The Royal Ballet, works by Dawson, Wheeldon and Pite

Posted: April 5th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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.


The Royal Ballet, Wheeldon’s Triple Bill

Posted: February 28th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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)

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.


Dutch National Ballet, Cinderella

Posted: July 13th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dutch National Ballet, Cinderella

Dutch National Ballet, Cinderella, London Coliseum, July 8

The cast of Dutch National Ballet in Cinderella in front of Basil Twist's tree (photo: Angela Sterling)

The cast of Dutch National Ballet in Cinderella in front of Basil Twist’s tree (photo: Angela Sterling)

“Many things in the world have not been named; and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described. One of these is the sensibility — unmistakably modern, a variant of sophistication but hardly identical with it — that goes by the cult name of “Camp.” Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” Susan Sontag, On Camp

Cinderella, whether in the version of the Brothers Grimm or of that of Perrault, is an uplifting tale of virtue overcoming adversity that lends itself perfectly to the romantic nature of classical ballet. Or at least it did; perhaps it is contemporary sensibility that militates against the creation in balletic form of fairy tales with their wide-eyed wonderment and youthful innocence. Christopher Wheeldon’s version of Cinderella that the Dutch National Ballet brought for the first time to the UK at the London Coliseum last week as part of the Sadler’s Wells season still uses Prokofiev’s uplifting score to anchor its heart (and it still does, despite the editing to fit Wheeldon’s and Craig Lucas’s libretto), but his choreography has a sense of artifice that inflates subtlety into exaggeration. Nothing illustrates this better than the entrance of Matthew Golding as the Prince into Cinderella’s lowly cottage in the third act. He has been searching for the girl with whom he has fallen in love at the Ball and who mysteriously disappeared at the stroke of midnight without a trace — except for a golden slipper. The Prince is visiting everyone on his guest list to find the foot (and the girl) that matches this slipper and he springs into the room like a bull (one can imagine him preparing along the pathway outside) in a series of jetés culminating in a double saut-de-basque and a flourish in the middle of the kitchen. The exaggeration of the step and the seriousness with which Golding performs it is pure Camp. I am not suggesting Wheeldon is making fun of the situation but it does suggest a failure to get to grips with the fairy tale on its own terms. The fault is not helped by Golding’s difficulty in finding subtle shades of princely character. The one time the Prince relaxes is when he is played as a young boy by Mingus de Swaan (a student at the National Ballet Academy Amsterdam) dashing along the palace corridors wooden sword in hand and jumping over the back of the sofas. What happened, one wonders, to that prankster charm in the older prince? It resurfaces briefly in the first act when he mocks the ancestral portraits and when in the guise of his equerry he mimics the stepsisters in front of Cinderella but later at the Ball when the music wills him to soften in the presence of the effulgent Cinderella Golding gets all serious in the partnering demands Wheeldon imposes that leave no room for (dare I mention it?) an expression of tenderness. This leaves Cinderella (Anna Tsygankova) in a fix because she doesn’t get a chance to see the Prince — let alone communicate with him — as he manipulates her almost clinically across his back and over his shoulders in what is a show of lifts and steps rather than a show of relationship through the lifts and steps (something Sir Frederick Ashton was brilliant at doing with equal artifice but more subtlety). With such a tentative chemistry between them, the fairytale loses its heart.

The one moment we get to see Tsygankova as a radiant Cinderella is when the court slowly recedes to reveal her entrance at the Ball; she doesn’t have to do anything but be herself. It is the first time I have seen her dance, but that moment is enough to suggest Wheeldon has for the rest of Cinderella obscured her in steps rather than revealed her in choreography and for much of the time she is transported by a quartet of muscular male ‘fates’ instead of being allowed to determine her own path. (If she can hide her slipper on the mantelpiece by herself, why does she need the four fates to push her atop the kitchen table to retrieve it?)

