acting. The three women were convincing as their inner frustrations unfold in dance. The men were less so, partly because the Royal Ballet is not a company of strong male dancers.

However, the set design was haunting: The dancers perform in front of a black, transparent curtain that shadows a piano player and a guitar ensemble as well as a dinner table full of revelers.

MacMillan gives a strong folk flavor throughout, especially with the barrel turns of the men and the interweaving of traditional Russian music with Tchaikovsky’s score.

‴Still Life’ at the Penguin Cafe″ was a wonderful way to end the evening, and a spirited dance to have after the somber ″Winter Dreams.″ Robert Allsop’s animal masks are a treat and enhance the fantasy.

Deborah Bull’s Utah Longhorn Ram was seductive and raunchy, while Bruce Sansom’s Texan Kangaroo Rat, with twitches and mouse-like leaps, was pure fun. Best of all was the sinuous Southern Cape Zebra danced by Ashely Page, whose body folded into naughty curves.

Bintley’s staging and choreography are contemporary and incorporate many dance styles, including ballroom in the opening sequence. Only one dancer is en pointe, Fiona Brockway as the pesky Skunk Flea.

The Royal Ballet has not performed in New York since 1983. It’s nice to have them back, as long as the risks they take resemble ″Penguin Cafe.″

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