Those who believe that ballet today is often no more than a grotesque physical display ought to have seen American Ballet Theatre’s performance of Jardin aux Lilas last week.

Those who believe that ballet today is often no more than a grotesque physical display ought to have seen American Ballet Theatre’s performance of Jardin aux Lilas last week. Antony Tudor’s economical, though demanding choreography does not allow any melodramatic explosion of technical bravura. It is a text made of subtly conceived shadings — in which stillness, basic steps and long-held poses speak louder than jumps, triple turns or supported acrobatics. Gestures, though frequently small and contained, play a significant role, too: hands clasped in a slow ascending/descending motion highlight vicious contempt and/or gossip, while a hand horizontally ‘cutting’ across the heart, speaks volumes about the sorrow of a lover who has for ever lost his beloved.

Created in 1936, Jardin — also known as Lilac Garden — is considered the quintessential choreographic equivalent of a late-Edwardian drama. The soft-toned, almost Art Nouveau patterns created by the dancers on the stage, and the restrained, delicately mannered drama of the two couples who must submit to the ridiculous morals of society, still possess vibrancy and immediacy.

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Yet the beauty of this work, set to Ernest Chausson’s yearning Poème, is realised only when and if a stylistically impeccable rendition of all the above is complemented by equally impeccable silent acting. Which is where the American Ballet Theatre artists excelled. Led by a superb Julie Kent as Caroline, the girl who must marry against her will, they mesmerised the audience who responded with a deserved ovation.

Such a memorable performance — possibly the best I have seen in decades — was the centrepiece of a well-conceived programme that the US-based company presented at Sadler’s Wells. This opened with a nicely fizzy, though not overly technically tidy rendition of Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, and concluded on an equally sparkling note with Paul Taylor’s Company B.

While the former did not quite quench the balletomanes’s thirst for athletic fireworks, the performance of Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, which followed Jardin, brought down the house thanks to the dazzling, though pleasantly tongue-in-cheek pyrotechnics of Xiomara Reyes and Herman Cornejo, two artists to remember.

I wish I could show similar enthusiasm for the other programme, which focused more on recent creations, despite the inclusion of Balanchine’s Duo Concertant and Twyla Tharp’s winning Known by Heart (‘Junk’) Duet. Alas, neither Alexei Ratmansky’s 2009 Seven Sonatas nor Benjamin Millepied’s 2009 Everything Doesn’t Happen at Once came across as particularly exciting. The former, to piano music by Scarlatti (executed live and with gusto by Barbara Bilach), looked too much like an essay in choreography that drew extensively on previous and far more illustrious examples of the ballet-with-piano formula. The latter might have impressed neophytes with its visual intricacies, but it was choreographically sterile and puerile, not unlike the dances that the same choreographer created for the movie Black Swan.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Arts reviews, Performance