Royal Ballet: Metamorphosis: Titian 2012

Posted: August 1st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Royal Ballet in Metamorphosis: Titian 2012, broadcast live in Trafalgar Square, July 16

Minna More Ede, curator of the Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 exhibition at the National Gallery, had a clear idea of what she wanted – if not what to expect – when she suggested a collaborative project with the Royal Ballet, but I am not sure the Royal Ballet did: there are three paintings, three artists, three composers, three dances and seven choreographers.

The idea for contemporary artists together with a group of choreographers and composers to collaborate on three dances in response to three paintings by Titian was, as the French say, géniale. The three paintings – on display for the first time since the 18th century – are Diana and Callisto, Diana and Actaeon, and the Death of Actaeon. The voluptuous, vengeful Diana, goddess of the hunt and of the moon, is common to all three.

The exhibition is a delight, full of colour, humour and poetry. Chris Ofili’s paintings on a theme of Ovid are stunning, and his stage setting for Diana and Actaeon is a forest of bright colour and luscious forms. Mark Wallinger’s voyeuristic meeting with the bathing Diana makes us all Actaeons peeking into forbidden territory, though this Diana cannot see us and is sufficiently constricted within her locked bathroom not to do us any harm; we survive the confrontation though not, perhaps, the stigma of peeping. Conrad Shawcross has refurbished an industrial robot once used in the manufacture of cars to be his Diana, with lightning rod eye carving out a pair of antlers. It takes a little adjustment to associate this with the Titian paintings, but that is the beauty of such an experiment: one never knows where it will lead. There is an excellent film of the dancers in rehearsal but apart from the piano excerpts in the film, we do not hear sufficiently from the composers – Nico Muhly, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Jonathan Dove (with librettist Alasdair Middleton) – to bring their contribution into equal focus.

So how does all this response to Titian, so enticingly displayed and suggested in the exhibition, translate into the choreographic works? Dance is an ephemeral medium, so the effect of choreography has to fuse all the elements together immediately. Whatever program notes there may be, or however volubly a choreographer may talk about his creative process, it is ultimately the completeness of what we see on stage that counts.

All three works focus on the story of Diana and Actaeon. Titian’s painting of the banishment by Diana of the pregnant Callisto was ignored, which has something to do, perhaps, with the all-male creative team. It’s a bit of a mystery how these fourteen artists were matched into three teams, and how they developed their collaborative ideas within those teams. The principal metamorphosis seems to have come from the visual artists, who ran with the idea and came up with four distinct ideas (Wallinger’s Diana locked in her bathroom was for the exhibition only). The composers provided a vital, expressive link between the artists and the choreographers, though it is not clear who was negotiating these interactions and at what point in the process they started. Since this is a choreographic project, however, it falls to the choreographers to bring together the various inputs and ideas in the final collaborative metamorphosis to be presented on the Royal Opera House stage. The seven choreographers are Will Tuckett, Jonathan Watkins, Liam Scarlett, Kim Brandstrup, Wayne McGregor, Alastair Marriott, and Christopher Wheeldon.

Only the Shawcross/Muhly/McGregor/Brandstrup collaboration on Machina offers a work that has a cohesion of elements from beginning to end. Muhly’s lovely score situates itself in Titian’s sixteenth century Venice, Shawcross’s robot is programmed to the movement of the dancers through data transmission – right up McGregor’s street – and in using Carlos Acosta, Leanne Benjamin, Edward Watson and Tamara Rojo, the two choreographers have an appropriately contrasting and expressive quartet of principals. Costa and Watson appear to represent two qualities of Actaeon, and Benjamin and Rojo two qualities of the goddess Diana. Costa’s opening duet with Benjamin is a sinuous and powerful coupling, with his bull-like body dominating her, his arms wrapping around her vulnerable form, sometimes gentle, sometimes forceful, but never forced. Their qualities contrast with the Shawcross Diana, though Rojo’s steely-black presence hints at that implacable, don’t-mess-with-me side. Watson’s Actaeon is more innocent that Costa’s, more inquisitive, and more likely to get into trouble. He wants to melt on Rojo’s Diana, but she won’t melt. Costa’s solo and his duet with Watson are other conspicuous moments, but there is a lot of movement from the ensemble that seems to escape both the music and the scope of the work.

