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.


Thomas Adès: See the Music, Hear the Dance

Posted: November 26th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thomas Adès: See the Music, Hear the Dance

Thomas Adès, See the Music, Hear the Dance, Sadler’s Wells, November 1

Thomas Adès: See the Music, Hear the Dance (Design: AKA, photo: Johan Persson)

Thomas Adès: See the Music, Hear the Dance (Design: AKA, photo: Johan Persson)

The subtitle of this evening’s celebration of the music of Thomas Adès — the second in Sadler’s Wells’ Composer Series — is where dance and music share their inherent qualities: See the Music, Hear the Dance. Such complementarity, however, can be elusive and this evening is no exception. With Wayne McGregor, whose Outlier (to Adès’ violin concerto, Concentric Paths) opens the evening, it is not so much the music we see as the space in which he develops his signature physical dynamics, a visual environment in which dance, set design and lighting take precedence over the music. Lucy Carter is here credited with both lighting and set design and it is her symbolic concentric motif that provides a visual link to Adès’ score rather than the dance. Created for New York City Ballet, Outlier opens with a quintet of dancers that is subdivided into a trio with a duet, two duets with a solo and a duet with a trio that remains motionless. In the second movement, Thomas Gould’s solo violin sings above the turbulence of the orchestra while the choreography for a trio of dancers hits some turbulence of its own in clumsy lifts and interlocking partnering between the two men. Nine dancers start the third movement in three trios glued one behind the other dancing in canon. Carter’s circles yield to a rectangle of light framing a duet to the solo violin that the other seven watch in silhouette. There is a final visual image of a white circle of light on the stage into which a dancer steps with the last splash of the violin.

Karole Armitage chooses Adès’ Life Story set to a poem of the same name by Tennessee Williams. There is a grand piano on stage with the soprano Claire Booth dazzling in sequins standing against it and Adès at the keyboard. Booth’s lovely soprano voice sings of the lazy aftermath of a first encounter between two lovers (danced by Emily Wagner and Ruka Hatua-Saar) lying on a bed ‘like rag dolls’ telling their life stories. It is not a context that immediately suggests pointe shoes and when one of Wagner’s shoes slips off her heel early in Life Story the intimacy of the setting is unforgiving. The classical vocabulary fails to find a correspondence with the jazzy score and the final manège to the line about people burning to death in hotel rooms just throws Williams’ cautionary tale to the wings.

Alexander Whitely created The Grit of the Oyster to Adès’ Piano Quintet. Both choreographer and composer are on stage in their respective dual roles and for the first time this evening the music and dance are in harmony. The Grit of the Oyster is a trio with three lyrical dancers (Whitely, Antonette Dayrit and Jessica Andrenacci) on a white rectangle of floor while the quintet plays behind. The lighting has the murkiness of an oyster bed with lime-green and blue costumes, but the fluidity of the choreography shines, particularly in Dayrit’s solos. During a turbulent musical passage she takes off her green top and puts on a white one, becoming a pearl. Whitely and Andrenacci return for a duet and at the opening of the third movement the trio whip through a fast section in unison. Dayrit dances one final, beautiful solo that leaves the musical line floating as the light fades.

Adès’ Polaris is a huge orchestral work and Crystal Pite responds with a cast of 64 dancers in superbly designed identical black costumes (by Linda Chow) that leave only the face and hands bare. An articulated mass of curved, crustaceous black bodies with hands like dead leaves slithers on to the stage in silence like a menacing, malevolent energy. It becomes a circle with heads rising and descending again before it unravels and moves across the space with the addition of a circular wave formation. Still the music hasn’t started, but when it does Pite has prepared us; we have already seen it. Pite fills the stage in the same way the music fills our ears; here at last is a complete expression of See the Music, Hear the Dance. The mass retreats leaving two figures like flotsam on the beach who struggle to remain attached until they are ripped apart by invisible forces. For the individual roles Pite uses six dancers from her own company, Kidd Pivot, and they are mesmerizing in their control of the details and dynamics of the choreography. The mass is an elemental force crossing like tectonic plates or two massed armies confronting one another, and the sextet rises above it like instruments above the orchestral turmoil. At one point all 64 dancers form a single entity, crouching with arms to the side, hands pointing to the floor. All we see is the fingers quivering but the image is one of powerful kinetic energy. Pite’s artistic control over the stage elements — choreography, costumes, lighting (by Thomas Visser) and backdrop (by Jay Gower Taylor) — corresponds to the way Adès controls the instrumentation and the Britten Sinfonia he is conducting: Polaris is a confluence of two imaginations in tune with each other. On the final musical crescendo Adès’ hand is caught in the light as it rises above the pit, his finger pointing upwards like a blessing or a warning. The dancers halt and suddenly all that energy discharges into the audience as a storm of applause.

