Review: The Brandstrup-Rojo Project in Goldberg at Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House

Performance: 21 - 26 Sep 09
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Tuesday 22 September 2009

The Brandstrup-Rojo Project, Goldberg, Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, to 26 Sep 09
Tamara Rojo & Thomas Whitehead
Photo: Johan Persson

How refreshing to have a major new work – there can be no mistaking that Goldberg is – performed in the intimacy of a chamber setting at the Royal Opera House. Such innovative, small-scale ballets were commonplace fifty years ago (with choreographers such as MacMillan, Cranko and Rodrigues vying for position in the pecking order) but they are as rare as hen’s teeth today.

It’s also rare to see the close collaboration between choreographer (Kim Brandstrup) and muse (Tamara Rojo) acknowledged in lights, but in every respect this is The Brandstrup-Rojo Project and it seems unlikely to have seen the light of day without both artistic partners.

Bach’s thirty Goldberg piano variations make for a long evening but the project has created an intriguing and often beautiful work that stands this test of time. There is no sense in trying to discern a narrative, although teasing clues are littered around. It takes place in a rehearsal studio (that much is clear), with six dancers arriving, on each of six mornings, doing what dancers do naturally – stretching, reviewing the work of earlier days, watched on a TV, whilst marking the movement absorbed to date. A creeping tension exists between the principals (played by Rojo and Thomas Whitehead), which comes to a climax in a stunning pas de deux that marks the half-way mark (Variation #15), with the dancers (lovers?) mixing passionate lifts and clinches with physical and emotional struggle (at one point Rojo’s dancer pummels her partner with clenched fists).

All the while, a forlorn, forgotten figure (Steven McRae) sits motionless on a piano stool watching Philip Gammon play his way through the variations. At the very beginning he has climbed a tall ladder positioned against the grey studio wall to close a high window, but this action apart, McRae then spends most of the next 50 minutes seated. It’s a courageous and deliciously perverse utilisation of the Royal Ballet’s new Principal dancer. He’s the Outsider – continuing a leit motif that ran through MacMillan ballets – the pianist’s assistant who gets to dance only when the others have left. But – unlike MacMillan – there’s a happy ending here, since we are given no doubt at the end that he gets the girl.

Richard Hudson’s set and costume designs are splendid and the interaction of Paule Constable’s lighting and Leo Warner’s video effects (seemingly referencing the mathematical structures of Bach’s musical patterns) are integral to the consistent feel of the work. I’ve often complained about the darkness in which dance is performed but here – in the intimate setting of the Linbury – the impact of light and dark variations in the rehearsal setting is very effective.

Brandstrup uses seven superb dancers from very different backgrounds. Rojo, McRae and Whitehead are ballet dancers from the Royal; Clara Barbera and Laura Caldow are also classically trained but have both crossed over into mainstream contemporary; Ricardo Meneghini is a Laban-trained physical theatre and contemporary dancer and Tommy Franzén is an eclectic street, musical theatre and screen performer. It’s an unusual mix of trainers and pointe shoes but Brandstrup succeeds in melding the styles, mixing a wide range of movement onto a classical foundation. He is consistently effective in his work for couples – I have very fond memories of the *_Afsked’* duet from 2002 and another, later for Johan Kobborg and Alina Cojocaru in _Two Footnotes for Ashton – and he continues this excellence here, culminating in a coruscating duet for Rojo and McRae (Variation #25 for anyone counting) that could sit proudly alongside any of the great pas de deux made in the past 20 years. It was so good in its emotional power and intimacy that it seemed we were intruding just by watching.

It’s hard to find new angles on dance but I think Brandstrup, Rojo and their collaborators have given us one of the more interesting new works of the year. Fifty years ago, there were so many of these new chamber works that many simply got lost – seen a few times and dropped forever. The Goldberg Project runs all week (until 26 September) and deserves to live on in the repertory.

Very limited number of seats available

Photo: Tamara Rojo & Thomas Whitehead by Johan Persson

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