The one character to whom Wheeldon gives a sense of freedom is the Prince’s friend Benjamin (Remi Wörtmeyer) who keeps in character with his rambunctious younger self (Floris Faes) while pulling off some of the most challengingly fluid variations of the evening. But he is not allowed entirely off the hook: he falls rather improbably for stepsister Clementine (Nadia Yanowsky) who has been used by Wheeldon for comic purposes (along with sister Edwina and mother Hortensia) to the point of caricature. It is as if Wheeldon has worked with each of the characters separately in different rooms without developing a credible relationship that unites them over the three acts.

This is not the case for the scenic elements. Thanks to the team of Julian Crouch, Basil Twist, Natasha Katz and Daniel Brodie one scene flows imaginatively and seamlessly into the next through a scrupulous balance of lighting (Katz), scenic elements (Crouch) and video projection (Brodie) — even if the projected map of Europe the Prince is studying appears the wrong way round. Twist’s contribution is the magical image of the carriage that flies Cinderella out of Act 1 and a tree that we see grow from Cinderella’s tears on her mother’s grave into a glorious green arbour that embraces the entire wedding party at the end. It is this tree that reveals the true arc of the story.

Wheeldon’s version of Cinderella is a co-production with San Francisco Ballet and Dutch National Ballet. Both companies wanted a new full-evening work from Wheeldon; the former settled for a new Cinderella and the latter didn’t have one in its repertoire. Clearly fairy tales (not to mention Shakespeare’s and Lewis Caroll’s tales too) and ballet go together and have commercial appeal, but the formula is essentially looing backwards. I can’t help feeling Wheeldon’s talents would be better used to look forward to a new kind of work on his own terms. His imagination seemed to blossom in his single-act non-narrative works for San Francisco Ballet — Ghosts and Number Nine, in particular, that the company presented at Sadler’s Wells in 2012. British ballet has been searching for a new form of full-evening classical work ever since the death of Sir Kenneth MacMillan almost 25 years ago. With his experience of the classical form, his creative team, and as both Sadler’s Wells Associate Artist and Artistic Associate of the Royal Ballet, Wheeldon is in the right place at the right time to find it.


BalletBoyz theTalent 2014

Posted: September 18th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on BalletBoyz theTalent 2014

BalletBoyz theTalent, Linbury Studio Theatre, September 16

BalletBoyz The Talent in Christopher Wheeldon's Mesmerics (photo: Elliott Franks)

BalletBoyz theTalent in Christopher Wheeldon’s Mesmerics (photo: Elliott Franks)

The images in the program are familiar: semi-naked, muscular young men curving through the air or wound around each other like antiseptic ads for lycra. Last year this rather saccharine, homoerotic aesthetic permeated the stage work of the company as if choreographers Russell Maliphant and Liam Scarlett had been seduced into perpetuating the notion that a group of young men with fine physiques and plenty of testosterone think only of dressing down, playing war games and showing off to each other. This year’s trio of Royal Ballet choreographers — Alexander Whitely, Kristen McNally and Christopher Wheeldon — seems capable of breaking this spell, but what will the company look like if they are successful?

Whitely seems most susceptible to the company aesthetic in his The Murmuring. He projects a quote from Robert Burns on the backdrop that proves prescient for the evening, if not for the work itself: Look abroad thro’ Nature’s range, Nature’s mighty law is change. Ironically, his groupings of undulating bodies facing some unknown challenge in the downstage wing alternating with a cypher-like semicircle of young men watching one of their own writhing in the middle seems business as usual: dynamic shapes of muscular isolation and contortion in short athletic bursts of mock aggression that just as quickly wind down into ambulatory mode before starting up again. Like the lighting by Jackie Shemesh Whitely focuses on the bodies of the boyz and in so doing his choreographic idea is subsumed.

