Royal Ballet's American tour: something lost in the crossing

By now it's no secret that Britain's Royal Ballet has come to America in diminished shape. Judging from performances the company gave at the Metropolitan Opera, star power is all but nil and the middle ranks are spotty with talent.

One can find bright spots among the ensemble and in some of the small solo parts, but as far as casting goes, strict protocol has been abided. Dancers with senior rank have gotten all the senior parts. One hears about exciting debuts of young dancers back in London, but here management has opted for the tried and true. Translate that as confident but dull.

If one aspect of this season has been conservatively handled, the repertory has been wildly far-ranging. On the one hand there's been a solid array of masterworks from the 19th century and from the Royal Ballet's own Frederick Ashton. Slipped in between the Ashton portfolio comes a genuine curiousity piece from the war years -- a Freudian "Hamlet" by Robert Helpmann. At this juncture the repertory toboggans into the valley of works by Kenneth MacMillan, who is today's principal choreographer for the troupe. Although Mr. Ashton still creates ballets from time to time, such as last year's "Rhapsody," the Royal Ballet obviously looks to MacMillan for its major new productions.

Well, this tour's big event is such that one doesn't know whether to be more shocked by the ballet itself or by the fact that the Royal Ballet spent good money on flying the sets to North America so that we could see it, too.

Remember Isadora Duncan -- the artist who more or less invented modern dance? The American-born girl who brought Europe to her feet? Who inspired painters and photographers to create their best work? Who survived the death of her children and the defection of her lovers with indomitable spirit?

This is not the Isadora of MacMillan's "Isadora." According to his version, Isadora's dancing was really a hobby, something she she did when her latest boyfriend was at the beach. MacMillan's Isadora was a lecherous adventuress, and when her children were killed in an accident she became a besotted lecherous adventuress. She wore a hideous red wig to prove it.

This "Isadora" is filled with cheap dramatic effect and obscene dancing. Obscene because it dismisses everything powerful in the protagonist. Never has so much been so thoroughly trashed.

Whereas past Royal Ballet seasons have inevitably left key memories of pink auroras and pristine swan maidens, the talk about this year's tour will probably center on this event. Scandals, however, come and go. The real issue is whether the Royal Ballet can regain its vigor -- and whether today's back line of dancers speaks to the future.

The Royal Ballet is at the O'Keefe Center in Toronto tonight, then goes to the Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C., July 14 to 26; and to the Metropolitan Cent er, Boston, July 28 to Aug. 2.

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