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.


The Royal Ballet: Woolf Works

Posted: May 15th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Royal Ballet: Woolf Works

The Royal Ballet, Woolf Works, Royal Opera House, May 13

Federico Bonelli and Alessandra Ferri in Wayne McGregor's Woolf Works (photo: Tristram Kenton)

Federico Bonelli and Alessandra Ferri in Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works (photo: Tristram Kenton)

Anyone who knows Wayne McGregor’s work to date would be hard pressed to guess he is the choreographer of the first act of Woolf Works, infused with literary weight and embodied in the lithe, tragic figure of Alessandra Ferri as Virginia Woolf. The act dances like a story; characters enter and leave through giant wooden frames that revolve slowly as they wait to be filled with or emptied of portraits from the past: lovers, her husband, and a soldier killed in the First World War. By her presence alone, it seems, Ferri holds McGregor’s hand and gently traces her movements. Her quality has a stillness that is foreign to the choreographer but he has made this work with her in mind and appears to follow her lead whenever she is on stage. In an interview with Sarah Crompton, Ferri, who returns to the Royal Opera House stage at the age of 52, puts her finger gently but firmly on the phenomenon we are seeing: “You have baggage which a young dancer cannot have because it comes with experience in life and on stage. I feel I am refined to the essential. Companies now, the world over, are very young. When I grew up here in this Company we had dancers like Antoinette Sibley and Merle Park who had a lot of experience. Michael Somes was still here. They had theatrical weight. Now, because the repertory requires these 20-year-old bodies, companies are very young and I think there is a link missing.’ She fills that gap; when she is alone, as she turns in on herself with soft, beguiling spirals, she is at her most expressive. As soon as the men begin to partner her — Federico Bonelli as her young lover or Gary Avis as her husband Leonard — McGregor’s choreography does not maintain those qualities and like a flower that is inexpertly pruned she withdraws from being Woolf to being manipulated. In her sapphic relations with the playful Francesca Hayward and Beatriz Stix-Brunell she is more at ease; women in McGregor’s universe know how to relate to each other.

Max Richter’s score is at its most refined in the first act, flowing like memories and ticking like time. The literary nature infects the scenic elements, too, not in its linear narrative but in the painting of inner emotions and thoughts, the stream of consciousness for which Woolf’s output was celebrated. Lucy Carter moulds Ferri and her lovers in an almost palpable emotion of light and haze and Ciguë’s frames change the perspective of now and then with a simplicity that belies — or because of — their scale. However, the panorama of Woolf’s garden at Monk’s House that is projected through the frames onto the backdrop takes us into the realm of an exhibition (for which much of the program resembles the catalogue).

Woolf Works is called a triptych because it joins three scenes from three of Woolf’s novels like an altarpiece of her life. The first, I Now, I Then is based on Mrs Dalloway, the second, Becomings, on Orlando and the third, Tuesday, on The Waves. Apart from Watson’s histrionics as a shell-shocked soldier, the fragile sensibility of I Now, I Then gives way to an excuse for McGregor’s standard overextended vocabulary in the time-travelling, shape-shifting central depiction of Becomings. Needless to say Ferri is nowhere to be seen, replaced by a willowy Natalia Osipova who, despite the choreographic desecration of the Woolf altar, makes an extraordinary statement of hyperextended sensuality. Around her is a chaos of couples and brutish couplings (McGregor has not mastered the idea of partnering) racing across a black reflective floor in exotic costumes of the centuries (by Moritz Junge) like figures by Hieronymous Bosch on ecstasy. It looks as if the choreographer has thrown everything he can into Becomings that the presence of Ferri elsewhere would not permit. It is also an occasion for a high-quality light show unleashed by both Carter’s ingenuity and the Opera House’s resources. The function of lighting is traditionally to illuminate the dancers but the level of production here puts lighting on a choreographic level.