In Kristen McNally’s wittily titled Metheus it is her choreographic idea that begins to draw attention away from the dancers, as much by pattern as by humour (a much-needed ingredient for the company). With live music by Johnny Greenwood, comic lighting cues and some playful characterization, Metheus pries open some unused potential of the company. By the end of the evening Wheeldon has continued the process by putting the boyz through their dancing paces in Mesmerics, coaxing them through the complex rhythms of four Philip Glass compositions (played live) in some seriously classical choreography that tests their technique and stagecraft to the limit. But a funny thing happens: the boyz’ aesthetic has not prepared them to deal with this level of sophisticated choreography and although they manage to keep the energy going their manufactured personality drops away. Artistic directors Michael Nunn and William Trevitt make the mistake of projecting a gratuitous promotional film of the company between Metheus and Mesmerics as if to resuscitate their aesthetic, but it only serves to emphasize how much McNally has already challenged, and how much Wheeldon is about to challenge the status quo: mixed messages that brand the evening’s bill as neither one thing nor the other.

 


San Francisco Ballet: Programme C

Posted: September 22nd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on San Francisco Ballet: Programme C

San Francisco Ballet: Programme C, Sadler’s Wells, September 19

If this was the one performance of San Francisco Ballet you were able to see, you would have missed some of the better works in the repertoire, but you would have felt the surge of approval for the quality of dancing, especially for the female principals. Of course there weren’t any in Beaux by Mark Morris because it was a cast of men only, but Maria Kochetkova in Yuri Possokhov’s Classical Symphony, Yuan Yuan Tan in Possokhov’s Raku and the trio of Vanessa Zahorian, Sarah Van Patten and Kochetkova again in Christopher Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour all received rapturous applause for their performances. Kochetkova’s partner in Classical Symphony, Hansuke Yamamoto, was also singled out. It was applause for the dancing rather than applause for the dance. This was perhaps the weakest programme the company presented and not even Wheeldon could raise its choreographic temperature. I wonder if this was not one programme too many.

Economics may have something to do with this. San Francisco Ballet is a large company, and the cost of bringing over the dancers (seventy-seven dancers’ portraits grace the printed program) plus crew and administrative staff must be considerable. For it to come to London at all has to make economic sense for Sadler’s Wells and for the company, and a third programme may have been deemed necessary to whet the audience appetite sufficiently for the run. But performing ten works in nine performances over a stretch of ten days with two days preparation and one day off is a tough challenge, the brunt of which is taken by the dancers. It is wonderful they receive their due recognition, but there was one injury last night (Pierre-François Vilanoba), an unfortunate symptom of such a full-on schedule. Hopefully there will be no other incidents.

By weak programme, I mean the works did not add, individually or collectively, to the image of the company that the other two programmes had already provided. Mark Morris’s Beaux was the only all-male work in the tour repertoire, and it is Mark Morris, but his celebrated musicality has always seemed to bob on the surface of the music rather than swim with it in the manner of Jiri Kylian, James Kudelka or Christopher Wheeldon, for example. Apart from showing off the male dancers to full advantage in Isaac Mizrahi costumes, cross-gender dancing and showing the obverse of what men normally do (especially in this company), Beaux does not have, to my mind, a lot to recommend it. What men normally do, however, goes to the other extreme in Possokhov’s Classical Symphony, to the score of the same name by Sergei Prokofiev. Possokhov, who is the company’s current choreographer-in-residence, brings his Bolshoi bravura to the men (Hansuke Yamamoto opens with a double tour to a deep plié), but showers so much technique on his dancers that the choreography has a prickly relationship with the music, though it gives his principal couples a chance to shine. In Raku, to a score by Shinji Eshima, Possokhov’s Russian proclivity for melodrama overpowers the Japanese sensibility for restraint. The story is loosely based on the burning of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto in 1950 by a deranged acolyte, to which has been added a parallel story of love and loss, jealousy and betrayal. Both strands of the story are set in an earlier, samurai period, replete with inexcusably wooden swords. Yuan Yuan Tan is the exquisite Japanese noblewoman, and her samurai husband who dies in an offstage battle and whose ashes are ceremonially returned and scattered over the stage by his distraught wife is the unfortunate Damian Smith. Pascal Molat is suitably nefarious with his shaven head and black costume as the evil acolyte, who is cast as both philanderer and arsonist. It’s all a bit exaggerated, and Possokhov’s treatment robs the plot of any real drama. The exquisite Tan is thus left to fulfill a dramatic role that really has little credibility or traction and for which her exquisite line and dramatic hair pulling cannot compensate. Eshima’s music, Mark Zappone’s costumes and Alexander V. Nichols’ lighting and set design were right on the mark, so it is a shame the whole idea doesn’t gel.

