The Royal Ballet: Triple Bill (Balanchine, Schechter and MacMillan)

Posted: April 12th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Royal Ballet: Triple Bill (Balanchine, Schechter and MacMillan)

Royal Ballet, Triple Bill, Royal Opera House, March 30

Hofesh Schecter rehearsing The Royal Ballet cast in  Untouchable

Hofesh Schechter rehearsing The Royal Ballet corps and soloists in Untouchable

The history of a ballet is fascinating but it’s not what you see on stage. A work might be a masterpiece in the canon of ballet history but if it is not danced as a masterpiece what have we just seen? George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, with a brilliantly melodic, syncopated score by Paul Hindemith, is ‘a dance ballet without plot’, and is based on the ancient notion that the human organism is made up of four humours or temperaments: melancholic, sanguine, phlegmatic and choleric. Balanchine (who commissioned the score) said of his ballet that he had made a negative to Hindemith’s positive plate but as danced by the Royal Ballet this evening something seems to have gone awry in the darkroom. The positive aspect of the score is there, with pianist Robert Clark and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under the baton of Barry Wordsworth, but the dancing, with one or two exceptions, is not as closely matched as Balanchine designed it. Writing in 1952 Edwin Denby described The Four Temperaments as ‘developing a ferocity of drive that seems to image the subject matter of its title: internal secretions.’ Apart from Yuhui Choe and Alexander Campbell in the second theme, a moment when Federico Bonelli comes alive in the second variation and Zanaida Yanowsky’s arresting performance of the Choleric variation, Denby’s ‘ferocity of drive’ is replaced by a pusillanimous parade of Balanchine steps; the jazz-inspired hip movements barely register, the wit is missing and the precision of the choreography abandoned in the execution of the steps. The production is credited as staged by Patricia Neary, but that was possibly when she first set it in 1973. I wonder when it was last visited by Neary or anyone else from The George Balanchine Trust. In its present manifestation, it feels like Balanchine by numbers — or in choreographic terms, by notation.

Hofesh Schechter’s Untouchable, his first work for the Royal Ballet at the invitation of director Kevin O’Hare, is borrowed from his previous work; rather than developing new ideas inspired by new dancers he has simply drawn the new dancers into the comfort of his own mould. Untouchable has costumes with a military theme by Holly Waddington and apocalyptic lighting by Lee Curran who uses industrial amounts of haze and banks of lights to create a total scenography from which the dancers emerge at the beginning and into which they disappear and reappear throughout the work. But Schechter’s swarming choreography and Nell Catchpole’s score (to which Schechter contributed) fuse so seamlessly that Untouchable lacks any contrast; it looks like the staging of something that should be happening but never does. One interesting aspect of the work is that Schechter works only with the corps and soloists: there are no officers in this army as the choreography emphasises. No doubt the administration is happy to have sold out these performances but the programming of Untouchable seems to have less to do with the future of ballet — a topic O’Hare is discussing at the Dance UK conference this weekend — than with making money from a popular choice of choreographer.

The psychological baggage of Untouchable may have a closer affinity to Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Gloria than to his Song of the Earth but it is the latter ballet that the Royal Ballet choses to program this evening. Song of the Earth is, like Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, a milestone in the choreographer’s creative output, a beautiful work that sets Mahler’s symphonic song cycle Song of the Earth to dance. It was not thought acceptable by the Board of the Royal Ballet at the time to choreograph Mahler so MacMillan had to create it on John Cranko’s company in Stuttgart. Happily the value of Song of the Earth has been vindicated since the Royal Ballet took it into its own repertoire 100 performances ago. Not all performances are equal, however. This evening, Laura Morera as the woman in white is the only vestige of transcendent beauty against a rather dense barrier of emotional inertia. Nehemiah Kish’s entrance as The Man — the very first entrance in the ballet — does not augur well and Edward Watson’s subsequent entrance does little to suggest he is the powerful messenger of death. The corps of men has a fey element or two that disturbs an otherwise grounded chorus into a discordant group; the women fare much better and Morera has some strong support in her chorus but she has to struggle too much to establish her emotional credentials with her Man and Death. In a score that is so thoroughly imbued with Mahler’s own struggle with love and death the conviction and sensitivity of this trio is essential to the success of MacMillan’s choreography. Morera’s force of character is convincing but the relationship is not.