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.


Wayne McGregor⎪Random Dance: Atomos

Posted: December 23rd, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Wayne McGregor⎪ Random Dance, Atomos, Brighton Dome, November 8

Atomos: photo Rick Guest with Olivia Pomp

Atomos: photo Rick Guest with Olivia Pomp

I wonder — and this is just a hunch — if choreographers who are elevated to a position of high visibility very soon in their careers have a problem managing expectation; if, in the absence of anything new to say, they tend to fall back on what was initially successful. By ‘anything new to say’ I mean anything new to say through the work rather than about it. Wayne McGregor is certainly not short of words when it comes to talking about his work, but I feel he falls into the category of having little new to say through his work, and thus the impact of his most recent choreography has much the same effect as his last, whether you love it or are bored by it.

What you can expect in a work of McGregor is first and foremost a packaging that is lit beautifully (usually by Lucy Carter), is dressed by someone on the cutting edge of fashion, has state of the art projections, presents a voguish contemporary score and is performed by beautifully edgy dancers with plastic (one might say elastic) qualities — whether McGregor is dipping into the willing side of The Royal Ballet  (where he is resident choreographer) or into his own company. Apart from the physical aspect, one is inevitably caught up in the intellectual side of his work; the printed program tends to read like a parallel universe of research in cognitive science that reveals McGregor’s curiosity as well as his intelligence and seems designed to link these qualities to the choreography — which is an illusion, for the link is only to the research. I think what we see in a McGregor work is the result of his absorption in his research rather than the fruit of his imagination, which explains perhaps the lack of empathy — communication with an audience. McGregor might well say he never intended it to be there.

His latest research-laden work, Atomos, continues the trend. The essay in the printed program by social anthropologist James Leach, under the heading What is a body? makes you wonder if you will understand anything at all, but on a closer reading the text runs alongside the work without ever touching. “We feel bodies. They have presence. Their stance, position, intention, emotion, desire, reach, shame, passion, expansion and contraction are recognisable and compelling because this movement, this life, is already part of the common shared space. The only way the self is known and experienced is with others, as presences or absences. The material that the company creates has this quality.” But doesn’t all dance have this quality? He finishes with, “McGregor insists the body is fascinating. He insists it is intelligent. It thinks, solves, makes and creates. He strives to recognize and organise this intelligence — an intelligence that is in and between the dancers, emergent from the relation not the individual. His work both reveals and challenges our sense of what it is to be a human with others, a body that is always there in its concern with, constitution by, and presence among our own and other kinds. Thinking is also movement.” You read that, you see the show and you say to yourself, that was really intelligent. Or you say, with much trepidation, what was all that about? I once heard an audience member ask McGregor in a post-show talk following Far what the work was about. “What do you think the work is about?” came the immediate retort.

Atomos is a fairly typical McGregor thoroughbred: choreographed on his own dancers, lit by Carter, costumed by the fashion and technology duo Studio XO, scored by A Winged Victory For The Sullen and with projections by Ravi Deepres, it has a sexy array of techno packaging, including the option of 3D viewing. It turns out the glasses are needed only for the projections, not for the dancers. So when the five screens eventually slot into place, we don the glasses to see a pink square traveling through the dark auditorium towards us. Is this a distraction to the choreography? Not according to McGregor, who apparently responded to one of his dancers that it is only a distraction if you think the dance is the only thing. Is McGregor having so much fun with his collaborative team that he has turned his back on his audience? At a Hay Festival event this year, the ‘legendary’ McGregor was scheduled to be interviewed by Sarah Crompton with Audrey Niffenegger, author of Raven Girl that McGregor had just adapted for the Royal Ballet. He didn’t show up. Dance is of small but growing interest in the world of literary festivals and his presence would have helped the momentum. Crompton made no comment on his absence but a Royal Ballet aficionado in the audience had come to hear McGregor and wondered out loud where he was. The two women looked at each other sheepishly, apologised and Niffenegger added, “To the best of my knowledge Wayne is madly at work.”