I was expecting the evening’s last offering, Christopher Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour, to raise my spirits, but I fear Wheeldon, in choosing the minimalist music of Ezio Bosso, found himself with insufficient height and depth to carve out his characteristically deep creative line. As always, Wheeldon makes the music visible through rhythms and patterns, but very quickly Bosso’s music proves less and less appealing (as did some of the solo violin playing), resulting in a rather low-key, minimal work. Wheeldon’s cast is exemplary, with Luke Ingham replacing the injured Pierre-François Vilanoba, but this was not Wheeldon’s, nor the company’s golden hour.


San Francisco Ballet: Programme B

Posted: September 21st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on San Francisco Ballet: Programme B

San Francisco Ballet, Programme B, Sadler’s Wells, September 15

By the second evening, the company is already more at ease. The programme starts with Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s Trio, to the music of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, a wonderfully evocative minor key sextet that is reminiscent of the same composer’s Serenade for Strings, the score Balanchine used for his milestone 1934 work, Serenade. This circular relationship is completed by Tomasson’s fifteen years as a principal dancer with Balanchine’s company, and he is clearly drawn, consciously or unconsciously, into the powerful orbit of Serenade, especially in the appearance of the figure of Death in Trio’s second movement.

Christopher Dennis lights the stage and Alexander V. Nichols provides a backdrop of a silk-screened, close-up image of ancient buildings (Florence, perhaps) that picks up on the sentimental tone of the music and places the emotions somewhere in the past.

Against this backdrop, five couples waltz on to the stage in spirited form, like the music: straight out of the blocks. Tomasson brings us very much into the present moment, celebrating dance and the individual dancers, focusing especially on Vanessa Zahorian and Joan Boada, who work beautifully together in their duet and in their respective solos. Zahorian has the ability to wind up space and leave it swirling and Boada is like the torso to her limbs.

In the second, lyrical movement, we see a couple wound up in each other’s arms and a tall, slender male figure three steps behind, carving out an ominous, foreboding space: it is clear what is going to happen. Sarah Van Patten and Tiit Helimets are the two lovers caught up in an increasingly hopeless struggle to avoid the inevitable separation. Tomasson celebrates their love in a duet that is more complex than the first, but more flesh-and-blood, with a purity that suggests the couple’s bond. Vito Mazzeo as the dark figure of Death intervenes with calculated persistence, waiting his turn patiently, mercilessly, until he steals Van Patten away, his hand shading her eyes from her beloved, who is left alone with his loss.

The third and fourth movements leave Florence and its memories behind. Maria Kochetkova and Gennadi Nedvigin evidently relish every moment of the lively, earthy Russian folk rhythms and all the classical technique that Tomasson throws at them. The ensemble also gets a well-grounded workout and as the spirited fourth movement spins its shapes and rhythms, the entire cast is caught up until its fast, final, turning patterns come to a sudden end. The dancers appear to be still reeling in their bows.

The opening bars of C.F. Kip Winger’s score for Christopher Wheeldon’s Ghosts are quietly ethereal, and the sense from the figures in their Pierrot-like costumes is one of a gathering of celestial clowns at play. Wheeldon’s caterpillar forms and subtle groupings takes us unawares at first, but as in Number Nine, he finds a path through the music for his particular movement images that by the end makes you feel the path was always there. Despite the title (which is the title of Winger’s score), this is not a poltergeist ballet, but a mixing of dream and circus, fantasy and mime that envelops what Wheeldon conceived as ‘a mass gathering of souls’. Wheeldon is a master of classical form, not only in his development of classical ballet language, but in his use of space. It is more Parthenon than Seagram Building, counterbalancing groups and shapes in a natural, asymmetrical way, aided and abetted here by Mark Zappone on costumes and Mary Louise Geiger (again) on lighting. It is a creative team that forms a total harmony. Let’s not forget the contribution of the dancers, who enter into the spirit of the work beautifully. What I like about the San Francisco Ballet is that the dancers are all distinct, yet form a unity in each work without compromising that individuality. In the middle of Ghosts, on a stage lit with leaves, Wheeldon creates a beautifully expressive duet for Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith that adds a sense of reverence to the gathering of souls and the finale adds a joyous sense of fun. Makes you want to be there.