The final panel, as Ravi Deepres’ slow motion film of waves suggests rather redundantly, is from The Waves. Ferri is the central character again so McGregor is on his best behaviour, or almost. This is the scene where Woolf ends her life (she drowned herself in 1941 by walking into the river Ouse weighted down by stones in her pockets). The panel opens with a reading by Gillian Anderson of Woolf’s final letter to Leonard, a scene that doesn’t immediately suggest Ferri being partnered by a semi-naked Bonelli; it is an interaction that interferes with her lonely, tragic state of mind. There are children who rise on a lift at the back underneath the waves and play games on the shore with rope. They are the children of Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell (though this is only evident if you read the program) in the form of Sarah Lamb. Ferri sits contemplating, then turns to watch her sister and nieces playing. She gathers her shawl and wanders slowly around the stage while other characters rise on the lift as if arriving on a platform at rush hour to surge on to the stage. McGregor revels in choreographic distraction so it takes concentration to follow Ferri as she keeps her meditative pace around the stage until she arrives in front of the crowd, facing them. Then she is inextricably upended by assorted men and passed between them as if her final parting were a social event. In The Waves she writes about death as ‘active, positive like all the rest, exciting; and of great importance — as an experience. The one experience I shall never describe.’ The choreography fails to take up the challenge. The projected waves gather velocity, the chorus retreats and Bonelli is left to drag Ferri’s dry body to its resting place.

When the curtain rises Ferri is alone on stage to receive the applause; it is apt, not only out of respect for the artist she is, but because she is the saviour of Woolf, not only of the Works but of the woman.

 


The Royal Ballet: Rhapsody, Tetractys – The Art of Fugue, Gloria

Posted: February 18th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Royal Ballet: Rhapsody, Tetractys – The Art of Fugue, Gloria

The Royal Ballet: Rhapsody, Tetractys – The Art of Fugue, Gloria, Royal Opera House, February 7

Sarah Lamb in Gloria with Thiago Soares and Carlos Acosta @ROH/Bill Cooper 2011

Sarah Lamb in Gloria with Thiago Soares and Carlos Acosta @ROH/Bill Cooper 2011

Sir Frederick Ashton’s Rhapsody, to Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Variations, was created for Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1980. In the program notes Zoë Anderson relates a revealing anecdote about its creation. Baryshnikov was a guest artist of the Royal Ballet that summer and insisted on experiencing the Ashton style in a work created on him. Ashton, on the other hand, saw an opportunity to showcase a virtuoso dancer steeped in the Kirov tradition as a foil to his company. Baryshnikov later admitted to being disappointed: “I wanted English ballet and he wanted Russian ballet.” This evening it is Stephen McRae who takes on Baryshnikov’s role, standing at the centre of a large, sparsely decorated stage as the curtain rises. Clement Crisp’s effusive praise of McRae notwithstanding, his formidable technique is here in the service of somebody else’s distinctive style and steps. Ashton’s genius was to bring out the qualities of the person dancing, and in Baryshnikov he was evidently able to marry expression and technique to a high degree. Trying to recapture that undermines McRae’s ability to express himself in the technique and he is also at a stylistic disadvantage for he is very much English ballet, not Russian ballet. His partner in Rhapsody, Laura Morera, despite her Spanish origins, is very much English ballet, and she fits into Lesley Collier’s original quicksilver shoes and lovely sense of line with consummate ease (Collier was coaching the role). What she doesn’t have is the stylistic contrast in McRae to play against. With these misgivings and the six couples in pastel colours looking a little rough in their patterns and timings (especially the men), Rhapsody forms a rather under-cooked first course to an oddly assorted triple bill.

This kind of three-course menu in which a new work is sandwiched between two staples of the repertoire (82 performances each) is predominantly the responsibility of the chef and the chef at The Royal Ballet is not only the director but the one who provides the new work, in this case Wayne (‘dance doesn’t have to be the priority’) McGregor. It is his latest offering, Tetractys  – The Art of Fugue, that sits rather uncomfortably between the two classically-based works by his predecessors. McGregor stretches everything but the classical technique, and expressiveness in his dances takes a back seat to his latest intellectual construct. Seeing the work after reading the program notes about Bach’s Art of Fugue (here orchestrated by Michael Berkeley), its signs, symbols, mystical tetractys and association with the Pythagorean theory of numbers, overlaid by set designer Tauba Auerbach’s geometry of glyphs, and you feel heartened by the example of the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale The Emperor’s New Clothes.

