Posted: April 5th, 2017 | Author: Nicholas Minns | Filed under: Performance | Tags: After the Rain, Christopher Wheeldon, Crystal Pite, David Dawson, Flight Pattern, Greg Haines, Henryk Górecki, Jay Gower Taylor, Kristen McNally, Marcelino Sambé, Nancy Bryant, The Human Seasons, Thomas Visser | Comments Off on The Royal Ballet, works by Dawson, Wheeldon and Pite
The Royal Ballet, Triple Bill, Royal Opera House, March 23
Kristen McNally and artists of the Royal Ballet in Flight Pattern (photo: Johan Persson)
This is a program of repertoire works by former Royal Ballet dancers, David Dawson and Christopher Wheeldon, wrapped around a new commission by Crystal Pite, the first female choreographer to perform her work on the main stage in a long, long, time. Despite this landmark achievement, Pite is not a classical choreographer, nor are her works in the classical idiom. Borrowing a leaf from Tamara Rojo’s astute book, the Royal Ballet has brought in a lauded contemporary name on a contemporary theme at an appropriate moment. It is also borrowing from the book of Sadler’s Wells associate artists. Much as I love Pite’s work, Flight Pattern blends uneasily with both the accompanying repertoire and the surroundings. It’s a beautifully fraught work (beautiful and fraught) about the fate of migrants, not a subject that lends itself naturally to the velvet and gilded glamour of the Royal Opera House. It’s an oddly imbalanced program, too, because Flight Pattern is not a natural closer, and neither Dawson’s nor Wheeldon’s work prepares for it in any way; it comes out of nowhere. It is nevertheless a sublime conception, both scenically and choreographically, for a mass of 36 dancers with the suggestion of a lead migrant couple (an incongruous notion) of Kristen McNally and Marcelino Sambé. Anyone who saw Pite’s monumental Polaris on the Sadler’s Wells stage for the See The Music Hear The Dance program just over two years ago will remember her powerful massed forms of 64 dancers responding to Thomas Adès’ orchestral storm of the same name. Flight Pattern is more poetic and less menacing, influenced by the eerie refinement of the first movement of Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony, but its subject is harrowing. The work visualises the endless lines of stooped humanity on a desperate trek to an unknown future but Jay Gower Taylor’s set, Thomas Visser’s lighting and Nancy Bryant’s costumes bestow epic proportions on the entire journey. The movements of the dancers are muted and repressed throughout the work, hemmed in by heavy overcoats and by the giant partitions of the set that close inexorably on them until only a gently rocking McNally and a seething Sambé remain isolated. It is a moment that almost spits with rage but Sambé at this crucial point allows his pyrotechnical wizardry to infiltrate his character, dissipating Pite’s entire psychological build-up.
There’s plenty of legitimate technical display on the rest of the program, however, and the men get a thorough workout in Dawson’s first work for the Royal Ballet, The Human Seasons, to a commissioned score by Greg Haines. You know you’re at the Royal Ballet with this level of technical skill, though the loud landings (and there are many of them) of the men in particular exhibit some weakness in execution. The women are on display too, especially when upright; they are less so when being dragged unceremoniously along the ground.
Seeing The Human Seasons (2013) side by side with Wheeldon’s After The Rain (2005) one can’t help seeing similarities; both are in the neo-classical style with stripped down costumes, and there are one or two quotes by Dawson of Wheeldon’s lifts and slides. Where the two works differ is in the use of space as part of choreographic form. For all its intense movement, its entrances and exits, and its asymmetrical groupings, The Human Seasons, unlike Keats’ sonnet that inspired it, is constantly crying out for some kind of form to hold them all together. This is amplified by a lackadaisical deportment in the men in between partnering duties or bravura steps; they just amble over to the next sequence, killing the dynamics. Haines’ score can’t hold the work together either, so with all these holes Dawson’s form fails to gel, leaking out in all directions over the course of the work’s 35 minutes.
Scored for three couples, the first section of After The Rain is set to the first (Ludus) movement of Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa; as soon as it begins, Wheeldon’s spatial stagecraft is apparent. The form is held in place by the harmony of the music allied with the harmony of the choreography, pumpkin rolls and all. The second movement, to Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel, is joined to the first but not closely related. It is often performed as a separate duet and its renown makes it appear as the feature film we’ve been waiting for. Marianela Nuñez and Thiago Soares make it a powerful meditation on the beauty of strength and the strength of beauty, where each gesture is thought through and flows seamlessly to its natural resolution. But while the consummate elegance of this movement is framed on one side, the absence of a final, contrasting movement leaves it floating in splendid isolation; it should either be set free for good or the frame completed.