Ashley Page’s Guide to Strange Places takes its name from John Adams’ score. John Morrel’s opening image of a double yellow line down the middle of a road makes me want to overtake the head in front of me that is obscuring the view, but more importantly the road is more in character with the fast-moving opening music than with the choreography which moves fast but on foot. Paige has certainly picked up on the energy of Adams’ score, in which a broad range of percussion pounds and drives like a freight car going over a level crossing, but this leaves the dancers looking quite small in their body-tight costumes (also by Morrel), moving in different patterns that don’t quite satisfy the eye as the different instrumentation satisfies the ear. Not only that, but as the ballet goes on, I feel Paige takes a slight left turn in the road while Adams powers straight on, which is perhaps just as well, for there is a point where the percussion sounds like the theatre roof is being struck by a blunt instrument, but the classical duets continue as if nothing is amiss. According to the program notes (by Cheryl A. Ossola), Paige conceived the work as ‘an ensemble piece peppered with duets. For each one, he matched the movements, textures and tones to the dancers’ personalities and physiques.’ This translates into some great individual dancing from the four leading, colour-coded couples but it tends to keep the scale of the work intimate and inward-looking as it continues its detour to a strange place. The music has already arrived.


San Francisco Ballet: Programme A

Posted: September 17th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on San Francisco Ballet: Programme A

San Francisco Ballet, Programme A, Sadler’s Wells, September 14

A Buddhist tale relates that a king once had a group of blind men brought to the palace, where an elephant was brought in and they were asked to describe it. When the blind men had each felt a part of the elephant, the king went to each of them and asked: ‘Well, blind man, have you seen the elephant? Tell me, what sort of thing is an elephant?” Of course their answers differed according to which part of the elephant they had touched and they could not arrive at a consensus. The elephant in this case is analogous to Helgi Tomasson’s San Francisco Ballet, and the blind men to those who are only able to see one or two of the three quite different programmes the company is presenting at Sadler’s Wells. To see the full range of this versatile company means investing in all three programmes, however satisfying each one may be.

It is worth noting that the opening night of Programme A is only two days after the dancers arrive in London, and they find themselves on a stage that is much smaller than their home theatre.

San Francisco Ballet performs with a live orchestra but the liveness was in some doubt on the opening bars of its first outing with Mozart’s Divertimento No. 15 in B Flat major, K 287. The pit sounded as if it had been dug a little too deep and the brilliance of Mozart’s sound was decidedly muffled, especially in the horn section. Balanchine’s Divertimento is a sparkling, airy work, full of intricate steps and patterns, a celebration of classical shapes in space and of the beauty of the dancers. The beauty of the dancers is not in question here, but I am not sure if it was the jetlag, or the orchestra’s playing, or the first-night nerves, but the cast struggled to maintain the unity of Balanchine’s choreography with Mozart’s music. Davit Karapetyan showed it was possible, ending his variation with a delightful flourish, but then Vanessa Zahorian danced beautifully but ran out of space and had to change trajectory to finish hers. The orchestra’s tempi seemed to spread panic through the ensemble patterns, giving them an air of constantly trying to catch up, with arabesques and arms arriving to their fullness in the same way different drivers might approach a speed limit: before, as you pass or after. In a program honouring Balanchine by a company steeped in his tradition, I can understand opening with Divertimento: you honour the great man and his work first. But the preparations were just too rushed to do full justice either to Balanchine or to the company, placing time and space at odds with one another. I am sure other iterations of the program will fare better.