The cast is stellar but even stars implode: the feline Natalia Osipova, whose first appearance with Edward Watson is pure sorcery, soon fades into the miasma of over-extended limbs and onerous partnering. Eric Underwood suffers temporary eclipse as he passes through the darker sections of the McGregor/Auerbach dark universe, leaving only the ghostly trace of his phosphorescent unitard, and the luminous qualities of Marianela Nuñez and Lauren Cuthbertson are wholly consumed. McRae, dressed in green but still radiating sparks from Rhapsody, appears out of place and Federico Bonelli is clearly suffering some kind of meltdown (he was unwell enough the following evening for the work to be cancelled, though Osipova’s concussion was an additional factor).

McGregor sums up in the program notes the link between Bach’s Art of Fugue (without the definite article) and Tetractys – The Art of Fugue: ‘I am thinking of this piece as a fugue in terms of my own structure: I have the Bach, I have the design, I have my choreography and I have Michael Berkeley’s version of the score. So there are four elements, each with a different logic, but which absolutely speak to each other.’ Speaking has never been a problem for McGregor, but finding a formal framework for his onstage dialogues and an expressive vehicle for his dancers has. It was all the spirits of Ashton and MacMillan could do to pull the evening out of its black hole.

Sir Kenneth Macmillan had been contemplating a ballet about the First World War for some time as his father had served in the trenches and like so many survivors had been unable to talk about the horror. The catalyst was a 1979 BBC dramatization of Vera Brittain’s autobiography, Testament of Youth, describing the devastating impact of that war on an entire generation. Commissioned to create a new one-act work for the Royal Ballet in 1980 (the same year as Rhapsody), MacMillan brought his project to fruition, using Francis Poulenc’s Gloria in G Major — a hymn to the glory of God — as a counterbalance to his vision of the devastation of war. He discovered Andy Klunder’s sculptural work ‘accidentally’ at the Slade School of Art and felt immediately a connection to what he wanted to express in Gloria. He asked Klunder to design the set — a stylised battlefield with the dancers appearing out of and disappearing into an unseen trench at the back — and the costumes: a decaying flesh unitard for the men with the familiar Brodie helmet and a fragile silver unitard for the women with wisps of fabric hanging from the waist and ‘close-fitting caps with coiled ear-muffs’ that give them, in Jann Parry’s poignant description, the semblance of ‘wraiths of young women cheated of their wedding day’.

This is a work in which all the elements do speak to each other eloquently and the superimposition of ideas and juxtapositions create a powerful formal unity. John B. Read’s lighting maintains the dreamlike timelessness of the set while creating with the dancers deep shadows on the floor that resemble dark craters. The mood alternates between hope and pity in a subtly understated choreography that recalls Wilfred Owen’s line that ‘the Poetry is in the pity’. MacMillan casts four principal characters (Carlos Acosta and Thiago Soares as brothers-in-arms and Sarah Lamb and Meaghan Grace Hinkis as the two aspects — grieving and lighthearted — of their female companions) against a chorus of women and soldiers. After the first section of the Gloria in which the chorus slowly peoples the desolate stage, a lively quartet erupts with Hinkis being tossed freely among three men (on her own feet she dances with edgy abandon, a joy to watch). Acosta enters as if holding a rifle, a tragic figure who displays a powerful sense of weariness and despair; his turns gradually pull him down to the ground to sleep. Lamb and Soares perform the central duet to the Domine Deus sung by soprano Dušica Bijelic whose lovely voice is itself tinged with grief. Lamb is transformed here by the form MacMillan gives to the duet, her gorgeous lines complementing those of Soares in a spare choreography that fills the stage with redemptive pathos. In Domine Fili, the quartet returns with Hingis flying in over the trench followed by a trio of Lamb, Acosta and Soares. MacMillan creates masterly groupings of women like a protective fence or battlements to honour perhaps the lives of nurses like Vera Brittain herself who devoted themselves to the dying and wounded throughout the war. As Bijelic sings Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, the dancers make their inexorable way back to the trench of their death or mourning, while the trio remains as a vestige of the living. Soares and Lamb finally leave by the same path leaving Acosta circling the stage in a series of gallant leaps before coming to a halt by the trench to listen to the final strains of in gloria dei. On the uplifting Amen he drops suddenly from view to his own death and resurrection in the depths of the earth.