Posted: February 28th, 2016 | Author: Nicholas Minns | Filed under: Performance | Tags: 59 Productions, After the Rain, Amélie Gautreau, Christopher Wheeldon, Edward Watson, Ezio Bosso, Federico Bonelli, John Singer Sargent, Martin Pakledinaz, Mathew Ball, Natalia Osipova, Strapless, The Royal Ballet, Within the Golden Hour | Comments Off on The Royal Ballet, Wheeldon’s Triple Bill
The Royal Ballet, Christopher Wheeldon triple bill, February 16
Edward Watson, Matthew Ball and Natalia Osipova in Strapless (photo: Bill Cooper)
When the UK Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards recently voted Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works the best classical choreography for 2015 I felt ballet had died and been relegated to purgatory. Fortunately Christopher Wheeldon has come along to rescue it with a triple bill for The Royal Ballet that includes the première of Strapless and two earlier works; over the course of the evening Wheeldon builds a salutary image of what the classical language can still say in both traditional steps and contemporary invention, in its musical phrasing as well as in something that has been in danger of extinction in recent years: danced characters, those that emerge convincingly through their dancing.
Strapless is the one commission of the evening but this is the first time After The Rain, created for New York City Ballet in 2005 and Within The Golden Hour for San Francisco Ballet in 2008 enter the Royal Ballet repertoire.
After The Rain is in two movements, both of which are set to music by Arvo Pärt. The first is an interwoven trio of duets and the second, to Pärt’s exquisite Spiegel im Spiegel, is a duet by one of the couples from the first movement. It’s a bit like an A-side which takes on a life of its own — it is often performed by itself — as if there were two distinct choreographic processes in Wheeldon’s mind at the time of creation. The opening movement of After The Rain finds a later echo in Within The Golden Hour; the musical play, the choreographic idiom and the spatial groupings are of the same family. The duet, however, is more ethereal, requiring a flow of two harmonious bodies in a series of seamless shapes that allow an audience to imagine their own dialogue; in this it is reminiscent of Norbert Vezak’s Belong. But in this performance Marianela Nuñez and Thiago Soares seem to add their own commentary to what should be free and dreamlike; it comes across instead as tense and curiously earthbound.
Strapless continues a worrying scenic trend in recent one-act narrative ballets for being opulently overweight. Since dancers are still the same size, the result is a miscalibration of scale, the scenic elements (five changes in 45 minutes) vying with the dancers for attention. Strapless is all about frames — in both society and art — in front of which we see the beau monde of Paris milling around in a state of heightened excitement until one beauty, Amélie Gautreau (Natalia Osipova), is finally enticed on to canvas by painter John Singer Sargent (Edward Watson) — his Portrait of Madame X — with unexpected, tragic consequences for the sitter.
While the drama depends for its climax on the slipping of a strap on an evening dress (the anticipation is intense), the core of the choreography is the tangle of intrigue in the lives of a quartet of principal characters: Singer Sargent is keen to paint society beauty Gautreau but needs the help of her lover (and his sitter) Dr. Samuel Pozzi to convince her to sit for him. Once she accepts, however, Sargent depends on the image of his lover, Albert de Belleroche, to inspire the pose. Sex is clearly the preoccupation from beginning to end but its depiction in the scene between Gautreau and Pozzi (Federico Bonelli) shocks in its clichéd artificiality. By contrast, Wheeldon treats Sargent’s lover (Matthew Ball) with an understated charm and elegance that exudes sensuality without giving him very much to do. The real sex is in the way Gautreau relates to her own image that she hopes will be framed in immortality. This is where Osipova’s characterization, through Wheeldon’s use of her formidable technique and artistry, brings to light Gautreau’s overweening ambition and irrepressible sensuality. The problem is that the role is too circumscribed; Osipova has the capacity to embody a much larger palette in a story that extends far beyond the picture frame.
I saw Within the Golden Hour when San Francisco Ballet performed it in their program C at Sadler’s Wells in 2012 and it didn’t appeal, perhaps due to a last-minute cast substitution. But this evening the performance is qualitatively different; the galvanizing effect on the audience of each successive movement is palpable. Wheeldon’s choice of short compositions by Ezio Bosso for each section (except for the sixth, to the andante from a Vivaldi violin concerto) allows him to weave a complex but playful choreographic line with only the subtlest musical support. Revisiting the opening motifs of After the Rain, three principal couples weave their patterns and shapes with four supporting ones over the seven sections, building up a vocabulary through the accumulation, reproduction and development of basic motifs. There is from the beginning a sense of mastery in the use of space; the large stage of the opera house comes alive with the asymmetric groups and interactions and with lighting and backdrop projections (by 59 Productions) linking to the autumnal colours of the costumes (to the designs of the late Martin Pakledinaz), Within the Golden Hour ensures the unity of its elements. The dancers look good because they are comfortable in the technique both they and Wheeldon understand. The Royal Ballet, as its title suggests, is devoted to the preservation and development of the highest level of classical technique, which is what Sir Frederick Ashton and Sir Kenneth MacMillan upheld. Wheeldon looks remarkably like their natural heir.