Les Noces is one of the great dance-works of the 20th century. It was made by Bronislava Nijinska for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1923, is set to Stravinsky’s eponymous score – a contemplation of the traditions and rites of Russian peasant weddings – and designed with grand austerity by Natalya Goncharova. Frederick Ashton, who as a young man danced for Nijinska, revered it, and when he became director of the Royal Ballet, it was one of two works (the other was Les Biches, long overdue for revival) that Nijinska mounted for the company.
The piece has now been revived in a tribute-to-Ashton triple bill, and on Saturday night it received a superlative performance in which its every virtue – dance as architecture built from the folk tradition’s simplicities – and a numinous sense of ritual were respected. Les Noces is notoriously difficult to perform (the cast as community rather than as individuals) but this Royal Ballet ensemble was superb, united in dynamics and devotedly expressive in shaping Nijinska’s masterpiece. The score rang out bravely under Barry Wordsworth’s baton, with unerring vocalists, percussion, pianists, and a ferociously difficult masterpiece was honoured. (An old Ballets Russes dancer once described it to me as a “wonderful monster”.) To dancers – not least the final scene’s soloists, Ricardo Cervera and Deirdre Chapman – to répétiteurs, to musicians and singers, to Christopher Newton, who staged it, to Barry Wordsworth, to everyone involved in this tremendous revival, laurels.
It is, indeed, so tremendous an event that the rest of this triple bill – Ashton’s Birthday Offering and A Month in the Country – can be forgiven for its moping. The first boasts Glazunov at his most luscious, Ashton at his most beguiling in making eight Fabergé variations for ballerinas, and it looked as if it had been left out in the rain overnight. A Month in the Country is Turgenev’s small summer tragedy given exquisite form, and was here a staging by the Crummles’s dramatic troupe, too laboured even to be funny. Scenery was rarely chewed to less purpose.
(for Les Noces)