In this compelling article dance critic Alastair Macaulay examines what drives the archetypal “heroine of the water”, her allure, her psychological connotations. I recommend it as essential reading not only to those thinking about catching the last few performances of Ondine this week but also to any Swan Lake devotees.
In La Motte Fouqué’s Undine, the short novella from which Ashton’s ballet Ondine derives, we have, as Macaulay puts it, “a Romantic hero (originally named Huldebrand) for whom this world is not enough: he has a human fiancée but he finds what he craves in the affections of Undine, a water nymph “who lacks a soul”. In a nutshell, it’s our human condition: we want to escape from a dreary, routine existence but at the same time do we know what we are getting ourselves into, why and how do we dare pursue the unattainable? And if we get what we want, how do we deal with it?
Plot-wise, Ondine is not unlike another Romantic ballet gem, La Sylphide, where we also have a tragic male hero (James) forever divided between desire (the Sylph) and reason (Effie). But I feel Ondine needs a bigger degree of engagement and scratching beneath its surface so that we can better understand who Ondine and Palemon are, what they seek and what the choreography and the constant stream of music say of these and other characters. In short, Ondine is not as easy on the eye (or the ears, I overheard a ballet goer comment yesterday “well, it’s not music you can lose yourself in, is it?”) as La Sylphide or Giselle and I don’t think I would have liked it a couple of years ago so well as I do now, three performances and a considerable amount of background reading later.
On two previous sittings last winter I saw Edward Watson’s quintessential Palemon matched with the sublime Tamara Rojo, a very dense waterfall of an Ondine. This luxury cast, I fear, raised the bar so impossibly high that I now find Miyako Yoshida’s reading to be a little too basic, lacking in drama. She speaks more through her dancing – moving fast and mischievously with dainty steps, quick jumps, lush backbends, forever trying to slip away – than through facial expressions. However, her choice of a more polite interpretation also works alongside Edward Watson’s very intense Palemon – in a reading that is almost MacMillanesque, well suited to choreography which would perhaps have influenced MacMillan’s own creations later – because it fully emphasizes the contrast between their two worlds: one pure as water, where Ondine will surely not toy with Palemon’s feelings as Berta does, but one which is also devoid of soul and personality (with the exception of the domineering and revengeful Lord of the Sea, Tirrenio, danced with outrageous precision by Ricardo Cervera), the other world, where Palemon would naturally belong, is for him even more mysterious, full of emotion and heart, as hot blooded as the red scarf with which Berta wraps herself when she sees Ondine lost to the sea and thinks Palemon will be fully hers again.
But will he? In the final act of the ballet we see him married to mortal Berta but pining over his lost Ondine. How I wish Ashton had given Palemon a few extra minutes of solo dancing, for throughout the ballet but especially here Watson’s steps express his frustration with settling into a normal life, while haunted by hallucinations of Ondine: he whips up furious turns evoking the trauma of the seastorm caused by Tirrenio, he beats and shimmers his legs. Ashton’s choreography & Watson’s execution are impassioned, no wonder it’s this heart that Ondine covets.