 


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.

 


Carlos Acosta: Classical Selection

Posted: September 2nd, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Carlos Acosta: Classical Selection

Carlos Acosta, Classical Selection, London Coliseum, July 30

There is something about the dancers Carlos Acosta has gathered to celebrate his 40th birthday that reminds me of a band of players that puts on performances for the sheer joy of performing. Although Acosta is clearly the central figure there is a thoughtful egalitarianism in the various performances, an abandonment of star status for the delight of working collectively. In an interview with David Jays, Acosta says that ‘In my programmes, people are not just dancers — they are people who dance.’ It is an apt distinction, for what comes across in Classical Selection is the human element, the drama, the filtering out of any conceit to lay bare the person dancing.

Pianist Robert Clark is alone on stage in a pool of light, playing a Tchaikovsky nocturne. A second light picks out an empty chair in which Acosta, dressed in military attire, soon relaxes as if to start a rehearsal of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Winter Dreams. He massages his foot, takes off his leggings, stuffs them in a bag, and puts on an overcoat. Any pretense of rehearsal evaporates as Marianela Nuñez arrives. Acosta throws off his coat (so soon after putting it on) and rushes to her. What follows is a duet of leave-taking between Masha and her lover Vershinin based on Chekhov’s Three Sisters. It is rich MacMillan territory in miniature, and the contrast between the exquisite Nuñez and Acosta’s bravado — she speaks in lines and beauty, he in clarity of force — keeps the drama alive in a passionate complexity of lifts and embraces that dissipate with his abrupt departure and her collapsing on the discarded coat.

In creating the programme for Classical Selection, Acosta wanted to ‘revisit some of the choreographers who have shaped and inspired me as a dancer down the years and to showcase some of the dancing talents with whom I have had the privilege to work’. Melissa Hamilton dancing Mikhail Fokine’s The Dying Swan is clearly in the latter category, the first of three works in which she dances. Last year Susan Pritchard and Anya Sainsbury produced a book on Anna Pavlova (for whom Fokine created the solo) to mark the centenary of her moving to Ivy House. The old photographs show Pavlova at the height of her artistry but with a balletic line that appears less refined than that of today’s Royal Ballet. Melissa Hamilton has a precision in her wrists and arms that is swan-like but a high arabesque that belongs elsewhere. Unlike the musical interpretation (by Robert Clark on piano and James Potter on cello), Hamilton does not differentiate (as in a swan) the beauty and fragility of the upper body from the working of the legs, so we are drawn to her lines rather than to her heart: she is a swan, but she is not dying.

Sir Frederick Ashton’s choreography is so deceptively simple perhaps because his language is so articulate and clear; his steps dance the dancers. In Rhapsody, to Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Ricardo Cervera and Yuhei Choe are all freshness and light, and Choe is quite fearless as she launches herself into Cervera’s arms. Rhapsody is like a sketch in pencil with watercolour highlights in which the costumes amplify the movement to perfection.

As the lights come up on Scheherezade, a story ballet from Diaghilev’s 1910 Paris season, it looks as if two oriental sleeping bags are on stage, a vestige of the exotic design of Leon Bakst’s original sets. The role of Zobeida was originally made for Ida Rubinstein, a beauty of her time whose power was in her mime rather than her dance. Nuñez is a beauty of our time, but she is also an exquisite dancer; she brings almost too much to the role. Acosta has all the animal quality and the overcharged energy of the passionate slave bolting into the harem for a brief, forbidden moment, with his large hands, like a Rodin sculpture, exaggerating his thrall. The extract is all expectation and suggestion: Nuñez is languorously supple and seductive, succumbing inevitably to the passion of Acosta who, after a final, brief climax, is spent. Unlike the murderous ending of Fokine’s full-length ballet, this is a ‘petite mort’.

