Review: Royal Ballet in Concerto/The Judas Tree/Elite Syncopations at Royal Opera House

Performance: in rep until 15 April 2010
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 26 March 2010

Royal Ballet 'The Judas Tree' Dancers: Edward Watson, Mara Galeazzi, Irek Mukhamedov
Photo: Dee Conway

The late Kenneth MacMillan will always be remembered for his full-length ballets, most notably *Romeo & Juliet* _and _*Manon*, but he made very few of these and the vast majority of his creations were of the single-Act variety. So, this triple bill of three such works is particularly apt as a belated celebration of the Anniversary of MacMillan’s birth (he would have been 80, last December, but died following a heart attack backstage at the Royal Opera House in 1992).

I thought beforehand that the bleak, expressionist imagery of rape, murder and suicide that defines *The Judas Tree* _would sit uncomfortably between the lush, romantic melodies and frilly footwork of _*Concerto* and the Dixieland good time that is had by all in *Elite Syncopations*. But it turned out to be a well-chosen suite that exposed the remarkable diversity of MacMillan’s choreography and – helped by a lengthy interval – the jollity of Elite Syncopations was untarnished by any residual angst from The Judas Tree.

The performance standard of the Principal dancers was unwaveringly excellent, allowing no excuse for some fairly substantial late casting changes. Marianela Nuñez and Sarah Lamb effectively swapped roles with both outstanding despite being forced into a debut a week ahead of schedule: Nuñez in the andante middle movement of Concerto – supported in her pas de deux by Rupert Pennefather who needed to look good and be strong (both of which he carried off with aplomb); and Lamb as Scott Joplin’s starry, bejewelled and super-sexy *Stop Time Rag* _girl. Yuhui Choe and Steven McRae mastered the technical complexities of _Concerto’s opening allegro movement. McRae leaping with such effortless ease as to make the three men shadowing his movements seem positively pedestrian by comparison. Mara Galeazzi’s charismatic, jazzy expressiveness in the _*Calliope Rag* _was a perfect foil for Lamb’s sparkle and it was tempting to get lost in watching Galeazzi remain in character even when sitting at the sides. Another highlight was Paul Kay’s diminutive, bespectacled geeky boy, tussling with Laura McCulloch – certainly too much woman for him to handle – in the comical _*Alaskan Rag* _(choreographed in the 1970s to accentuate the height differential between Wayne Sleep and the towering Vergie Derman).

Elite Syncopations is a riot of happy times, owing much of course to the wit of MacMillan’s choreography; the strikingly effective unitards and costumes designed by Ian Spurling; and the infectiousness of the Ragtime tunes; but turned into something very special by universally smooth performances. I was less overwhelmed by the supporting cast in Concerto where there was some evident nervousness and a lack of togetherness, especially amongst the male cohort.

The Judas Tree – MacMillan’s last ballet – is a work of genius that proves beyond any doubt that this great choreographer had so much creativity left to give when anxiety and a weakened heart took him away. He may have died 18 years ago but in the performance of Leanne Benjamin – as the central “Mary” whore/virgin character – there’s a link directly back to MacMillan who worked with her in the years directly before he died. The ageless Benjamin is magnificent, bringing a deep maturity to this most complex and enigmatic of female roles: a woman, scantily dressed in a leotard approximated by designer Jock McFadyen from his own painting of a brightly-bikinied woman, who is both the manipulator and the meat for a gang of construction workers on a rundown site in the shadow of Canary Wharf (if made today, it might well be an Olympic building site!). Benjamin’s journey from defiance to a crumpled, shivering, crotch-holding wreck over the course of the violent “gangbang” scene was a towering example of expressive dance drama by a consummate dance actress.

Although nothing is explicit, it is easy to understand that there is a “Jesus” figure (Ed Watson), a “Judas” – named as the Foreman – (Carlos Acosta) and a “Simon Peter” watcher-denier (Bennet Gartside) amongst a gang of eleven other men. Acosta is new to this role and brings a softer, less bravado style to The Foreman than the role’s creator (Irek Mukhamedov – who has been responsible for coaching Acosta), blurring any obvious assumptions in the good/evil divide. When Mukhamedov dropped from the gantry to hang himself in the concluding moments it was clearly an end to evil; with Acosta, the case is not at all so clear-cut. There is also more than a whiff of sexual tension in the confrontations between Acosta and Watson. Gartside encapsulated the vacillating, voyeuristic “Peter” character, untarnished by any of the violence (including the disturbing lynching of the “Jesus” figure) but incapable of preventing it. Across the board, this was an exceptional cast although in some significant ways the impact may have been even better with Acosta and Watson in reversed roles.

It is always amusing to see shock and surprise amongst audience members unaware of the bleakness that MacMillan could conjure in his most expressionist work but even more when it is in conjunction with the realisation that the same choreographer can create the pretty romanticism of Concerto and the up-tempo humour of Elite Syncopations. The Royal Ballet didn’t always treat MacMillan well in his lifetime but it certainly honours him now. Long may that be so.

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