Copy of Carlos Acosta as The Messenger of Death and Marianela Nuñez in Song of the Earth Photo ROH/Bill Cooper

Carlos Acosta as The Messenger of Death and Marianela Nuñez in Song of the Earth
Photo ROH/Tristram Kenton

David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY
June 24, 2015

Jerry Hochman

Following an opening gala on Tuesday, the first of two repertory programs in The Royal Ballet’s eight-performance season at Lincoln Center commenced last night with Sir Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, and Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth.

The Dream is very familiar to New York audiences; Song of the Earth is not. That’s unfortunate – it is a remarkable ballet. During a discussion on the afternoon of 24th, Dame Monica Mason, former Artistic Director of the company, called it a masterpiece. It is.

The subject of death and its impact on those left behind is not an unusual one for choreographers. Song of the Earth, made for Stuttgart Ballet in 1965 to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, is an observation and commentary on the inevitability of death as part of the life process. In it, MacMillan emphasizes the universality of death, with the emotional turmoil camouflaged and muted through until the end, in contrast to Anthony Tudor’s Dark Elegies, for example, which wears its emotional turmoil on its sleeve by exposing individual and group agony.

Mahler’s song cycle was created around verses from Hans Bethge’s Die chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute), itself based on ancient Chinese poetry, and has Asian sound sources including gongs imbedded at various points. The songs describe the perpetual process of living within the process of dying: death is always present, strikes who and when it cares to, but life, both ephemeral and eternal, must be celebrated even knowing that death will happen. A translation of the German text might have been helpful to see the connection between the Chinese poetry and MacMillan’s choreography, but the songs themselves, augmented by Mahler’s symphony, convey the moods of sorrow, of joy, of power, and of inevitability, that MacMillan’s ballet displays.

Each choreographed song is distinct, reflecting the subject of each, with Death, the Messenger, always there. Although it lasts over an hour (some audience members were obviously impatient), MacMillan took the composition as it was, and made it look even bigger than it is. Nothing looks the same from one song to another, or from one phrase to another.

Even though there’s a broad subject, Song of the Earth has no story. Choreographically, there are nods to Nijinsky and Balanchine, and his friend John Cranko, but the movement quality is so varied – yet within the existing ballet vocabulary – that it must have looked revolutionary when it premiered. It still looks contemporary now.

Yuhui Choe and artists of The Royal Ballet in Song of the Earth Photo Tristam Kenton

Yuhui Choe and artists of The Royal Ballet in Song of the Earth
Photo ROH/Tristam Kenton

Song of the Earth also has sheer power. It’s not a ballet that lends itself to deconstruction and frame by frame analysis. MacMillan’s choreographic originality is the only constant. Except for the moments between the songs, it’s always moving, and the power developed through this constant and varied overall movement is palpable and constantly stunning. And in the extraordinarily crystalline staging – MacMillan uses every nook and cranny of the stage – no matter how many dancers share the stage at a given time, it never looks busy.

Given the non-narrative nature of the ballet, the acting is appropriately restrained and minimal, but it’s there. Marianela Núñez’s pain was not so much a presence as a force that was with her always, simmering beneath the surface. Nehemiah Kish was more stoic throughout – but appropriately so. The power he provided came more from his flawless execution of the choreography. And as The Messenger, to say that Carlos Acosta was the most commanding presence in the piece, even when offstage, is an understatement. He was always lurking, menacing, until he struck mercilessly. His demeanor throughout was one of serene ferocity.

The surprise of the evening was Yuhui Choe. She carried the laboring oar in the Third Song (Of Youth), and danced MacMillan’s joyful acrobatic combinations (strongly supported by the rest of the cast) with a combination of muted elation that perfectly complemented the power of the leads.

Thomas Randle (tenor) and Katharine Goeldner (mezzo-soprano) capably, and dramatically, divided the vocals.

Steven McRae as Oberon in The Dream Photo ROH/Bill Cooper

Steven McRae as Oberon in The Dream
Photo ROH/Bill Cooper

The Dream is a one act adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy. But I must confess that like many other Ashton ballets, its prissiness has taken its toll. Its humor feels much too starched and reserved, the differences emphasized by New York City Ballet’s recent presentation of the George Balanchine version. On the other hand, it can’t be denied that Ashton’s fairies dance like one might think fairies dance, flittering like little slightly oversized bees rather than ballet dancers with attached wings; and the fairy nobility, Titania and Oberon, are the fairy aristocrats – but still fairies. So if you’re looking for authentic fairies, this version might be the better choice.

Be that as it may, Steven McRae was a wonder as Oberon, with feet that seemed never to touch the ground and a body that seemed never to stop moving. Sarah Lamb danced a relatively reserved, but appropriate Titania, and the two of them nailed the ballet’s grand concluding pas de deux. James Hay delivered a fine hyperactive Puck, although he lacks the presence and humor that Herman Cornejo brings to the role when he performs it with ABT. And perhaps it was a consequence of lack of familiarity with stage parameters, but Bottom’s putting on his donkey head shouldn’t be quite as obvious to the audience as it was. There must be a way to keep that action hidden.

The New York City Ballet Orchestra played brilliantly through both pieces.

The Royal Ballet continues at the David H. Koch Theater to June 28 with this and a second program. For details, click here.