Review: Scottish Ballet in Kings 2 Ends / Song of the Earth at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 3 & 4 November 2011
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 10 November 2011

Scottish Ballet, 3-4 Nov, Sadler's Wells. Photo: GW Shooting

Review: 4 November

I have a very nice app on my smart phone: a “pocket pond”, which lets me gaze down at some happy koi carp swimming around in a sparkling pool, without a cat or a heron ever likely to spoil their idyll. It is a very pretty, inoffensive stress-buster but one soon tires of it, which is precisely my verdict on Jorma Elo’s Kings 2 Ends, the new commission which opens this double bill.

Finnish-born Elo is the Resident Choreographer at Boston Ballet but still a relatively unknown entity here in the UK, although this is his second work to be performed in London, this year, following Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Plan to A at the Barbican in July. Elo has a signature style, which represents his own contemporary strand in the development of classical ballet; heavy on gesture and swift, cutting movements but light on any obvious intent. Some of his movement motifs are certainly more beautiful: I particularly loved the opening sequence with Eve Musto occupying a commanding downstage position, set against the evenly-spaced line of seven men placed diagonally away from her upstage; her slow athletic, angular motions creating music out of the silence. However, this opening was the best developed sequence of the ballet and although there were other “golden koi” moments floating occasionally through, they were not enough to justify the 35 minutes of effort. Juxtaposing Steve Reich’s Double Sextet with Mozart’s Violin Concerto No 1 was a combo that backfired and left a long work feeling more like disconnected essays loosely joined together. Without narrative, there must be flow, especially if a work is to last for more than half an hour and, aside from a few isolated streams, this was the crucial, missing ingredient. What Kings 2 Ends means, both literally and in movement terms, remains an enigma.

The last time I had seen Kenneth MacMillan’s seminal work, Song of the Earth, was to mark the occasion of Darcey Bussell’s retirement from The Royal Ballet. Bussell’s choice of finale was surprising to many but she knew that its mix of life (loneliness, romance, happiness, fun, melancholia) and death, followed by the promise of renewal in one of modern ballet’s most memorable endings, provided the ultimate balletic tear-jerker; and she was proved right by a distinctly memorable evening that was brilliantly served by a trio of great performances from Carlos Acosta, Gary Avis and Bussell herself. Following that, even after the passage of a few years, would not be easy and it is a credit to the dancers of Scottish Ballet that they make Song of the Earth seem like a different but no less effective ballet.

This difference is exemplified in the central female role by the contrast of the tiny figure of Tomomi Sato with the long-limbed Bussell. Sato impressed by being strangely vulnerable and powerful in equal measure. It is a tough call for any dancer, especially in the long, draining solo at the beginning of the final song (The Farewell) but Sato gave a fine portrayal of MacMillan’s austere, angular, abstract interpretation of Mahler’s Das Liede von der Erde. As respectively the man and the Messenger of Death, Christopher Harrison and Victor Zarallo were perhaps less comfortable with MacMillan’s unique style but they gave solid and effective support to Sato. Zarallo is still at the entry level of Artist within this company of just 34 dancers (in which context, this was a very promising performance of an iconic role that I last saw Carlos Acosta dance) and two other Artists who caught my eye were Nathalie Dupouy and Lewis Landini (whom I remember seeing perform with the London Children’s Ballet, many moons ago).

The audience for these London shows included the choreographer, Christopher Hampson, who was announced on the eve of this brief season to be the designated Artistic Director of Scottish Ballet, taking up the post from the summer of 2012. Ashley Page has done a fantastic job with this company over the past 8 years, elevating it a few rungs up the global ladder by redefining its style and working hard to stick to this new focus in all his decisions. Hampson will thus inherit a company that appears to be in very good shape. Exciting times lay ahead for him, Scottish Ballet and its audiences. I’m certainly looking forward to their visit to Sadler’s Wells, next April, with the company’s next new work, A Streetcar named Desire.

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