In another kind of bedroom, an opulent four-poster dwarfs the set of MacMillan’s Manon. Nehemiah Kish as Des Grieux is writing at a desk while Leanne Benjamin as his lover makes her sensual way from the sheets to his side, snatching his feather quill and, forgetting it is not a Parker fountain pen, tossing it away with a great deal of force for very little effect. Kish gets up not, it would seem, from any internal motivation but because the choreography dictates. She wants to play but he does not. She has the looks, the sinuous passion; he keeps well within his balletic shell. Their kiss at the end is, finally, believable, but the extract never really gets going, as it takes two and Kish’s motors are not turning over at Benjamin’s rate. He appears stilted: technically able, but without the emotional spark.

A musical interlude allows the orchestra, under Paul Murphy, to let rip on one of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances, directing the audience eastward from France to Russia.

Agrippina Vaganova’s choreography, Diana and Acteon, is a demonstration of the classical training for which Vaganova as a teacher is so renowned. And Acosta and Nuñez thrive on it. Nuñez already displays a lovely opening ballon before there is an audible ‘Aaaah!’ from the audience as Acosta flies in. Nuñez and Acosta are very calm together even though the choreography, on a bow-and-arrow theme, is highly charged and virtuosic. Nuñez’s split arabesque penchés are probably not in the original Vaganova conception but do not appear out of place as her entire performance is transposed to a consistently higher plane of performance. Acosta’s solo is beautiful, contained and centred, even if he has to put himself back on to his pirouette. Nuñez is ravishing in her solo with a breathtaking series of opening penchés. They are not all particularly feminine steps, but she brings together her strength and poise to create beautiful shapes. Acosta and Nuñez evidently inspire each other, and the coda is thrilling. There is a lovely moment when he partners her in pirouettes then takes away his hands to leave her to continue turning as if he were never there. This story of Diana and Actaeon has a happy ending: by the time this duet is finished, Diana’s desire for vengeance has metamorphosed into physical union. This is what we have come to see, classical ballet danced by two artists who are at the peak of their art.

The second half of the evening is more choreographed than the first, an almost continuous flow of works with the briefest of pauses and no bows. It is a more satisfactory format. In MacMillan’s Mayerling, Acosta pushes his interpretation of Crown Prince Rudolph to the edges of sanity. A three-panel screen at the back of the stage, a table and two chairs suggest Nicholas Georgiadis’s design for the hunting lodge where Rudolf and Mary Vetsera (Benjamin in great form) meet for their suicide pact. Cervera, as Rudolph’s driver Bratfisch, is delightfully at ease as he tries in vain to entertain the couple. Perhaps he senses something is not right and jokes away the quiet before the storm. MacMillan is at his most psychologically inventive, having the nervy Crown Prince move his own legs with his hands like someone controlled by an outside force. He craves the drugs that are evidently on the table. Vetsera has left the room to change and reappears in a light diaphanous gown as Rudolph reaches for the morphine. She circles her chair, he circles his and they meet to dance a tormented, passionate duet that gets rougher until he collapses on her. He draws himself up to the table with difficulty to get his fix. She climbs under his legs and reaches up his thighs. It’s heady stuff, and he is now out of control, throwing her around until he collapses on the floor, exhausted. They take each others’ hands. Rudolph then takes the pistol, goes with Vetsera behind the screen and shoots her. Staggering out, he raises the pistol, looks at it, and pulls the trigger just as Cervera returns. The applause seems out of place, a reminder of another tragedy: it was during a revival of Mayerling in October 1992 that MacMillan died of a heart attack backstage at The Royal Opera House.