 


The Royal Ballet: Standing up to Ashton

Posted: March 1st, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Royal Ballet: Standing up to Ashton

The Royal Ballet, La Valse, ‘Meditation’ from Thais, Voices of Spring, Monotones I and II, Marguerite and Armand: Royal Opera House, February 13

The beauty of line in Sir Frederick Ashton’s ballets is one of the defining characteristics of his work, even if the steps can be excruciatingly complex. What goes on in the feet is one thing, but in The Royal Ballet’s evening of six works by Ashton, there is ample opportunity — particularly in Monotones I and II — to see the lines of the body beautifully expressed with grace and precision. Unfortunately those qualities were not always in evidence the night I went, though the stretch body suits may have had something to do with it, deforming rather than streamlining the natural joints of the body. The real problem lies elsewhere, however.

Geraldine Morris, in her book, Frederick Ashton’s Ballets: Style, Performance, Choreography, spends some time discussing the ballet training Ashton would have received, particularly the Cecchetti system that was the basis of his technique. She quotes Cecchetti scholar, Toby Bennett: ‘Cecchetti-trained dancers not only have strength and flexibility in the torso, they also have an appreciation of the subtle rhythmic variations between different steps, coupled with a profound understanding of épaulement.’ Épaulement is not an intellectual concept that needs profound understanding; its profundity is in its manifestation in the body: it is as fundamental to classical form as the double helix is to the structure of DNA. In ballets like Monotones I and II, dancers who do not have ‘a profound understanding of épaulement’ — or who sacrifice it to flexibility — will not be able to maintain the purity of line Ashton’s choreography demands. Romany Pajdak possibly had an off night, but her difficulty in maintaining equilibrium in certain passages of Monotones I may have had its source in a failure to implement Ashton’s — and Cecchetti’s — indispensable ingredient. Mark Monahan in his discussion of Ashton in the evening’s program describes épaulement as ‘that irresistibly feminine angling of the head and shoulders.’ It is not; he is mistaking the flower for the stem.

A few pages further on in her book, Morris discusses the differences she sees in the way Ashton’s original casts performed his works compared with today’s. ‘What stands out is the speed at which the dances are performed. Today’s slightly slower tempo gives rise to an alteration of the choreography. While the steps are ostensibly the same, their appearance is not. What is lost is the sense of dancing. The poses, moments of stillness and turnout are emphasized in the later version but the sense of motion is absent and the dances are seen more as a set of links between positions.’ I cannot agree or disagree with Morris as I have not seen footage of the original casts, and she is not necessarily referring to any of the ballets on this evening’s bill, but her comparison turned a light on my own reaction to the evening’s middle section, which included ‘Meditation’ from Thais, Voices of Spring, as well as Monotones I and II. In ‘Meditation’ from Thais, Sarah Lamb and Rupert Pennefather had a rather bloodless quality that put precision ahead of expression, shape ahead of form, position ahead of flow. The juice remained in the music under the direction of Emmanuel Plasson with concert master Vasko Vassilev playing the violin solo. The highlight of this middle section, however, was seeing Alexander Campbell and Yuhui Choe in Voices of Spring. With their sensitivity, exuberance and evident joy in dancing together, they were as close to spring as one could wish at this time of year.

The evening opened with La Valse and closed with Marguerite and Armand. After Ashton had choreographed the latter on Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev, it remained, as David Vaughan writes in the program, the ‘exclusive property of Fonteyn and Nureyev for many years.’ It is a flawed ballet that can only be saved from a whimpering melodrama by the passionate interpretation and charisma of its two protagonists. But the sparks were simply not flying between Zenaida Yanowski and Federico Bonelli, if there were sparks at all. It is not a ballet in which there can be any notion of pretense. Bonelli’s passion needs unlocking so that Yanowski has a chance to spar. I wanted to shout out to him, Embrace her as if you really love her! Compare the photographs in the program: Bonelli and Yanowski are beautifully captured by Tristram Kenton, with foreheads passionately furrowed, but then look at the photograph by Anthony Crickmay of Fonteyn and Nureyev in rehearsal and you see a world in which the entire body explodes in passion. Marguerite and Armand — and its creator — demand no less.