The Royal Ballet, Triple Bill, Royal Opera House, March 23
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.