The New World - Royal Ballet - Royal Opera House - Covent Garden
On 18 April 2000 I was at ROH to see the Royal Ballet in a mixed programme – The New World featuring the Crucible, Serenade and The Concert. The conductor was Richard Bernas.
THE CRUCIBLE - This was the world premiere of Arthur Miller’s play set to music by Charles Ives; choreography by William Tuckett. The story is set against the background of the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692; centring on the fate of John Proctor, a local farmer. Elizabeth Proctor, his wife, has been ‘cold’ towards him, and, tempted, he has slept with their 17 year-old servant Abigail Williams. Abigail has become obsessed with John and wants him for herself.
Abigail and some friends have been discovered by Parris, the local minister, dancing in the forest. It has been suggested that the girls were conjuring spirits, which would explain the strange trance into which one of them, Parris’ daughter Betty has fallen. Under Abigail’s influences, the girls use the rumours to turn the accusations away from themselves and on to a black slave, Tibuta. The Revd Hale arrives to investigate and persuades Tibuta to confess to witchcraft and to attempting to corrupt the girls.
Abigail persuades Mary, now working as the Proctors’ servant; to give Elizabeth a rag doll she has made containing a concealed pin, a sure sign of witchcraft. When Hale arrives to question the Proctors, he finds the doll and Elizabeth is arrested. John meets Abigail that night in the forest and, in spite of her advances, rejects her. If she declares Elizabeth a witch in court he will reveal that they have had an affair and that her accusation stem from jealousy. Abigail, however, has become crazed by the power she now wields and does not believe him, though she is plagued by the visions of the arrested Elizabeth.
John pleads Elizabeth’s case with the court and admits to his affair with Abigail. He says that Elizabeth will confirm his claim, because she never lies. Elizabeth, however, in an attempt to save John’s good name, lies for him; as she is taken back to her cell, hysteria, led by Abigail, breaks out in the courtroom. The girls claim that John is sending devils to torment them and he too is arrested.
John is faced with the option of signing a confession to witchcraft, thus escaping execution, or following his conscience by telling the truth. In the end he chooses the latter, thus discrediting the court and the church. (William Tucket says: “For The Crucible I have explored the central relationships between John, Elizabeth and Abigail, rather than follow Arthur Miller’s play literally. Thus there are aspects of the play which are not explored as fully in my choreography.”
John Proctor – Irek Mukhamedov; Elizabeth Proctor – Zienaida Yanowsky; Abigail Williams – Sarah Wildor; Betty – Naomi Reynolds; Revd Parris – Johann Kobborg; Revd Hale – Yohei Sasaki.
SERENADE - Set to the music of Tchaikovsky; choreography George Balanchine. The music featured is Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings.
Balanchine said “Serenade evolved from the lessons I gave, to give students some idea of how dancing on stage differs from class work.” It is very much a ballet of improvisation and relates how things were in an actual ballet class, showing students’ weaknesses and mistakes; such as a dancer who falls and begins to cry, another girl coming in late for class. Balanchine included these episodes in the finished ballet.
Serenade was a calmer work that Tchaikovsky was working on whilst he was tackling composing the 1812 Overture, a commission he didn’t enjoy much. The music opens with a sonatina, followed by a pas-de-deux leading to a famous waltz, then an Elegy (Larghetto elegiaco). There are hushed muted strings at the start of the ‘Tema russo’, a barge-hauling song from the River Volga leading to a lively street song. There is no actual story. As Balanchine said: “ There are, simply, dancers in motion to a beautiful piece of music. The only story is the music’s story, a serenade, a dance, if you like, in the light of the moon.”
Serenade is danced against plain drapes, leaving the lighting to convey the ballet’s changing moods. Dancers-the Royal Ballet Company.
THE CONCERT - (‘THE PERILS OF EVERYBODY’). The music is by Chopin, the choreography by Jerome Robbins, 1918-98 who had a multi-faceted career in American dance – a dancer, a choreographer of ballets as well as Broadway shows and Hollywood. The scenario is a piano recital with the ballet on-stage pianist (Philip Gammon) playing various pieces by Chopin - ballades, preludes, the G Major Mazurka, the E Minor Waltz and a Berceuse.
The cast of 23 dancers – led by Sylvie Guillem – impersonates both the audience proper and the fantasies the music prompts – and, eventually, runs amok. For instance Chopin’s Raindrop prelude is staged as a mournful procession during which individuals, each with their own umbrella, converge into a huddling mass, under an umbrella, much the way individual raindrops gather into a puddle.
The Raindrop Prelude, No 15 of Chopin’s 24 Preludes, was composed during the winter of 1838-9 in the Valdemosa Monastery on the island of Majorca where Chopin, accompanied by George Sand and her son Maurice, was staying for his health. It is said to depict raindrops drumming on the roof of the Monastery although Chopin himself said in a dream he had seen himself drowned, ice-cold water dripping pain-fully on his chest. George Sand said it perhaps depicted the shades of dead monks passing before the hearer in gloomy funeral procession. She also said that Chopin found the Monastery a place of terrifying ghosts.