Kish is the soldier in Gloria (I can’t help remembering the image of Julian Hosking in the role), and Hamilton the sylph, his ideal image. It is a complex relationship, with Kish manipulating her body with care (his partnering is superb) yet at one point he holds her like a gun. It is Macmillan at his most spare, a poem of movement in memory of his father who suffered in the trenches in World War 1. Hamilton is gorgeous here, her line matching the purity of voice in Francis Poulenc’s Gloria in G sung by the Pegasus Choir, and Kish is the perfect counterbalance.

Another ballet of leave-taking, MacMillan’s Requiem is his ode to John Cranko, friend and fellow choreographer for whose Stuttgart company MacMillan created Song of the Earth. The music is Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem, with the Pegasus Choir once more in the pit. Chris Davey’s lighting creates an autumnal pattern of leaves in which Benjamin appears in angel mode, moving Acosta back from the abyss of his mourning; his body is finely attuned to the voice as he lies listening close to the ground. Requiem is a quiet, fundamental piece that has elements of stillness, as in Romeo and Juliet, that serve to focus the power of the music. There is something universal here as Acosta seems to search for a sign of outer presence, but it’s already in him. His poignant final shape as he lies down, with his feet raised sideways, is reminiscent of Song of the Earth. MacMillan was evidently inspired by the voice; Benjamin in the Pie Jesu is beautifully wedded to the soprano voice of Moira Johnston, showing the purity and sensitivity of the female form, requiring balance, poise and line. She has them all: a joy to watch.

For the Rubies section of George Balanchine’s Jewels, Cervera is joined by Meaghan Grace Hinkis. Though Cervera has danced this before with the Royal Ballet, it is a version that does not exercise the wit of the music and Balanchine’s playful, devoted response, with the result that the dancing and the music are separated like misaligned colours in a print. Unfortunately for Hinkis, for whom this is the only appearance, neither ruby sparkles particularly brightly.

With Apollo, in which Balanchine ‘laid the foundations of what was to become neo-classicism,’ we see the clarity and elegance of pure form and Acosta and Nuñez bathe in its light. In this central pas de deux, Apollo plays with Terpsichore with breathtaking sensitivity.

It is heartening to see a work of Christopher Wheeldon on the bill. Tryst is a quiet duet that carves space beautifully, as Hamilton does in a simple transition from flexed foot to a pointed one. Her tryst is with Eric Underwood who has the luxuriance and grace to complement Hamilton in shapes that collapse, melt and reform like James MacMillan’s music. Underwood and Hamilton work well together. Left gazing into space on a trumpet passage, they roll together to a kneeling position like two perfectly attuned individuals finding each other.

The evening ends with Acosta drawing on his Cuban roots in a sensuous and powerful work by fellow countryman and Rambert dancer, Miguel Altunaga, called appropriately Memoria, to music by Mexican electronica artist Murcof. Acosta appears at first in a conical light as if in a jar, his torso and arms dancing while his heart directs. Altunaga brings out all of Acosta’s abilities here: power, passion, and technical bravado in all directions, showing us a dancer who is more completely himself than at any other point in the evening. There is also a sense that Acosta is doing this for us, giving back with a generosity of spirit that lifts the audience with him.

In a symmetrical end to the evening, Robert Clark returns to play – this time Sweet Dreams from Tchaikovsky’s Album for the Young – while Acosta sits back in his chair, puts on some warmer clothes, relaxes, perhaps dreams of his life at 40 in ‘the circle of public solitude’. He puts his bag over his shoulder and walks offstage.

Three years ago I happened to meet Acosta on the tube as I was passing through Covent Garden station. We spoke for all of two stops; I just had time to tell him I hadn’t yet seen him dance. He responded with a self-deprecating, warm smile that I had better see him soon as he was becoming a dinosaur.

Some dinosaur. Happy Birthday.