McGregor’s research into the nature of movement may well be useful, even groundbreaking, but for whom? Atomos was created with the help of an ‘artificiallly intelligent, life size, digitally rendered “body”’ in the studio, in effect another dancer provoking new movement creation through technology. It begs the question of what is feeding into the system. What if it responds in kind to a poverty of choreographic input?

With much contemporary choreography in which ideas are pulled from observation or study of the natural world, it is illuminating to glimpse the processes the choreographer uses to arrive at the final product we see on stage. But interesting research does not in itself equate to stimulating choreographic work. In the pushing of boundaries originality can be lost.


Made at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: June 27th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Made at Sadler’s Wells


Made at Sadler’s Wells, Sadler’s Sampled Festival, Sadler’s Wells, June 22

The Sadler’s Sampled festival is a welcome initiative by Sadler’s Wells to popularize dance that brings the concept of the BBC Proms to the theatre and adds a raft of programmed events in and around the foyer that ‘will provide a way in for audiences who many not be familiar with dance of any kind.’ There are four separate programs of dance over the two-week festival (ending July 7) beginning with Made at Sadler’s Wells that highlights three works the theatre has produced since 2005.

Russell Maliphant’s Afterlight (Part One) is all about the play between the dynamism of form in the choreography and the deconstruction of mass in the lighting and it takes a dancer who has the plasticity and precision to carve lines and shapes in space. I had the pleasure of seeing Daniel Proietto dance Afterlight (Part One) in 2010 and it was an extraordinary performance (his photograph appears in the program although Thomasin Gulgeç is on stage). For Made at Sadler’s Wells it is essentially the same work but it doesn’t quite match the unequivocal memory of something breathtakingly beautiful.

Afterlight premiered in October 2009 as part of the Spirit of Diaghilev program at Sadler’s Wells. Proietto brought to life the spirit of Nijinsky (which you can sense in the pages of Lincoln Kirstein’s superb collection of photographs, Nijinsky Dancing): introspective, sensitive, exotic. It was Maliphant’s inspired idea to marry the movement with music of similar qualities — the first four of Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes — and with Michael Hulls’ alchemy of light: choreography, music and lighting that compose a deeply satisfying unity.

Gulgeç appears with his back to us in carmine tunic and skullcap, spiraling his arms around his turning torso as if he is pressed against the glass that Hulls’ tube of light suggests. Gulgeç has the muscular ability to draw out the unctuous quality of the movement, but without quite the poetic, otherworldly element that I remember in Proietto’s performance. At the end of the second movement, he flings off his jacket in an uncharacteristically prosaic gesture and is now all in white for the third movement, which has a tone of pain or ecstasy whose ambivalence Gulgeç matches. Maliphant builds up the range of movement, exploring the air for the first time while keeping the spiraling, cutting, fluid turns that scythe through space so beautifully. The dappled lighting shrinks in the fourth movement while the dance continues to grow in elevation and expanse at the outer reaches of the solo piano, but the lighting gradually hauls Gulgeç back in to the jar until he disappears altogether.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Faun continues in the spirit of Nijinsky, delving into and reinventing his 1912 ballet, L’après-midi d’un faune. Cherkaoui’s choreography lays aside Egyptian fresco for free form, but he keeps the lithe, muscled and animal quality that James O’Hara embodies beautifully in his opening solo. The way he first appears, tightly rolled up under Adam Carré’s lighting, gives the impression he is still coiled around another’s body. To Debussy’s evocative score he unfurls, as if waking up on a lazy morning, shaking out the orgy of the previous night and imagining the next. Nittin Sawhney seamlessly interweaves his own score into that of Debussy to introduce the new object of the faun’s desire, Daisy Phillips. Where O’Hara is sinuous, Phillips is so flexible that her articulation verges on contortion; her facility undermines the feral sense of muscle and tendons and has the odd effect of leaving the partnership emotionless: muscular articulation, it would appear, is part of the language of dance and conveys emotional sense.  However, the sheer invention of the interlocking choreography is not lost, nor is the sense of mysticism overlaid with the erotic in both choreography and music. Sometimes it is difficult to tell whose leg is whose in the intricate embraces and there are animal images of a mother cradling her young and a playfulness between the couple that is a pleasure to watch. At the end, Carré focuses a very bright spot on O’Hara as he reaches down to pick up Phillips from their feral sporting, but she recedes between his legs while he remains standing, suddenly imbued with moral sense, unsure what they had just experienced.