The orchestra, under conductor Martin West, was more comfortable in the Rachmaninov, producing a full, warm sound in his Symphonic Dances which choreographer Edwaard Liang borrowed as the title to his work. Liang was a soloist in New York City Ballet, which comes as no surprise. There are elements of Balanchine in Liang’s choreography, but rather too much of a ticklish disconnect between the music and the choreography. Rachmaninov’s lush romanticism proves too powerful for the choreographic forces Liang can marshal, and he gets lost in a plethora of complex lifts that further divide attention from the music in direct proportion to the lifts losing form in space. Simpler ideas have greater traction, as when a group of women lift the hems of their skirts and let them fall in unison to accent the end of a musical phrase, but these are like snippets of conversation rather than part of a consistent choreographic language. It is towards the end that Liang manages to gather his forces closer together, infusing his choreography with a natural, sinuous energy that is warm without being emotional. Daniel Deivison responds to this beautifully, coaxing every last bit of juice out of the movement, and Sofiane Sylve enters almost deliriously into the swirling emotions of the score, taking full advantage of the movement Liang has given her, but it is all too little too late. Neither Jack Mehler’s rich seasonal lighting, nor Rachmaninov’s sumptuous score nor the dancers themselves can rescue this work, though it finishes bravely.

Number Nine (perhaps Christopher Wheeldon’s ninth creation for San Francisco Ballet), takes us by surprise at first by its vibrant, phosphorescent colour contrasts by Holly Hines (costumes) and Mary Louise Geiger (lighting). But very soon I realise I am watching what I have been looking for all evening, a match of equals between music (by American composer, Michael Torke), choreography, costumes and lighting that is consummated in the dancing. Wheeldon plays with his steps and in so doing finds musical space within the score that sets the dancers free. And a wonderful octet of principals and solists it is: Frances Chung, Maria Kochetkova, Sofianne Sylve, Sarah Van Patten, Daniel Deivison, Gennadi Nedvegin, Vito Mazzeo and Carlos Quenedit. Like Balanchine, Wheeldon, who was New York City Ballet’s resident choreographer for seven years, celebrates the body, makes effortless patterns – in one instance from four groups of women to two lines into a square and then into a rectangle – creates lifts that have clarity and sculpts movement that fills the space, however many dancers there are on stage. The entire work is suffused with humour, from the colours to the score to the two dancers conducting the orchestra; only the technical demands on the dancers are not to be laughed at. Towards the end, as the dancers appear to be wriggling in space, there is a trumpet fanfare. How appropriate: Wheeldon’s works have flown home, and in great company.


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.


Royal Ballet: Triple Bill

Posted: April 14th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Royal Ballet: Triple Bill

I wrote part of this review before I had seen the performance. It is an interesting exercise. We all have our preconceptions, however hard we try to hide them. Leo Stein, the keenly perceptive art critic who was eclipsed by his younger sister, Gertrude, said ‘Criticism makes, explains and justifies discriminations.’ But I am relieved to say that the Royal Ballet Triple Bill produced reactions that I had not contemplated and forced me to ditch most of what I had written and start again.

By now you all know who presented what at the #ROHTriple, and for those who still don’t, it’s possibly too late to remember. Much has already been said about the performances, but for this tortoise of a writer, analyzing the evening kept serving up new perceptions that made me return to the printed program, to my notes, to the book I was reading at the time, and back to this page. One of the premises of quantum theory is that by the very act of watching, the observer affects the observed reality. Here, then, are my final thoughts. For now.

Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia opens the evening. This is a revival, first performed by the Royal Ballet in 2003, and originally created for New York City Ballet. The acknowledgement to Balanchine is clear as soon as the curtain rises. Everything is stripped down, and it is a question of watching the music, which is also stripped down to solo piano works by György Ligeti. Wheeldon saw in these a ‘complex, twisted, layered world’ that he presents brilliantly in a series of dances for four couples that rely for their effect on musical and spatial timings. This particular performance is not helped, however, by a less than rigorous execution with the notable exception of Itziar Mendizabal and Dawid Trzensimiech who finish the 8th variation together with a glorious flourish. Overall, however, there is something missing. I happen to be sitting next to the former headmistress of a prestigious boarding school for girls who had seen Polyphonia in its original production for the Royal Ballet and had loved it. With that skillful eye and practiced tone of a wise pedagogue, she articulates the problem precisely. “Yes, it’s a little rough around the edges.”

