You can think of the Royal Ballet's "Ravel Evening" as a celebration of the composer who helped bring lush sensuality and hothouse glamour to classical ance. You can also think of the four-part program as an alarming capsule history tracing the decline and fall of British choreography from 1951 to 1996. Either way, it frees the company from being the passive, overdressed guardian of a souring 19th century tradition and shows you how exceptional the dancers can be--how fresh, stylish, versatile and full of feeling.
At the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Thursday, the big news should have been the 1994 Royal revival of Frederick Ashton's "Daphnis and Chloe," a fascinating, unpredictable 1951 dance-drama that contrasts ideal love with possessive and carnal passion. Nearly an hour long, with a full choir among its requirements, it enriches the academic ballet vocabulary with traditional Greek line dances and archaic, frieze-like body sculpture. The craft and detail in the choreography remain dazzling, but the revival suffers from problematic new sets by Martyn Bainbridge that literally box in the dancing and fail to provide supernatural effects that Ashton intended.
The casting, too, could be stronger, but Sarah Wildor as Chloe dances with faultless lyric purity, skillfully portraying sweet, trusting ardor in the duets with Daphnis and pleading, terrified vulnerability when she is captured by pirates. William Trevitt makes an impressively sardonic pirate chief, and Nicola Tranah a credible village seductress, but Stuart Cassidy remains stolid as Daphnis, and Michael Nunn is colorless as his nasty rival.
Relatively spare and folk-flavored, the style of "Daphnis and Chloe" seems a world away from the rootless, orgasmic swirling of "La Valse," Ashton's plotless ballroom abstraction from 1958. However, the finales of both works use the same waving-arm motifs--in "Daphnis" they show a community celebrating the triumph of love, in "La Valse," they're just one more example of mindless group unanimity.
Kenneth MacMillan's 1979 "La Fin du Jour," also on the program, works strenuously to show us a chic, isolated society doomed to extinction, but "La Valse" does it almost subliminally, within the context of a breathless ensemble showpiece. No need for the slamming door that MacMillan borrows from Ibsen's "A Doll's House" as a portentous final symbol of social downfall. Ashton's heedless, heartless couples simply put their hands over their eyes as they whirl through Andre Levasseur's ghostly ballroom and their fate is projected in capital letters.
Set to the Piano Concerto in G, "La Fin du Jour" boasts witty sets and costumes by Ian Spurling, along with artful, tireless performances by Trevitt, Nunn, Leanne Benjamin and the major discovery of the evening: the disarmingly majestic Belinda Hatley. Unfortunately, MacMillan's crude mix of ballet technique and gymnastics quickly grows tiresome and, anyway, his best ideas come straight from Bronislava Nijinska's "Les Biches" and "Le Train Bleu." Indeed, he made a major career from reshaping other people's innovations to the taste of a British opera-house audience, which may be why he's revered at home yet seems so inconsequential elsewhere.
To crown the Ravel program, Royal Ballet artistic director Anthony Dowell commissioned a new duet by Christopher Wheeldon, a young company dancer now with New York City Ballet. Unfortunately, his 1996 "Pavane pour une infante defunte" uses the same music as Jiri Kylian's "Un Ballo," performed by Nederlands Dans Theater 2 on this same Costa Mesa stage a month ago.
Where Kylian extends and deepens lyric expression, Wheeldon remains enslaved to classroom convention and ballerina-worship. But at least his ballerina is the real thing: Darcey Bussell at her most mercurial and alluring. And, for once, she's partnered by a true equal: the noble, charismatic Jonathan Cope. If we must have formula party pieces, let them be cast like this.
Though the Pacific Symphony never makes "La Valse" as overwhelming as it should be, all four scores are respectably played, with the Pacific Chorale adding to the atmosphere of "Daphnis and Chloe" (over loudspeakers) and Philip Gammon the capable piano soloist in "La Fin du Jour." Emanuel Plasson emphasizes emotional values in conducting the two Ashton ballets, while Anthony Twiner focuses on formal architecture in those by MacMillan and Wheeldon. Bob Crowley provided the decor for "Pavane": a giant lily, upside-down.
* The Royal Ballet dances "Sleeping Beauty" today at 2 and 8 p.m., plus Sunday at 2 p.m. in the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $20-$75. (213) 365-3500.