Review: Royal Ballet in Electric Counterpoint / Asphodel Meadows / Carmen at Royal Opera House

Performance: in rep, 5 - 15 May 2010
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 6 May 2010

Royal Ballet's Sarah Lamb in 'Electric Counterpoint'
Photo: Dee Conway

On the day before yesterday, Liam Scarlett was one of many emerging talents in the world of neoclassical ballet choreography. Today, he woke up (if he ever went to sleep!) as its hottest property. His debut on the main stage of the Royal Opera House – indeed, on any main stage, anywhere – at the age of 24, with the enigmatically entitled Asphodel Meadows was thoughtful, innovative, idiosyncratic, beautifully designed and employed a luxurious Poulenc score with dramatic variation and subtlety. In short, it came right out of the top drawer. In the rigidly hierarchical world of classical ballet, this young First Artist (essentially one level up from the lowest rank of dancers) has – overnight – become the Captain Scarlett of choreographers.

In crediting Scarlett for an astonishingly good debut one must also recognise the guiding hands of artistic director, Dame Monica Mason for having the vision to let this young man use the opportunity and Wayne McGregor (the company’s resident choreographer) for his tutelage. The Royal Ballet has routinely suffered criticism for a lack of experimentation with modern work and so its creative management should get the bouquets when they take the risk and it pays off as handsomely as this.

Scarlett employed ten couples in his 23-minute work, three principal pairs and seven more in the corps de ballet. His engagement of the space was never less than impressive with subtle variations for members of the corps, individually, as duets and as a whole ensemble. The lighting (by Jennifer Tipton) and designs (by John MacFarlane) accentuated the choreographic flow with memorable fixed images, including dancers appearing like figures in a surrealist painting (perhaps a De Chirico, or similar) and in another moment as androgynous statues by Antony Gormley. The classical base was ever-present in the dance but accented by modern twists and extensions, where simple devices like the unified straightening of arms and the exaggerated opening out of hands with stretched fingers took on a strange and special beauty. MacFarlane’s designs included a special front curtain and backdrop with abstract splashes of dark stain on a light background. The work itself was similarly abstract, without narrative intent (the title taken from a poem by C.W James), with the choreography wrapped around three lengthy duets: first a strong, flowing, passionate series of embraces and lifts for Rupert Pennefather and Marianela Nuñez; then a slower, but somehow edgier duet for Tamara Rojo and Bennet Gartside; and finally a delicate, quicksilver pas de deux for Laura Morera and Ricardo Cervera. Having surrounded these highlights with outstanding group dances – and framing them with an interesting peripheral use of his corps – Scarlett gave each duet substance and individuality. This dream cast of three superbly matched couples rose to the challenge marvellously. The young choreographer appeared a little overwhelmed by the strength of appreciation from the House but, if this first Premiere is anything to go by, he had better get used to it.

It was doubly impressive that Monica Mason chose not to ‘play safe’ with the rest of the programme, sandwiching the new ballet with perhaps the most avant garde offering yet from Christopher Wheeldon in Electric Counterpoint and Mats Ek’s brilliant modernist interpretation of *Carmen* – one of the best acquisitions by the Royal Ballet in the noughties. The former is a slightly self-indulgent examination of the thoughts of four dancers broadcast as voiceovers and interwoven with a solo Bach Prelude and Fugue for the piano, followed by Steve Reich’s interplay for live and recorded guitar (from which the ballet takes its title). The most interesting aspect of the work is the integral video artistry of Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, which creates a digital corps de ballet out of repeated images of the four performers. It gets cleverer each time I see it, further enhanced by the introduction of Leanne Benjamin, for whom Wheeldon choreography is a match made in heaven. A special mention also to Eric Underwood whose supple, slinky, sensual movement always achieves excellence in the Wheeldon/McGregor repertoire.

The theatrical impact and inventiveness of Ek’s eclectic range of movement also rewards each new encounter with Carmen. It has a rich tapestry and Tamara Rojo is the quintessential balletic interpretation of the doomed cigar girl. Kristen McNally was outstanding in her complete control of the rippling back and stretched step motifs for the character of ‘M’. Completing another effective cast were the ebullient Gartside as the Matador, Escamillo, and Thomas Whitehead as the love-stricken José.

It is not always that one finds a mixed bill to be so completely satisfying and it’s especially rewarding for Dame Monica and her company to have achieved this in perhaps the riskiest and most modern of all programmes to have played at the Royal Opera House for some years. It is worth experimenting and failing honourably from time to time in order to succeed as spectacularly as this. I had similar thoughts about the programme that introduced Wayne McGregor’s Chroma and Wheeldon’s DGV, a few seasons back. But they were both already established star choreographers. On the evidence of Asphodel Meadows a new shooting star has just arrived.

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