Next up is Sweet Violets, the new work of soloist Liam Scarlett. For those who saw his Asphodel Meadows last year, this is a departure into narrative with a decidedly emotional palette. I don’t think it is particularly successful in itself, for the reasons outlined below, but it is an important step for a young choreographer developing the range of his art.

Sweet Violets, I learned, was the Irish song the prostitute Mary Kelly was heard singing in the early hours of the morning she was murdered. Tackling Jack the Ripper’s psychopathic killing of prostitutes in the late 19th century’s grimy London poses a particular challenge to a company with beautiful dancers who are all good looking, fit, refined, and graceful. Their costumes are bright and neatly laundered, Health and Safety have washed and starched the sheets, and the artist’s studio is beautifully lit and clean. No trace here of the grubby, stifling atmosphere of Sickert’s paintings. Most remarkably, in the aftermath of the two grizzly murders, there is not a drop of blood on the sheets (Health and Safety again, no doubt).  If this wasn’t enough of a challenge, the score, Rachmaninoff’s beautifully played Trio élégaique, is just too elegantly passionate to support the story of a psychopathic killer and his coterie of low-life friends and prostitutes. What comes out at best was sweet violence.

But there is a much more fundamental problem with the work, and it concerns the plot itself. A reprinted article in the program by the eminent art critic, Martin Gayford, ridicules Patricia Cornwell’s book (which I was reading at the time) accusing Walter Sickert himself of being the Ripper, and Scarlett insists in his Performance Note that the various claims of Sickert’s involvement in the crimes have all now been ‘widely discredited’. So why is one of the most convoluted of the discredited theories – the so-called royal conspiracy involving Queen Victoria’s grandson, Eddy – woven into the plot of Sweet Violets even though Eddy, at the time of the murder of Emily Dimmock, had been dead some fifteen years and the aristocratic, face-slapping prime minister, Lord Salisbury, had died four years before? This is important because by adopting this conflation of a plot, and by avoiding any suggestion that Sickert was the Ripper, Scarlett is now burdened with an implausible cast of characters who do not form a cohesive narrative.

What a shame that in a company of such apparent resources as the Royal Ballet, no dramaturge, no outside eye, seems to have worked with the choreographer during the creation of Sweet Violets to flag these potential problems, for it is the plot’s flaw that undermines all other aspects of the production. John Macfarlane’s sets and David Finn‘s lighting are strikingly beautiful (even if the studio is too clean and bright), but the numerous set changes just sap the energy of the work. The real tragedy is that Scarlett’s choreography is lost in the fray, victim of too many ill-defined characters (and wonderful dancers) in search of something to do.

Who comes off best of the evening? It is without a doubt Wayne McGregor’s Carbon Life, the work that closes the evening to applause from a young (you could tell by the cheers) and enthusiastic audience. Not that I like the choreography particularly, but it delivers where the other two pieces, for different reasons, do not. It is the one work that is slick, well produced (brilliantly inventive lighting by Lucy Carter), well danced, well rehearsed and seems to achieve what it sets out to do. Whatever that is.

It will soon be in the hands of Kevin O’Hare to plot the future artistic course of the Royal Ballet. Having Wayne McGregor as resident choreographer brings to the company elements that other choreographers of a more classical stripe could use: dynamism, brilliant production values, and raw energy wrapped in a contemporary idiom. But McGregor can by no means claim the high ground in choreographic language and is evidently not interested in narrative work, in which the Royal Ballet has traditionally excelled. Seeing this program is to see three creators who offer excellent and complementary qualities. Bringing them together might be just the kind of legacy Dame Monica Mason is proud to leave, and finding a judicious path that can embrace their diverse talents and nurture their development will keep Kevin O’Hare occupied for a good while.