The link to Nijinsky in the first two works abruptly disappears in the third. Wayne McGregor’s UNDANCE, as its capital letters shrilly proclaim, is an elaborate conceit: some Muybridge-inspired exercises performed between Mark Wallinger’s two side boards with large painted letters ‘UN’ equals UNDANCE. Ha. Despite the conceit (though I did at first wonder what the political overtones could be), the opening is visually promising — a feature of McGregor’s collaborative works and of Lucy Carter’s lighting — but the promise fails to deliver and the end deceives: the restlessness of the audience as the performance progresses is palpable. Wallinger’s set design, including the UN boards, consists of a screen at the back of the stage on which the dancers are projected deliberately out of synch with the choreography on stage, either a step or two ahead or a step or two behind. As a statement in itself it is visually arresting, but in the context of UNDANCE, it simply multiplies what is essentially uninteresting. I don’t think Mark Anthony Turnage’s music helps the attention span, either. We are told that his score was inspired by a text written by Wallinger, which was in turn inspired by American sculptor Richard Serra’s Compilation of Verbs and the work of photographer Eadweard J. Muybridge. McGregor picked up on the Muybridge but his choreography is inconsequential in the company of his two mutually inspired artistic collaborators who appear to be doing their own thing in their own time.




Wayne McGregor | Random Dance: Dancing in the Rain Room

Posted: December 5th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Wayne McGregor | Random Dance in Rain Room, The Curve, Barbican Centre, December 1

rain room

There is an installation at The Curve in the heart of the Barbican Centre that allows you to walk through the rain without getting wet – no umbrellas provided. It is Random International’s Rain Room and it is a thing of beauty to behold and to walk through. Walk slowly and the movement sensors in the ceiling will track you and keep the rain from falling on your space; as you walk you mould a dry bubble around you. If you walk too fast you get wet. On some days (all too few: for details you will have to consult the Barbican website) the space is shared by dancers from Wayne McGregor | Random Dance, which adds a whole new, fluid dimension to the installation. Jessica Wright and Davide Di Pretoro were dancing on the day I attended and because dancers and onlookers are subject to the same laws of motion sensors, Wright and Di Pretoro were performing uniquely adagio movement, something one doesn’t often have a chance to savour in a McGregor performance. Wright performs for fifteen minutes: a solo, a duet with Di Pretoro and another solo. The vocabulary is based on articulation of all joints and limbs which, slowed down, has the sense of tentacular motion under water, current-driven, rippling, though there is tension in the extended hands and feet and at the limits of articulation. As the dancers move, they push the boundaries of the rain around them, creating a dry oasis that moves with them. McGregor says he has structured 25 hours of choreography for this event, but as you are limited to five minutes in the room because of space requirements and because the queue extends to five o’clock and beyond, the 25 hours will remain largely unseen. The dance sequences are part choreographed and part improvised, and the nature of the performance, by virtue of the way it is presented, is open-ended.

With one floodlight at the far end of the room, the effect of seeing the dance through the illuminated rain is beautiful. As McGregor says in the video link below, to see the installation is to see the rain as a spatial object and the dancers as artifacts in a performative exhibition. Pina Bausch may have preferred her dancers to get wet and to have the sensation of getting wet, but Random International’s Rain Room offers something between projection and the real thing. A score by Max Richter envelops the piece in a suitably fluid sound, not quite watery but sensuous. Random International (no relation to Random Dance) has not yet got the measure of a dry floor so after fifteen minutes of dancing the shoes get quite wet, but for those walking through in the allotted five minutes there is no need for wellies. Another piece of advice for those who would like to experience the Rain Room: the motion sensors see you better if you wear light-coloured clothing (the dancers are in skin colours) and black may fool the sensors into raining on your absence.

Aware of the time constraints on the viewer for this brief, sensory experience, McGregor calls it a snapshot of dance, and there is certainly plenty of that, almost more snapshot than dance: it is a photographer’s delight. But in that snapshot is an opportunity to see beautiful dancers up close in a weather system that enhances the experience. Keep calm, walk slowly, and wear bright colours. It will brighten up the Rain Room, and (if you can arrive early) your day.

The Rain Room is open until 3 March 2013 and Wayne McGregor | Random Dance will be performing again on Sun 20 January 2013 and Sun 24 February 2013 (11am – 5pm). Entry is free to both the Rain Room and the performances. You can find out more about the Rain Room exhibition on the Barbican Centre website.

To watch a video of the installation, use either of the links below:



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.