Wallinger’s idea of surprising Diana in her bath was an idea worth pursuing, but for whatever reason, its challenge was not taken up. His analogy of the moon landing works well for the set, but the team of Wheeldon and Marriott don’t seem to have followed it through; they have rather superimposed their own interpretation of Titian’s paintings on the moon landing idea, as if trying to pull Wallinger into their own orbit. Trespass is thus a muddle of ideas and inputs with an interesting mirrored set, a jazzy score by Mark-Anthony Turnage and an all-too familiar vocabulary of contemporary classical ballet in body tights, pointe shoes and swept back hair. Nehemiah Kish and Stephen McRae are the two Actaeons, though they could be two squeaky-clean brothers, and the two Dianas – Sarah Lamb and Melissa Hamilton – look like twins. This narrowing of the dramatic possibilities inherent in Titian’s light and shade, his nuanced poses, the passion of the flesh and the destructive force of Diana’s fury are rather lost in this etiolated space drama.

The Ofili/Scarlett/Tuckett/Watkins/Dove/Middleton team’s Diana and Actaeon presents Marianella Nuñez as Diana and Federico Bonelli as Actaeon, though the mythological story of Titian’s couple has been reinterpreted here as an on-again-off-again love duet with a mordant ending. The Chris Ofili backdrop is beautiful, sensual and colourful: not a world of arabesques, extensions and classical mime – a point lost on the choreographers and, needless to say, an opportunity missed. As the curtain rises, Nuñez stands with her back to us in a long robe and red bonnet, almost unidentifiable, a cross between Carabosse and the Firebird. One painted root rises, Nuñez leaves, and Bonelli walks out in purple with a quintet of dancers as his pack of hounds, their puppet heads a little too small to be effective (but wonderful in filmed close-up). He commands them like servants, in classical mime: Go! And there in the giant, Freudian-symboled forest he performs a solo straight out of Royal Ballet’s book of princes. Where is the princess? Nuñez is in red, so we can see her in discreet abandon, bathing in blue light. Four lines of nymphs protect her (no such lines in Titian). Bonelli arrives, and Nuñez is not happy: she screams, then jumps into Bonelli’s arms. Titian is scratching his head. A pas de deux follows with a square of nymphs close by. Nuñez puts her hand to Bonelli’s eyes, then pushes him away and mimes No, then ends up in his arms being lifted: more partnering, a love duet. She bourrés, he runs off like a distraught prince. Nuñez has a brief respite with her nymphs, cogitating in the undergrowth with wrapped arms, looking sexy and disdainful. Arguably she is aroused by Actaeon’s uninvited gaze, but has to balance that with her role as keeper of the virgin nymphs. No double standards here, but inner confusion nevertheless. Her water nymphs are rippling in her defence. Bonelli returns. Who knows what he’s been doing amongst the steamy plants. Move aside, I see her, he commands. He lifts her on his shoulders, puts her down, slides her. No no, she says (lift). They are reaching their climax and embrace. Exit Bonelli, while Nunez walks around again with her nymphs, deliberating, arms crossed, hands either side of head, feet expressing a no no no bourrée (but so beautifully). No wonder Bonelli keeps coming back – as he does now – but that’s the danger. She backs up; she’s made up her mind: no no (hold me). More lifts; she is sitting on his shoulder. She is mad, there is one more lift and then she throws water in his eyes. The nymphs run in diagonals then a circle; he lifts her again, and pirouettes to the floor. His dogs come in. Bonelli looks worried. His dogs mistake him for a stag (though they have to have imagination because he has no antlers) and are at him. The pack jumps, kicks, swings. Bonelli jumps with them; part of his costume comes undone (flesh ripped and hanging off) and he falls. He gets up: arabesque! Turning his back, crumpling to the floor, he dies a dramatic death. Nuñez is triumphant, gesticulating and undulating over him, which momentarily wakes him up before he slumps to the ground for good. She turns in a perfect arabesque, and walks forward as in a funeral march, asking in a final gesture, what have I done?

It is a question the choreographers of the last two works should ask of themselves, for whatever metamorphosis had previously taken place has in their hands metamorphosed back into standard ballet vocabulary and gestures taken from the Giselles, Swan Lakes, Sleeping Beauties, Balanchines, from the princes and princesses, from the court and its attendants. It is as if the Royal Ballet has drawn Titian into their mould and squeezed him dry.

I saw the performance not at the Opera House but at the live broadcast in Trafalgar Square. The camera can get close up to the dancers, which is like having the best (if not the most comfortable) seat in the house, but you are subject to the eye of the cameraman, and if he wants to follow the women, then the men simply vanish from the stage. The broadcast is also susceptible to technological hiccups, of which there were one or two, but otherwise the performance transmitted really well.

At the end of the screening, the girl sitting next to me on a BP poncho offered me a glass of red wine (thank you), something that could never have happened in the Opera House. Cheers.