Review: Royal Ballet in New Works at Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House

Performance: 3 - 5 June 2010
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 7 June 2010

Royal Ballet, New Works. 'Trip Trac' Chor: Slava Samodurov. Dancers: Melissa Hamilton and Valeri Hristov. Photo: Andrej Uspenski

Reviewed: 4 June

An outlet for the choreographic expression of dancers has long been an essential addendum to the season in most major dance companies. If there’s anything that illuminates ballet as a profession that surpasses the normal expectations of work, then it must be the dedication that drives tired dancers – at the tail end of a very busy season – back into the studios for substantial unpaid “overtime” to develop and rehearse new works for their colleagues. It’s also a refreshingly classless endeavour where corps de ballet members get their chance to experience public recognition for soloist performances, often alongside Principal dancers happy to lose their rank and privilege within this ecumenical endeavour.

The programme was neatly hinged around the interval. The first three pieces provided separate ensemble-based delineations of an essentially classical palette, but with each choreographer adding their own idiosyncratic touches, like fashion designers applying distinctive slashes and cuts to the finest of materials. The first four choreographers also hooked their movement onto the excellent live (and onstage) performance of classical music. This visual mix of musician and dancer – made of necessity on the small stage of the Linbury Studio Theatre – is another welcome component of the New Works.

The most academically rigorous piece came in Slava Samodurov’s detailed interpretation of Shostakovich in the opening Trip Trac (a diminutive of the Latin tripudio tractus, meaning “dance movements”). After an 18-year career as a dancer, Samodurov is now on the cusp of his transition to a new role in the dance world and there is a knowing maturity to his choreography. He began with four consecutive classical solos, each performed in a studio style, as acknowledged by a nod from each male soloist towards the pianist, Robert Clarke, to signal the start. Samodurov mixed this informality of setting with a robust, almost rigid, respect for the disciplined requirement of presenting a classical response to Shostakovich. The result is something closely approximating Balanchine, especially in its rehearsal room “feel” although in no way derivative choreographically.

Both Ludovic Ondiviela and Vanessa Fenton are developing significant reputations as emerging choreographers. Fenton, in particular, has produced an eclectic repertoire of new works and has already been active outside of the Royal Ballet. Here, her One Shade The More – created on music by Max Bruch, gorgeously played by Kate Shipway (piano) and Peter Adams (cello), will further enhance this reputation. Where Samodurov’s work bore evidence of several international influences (from Vaganova to Balanchine), Fenton’s is utterly grounded in the Royal Ballet’s heritage. The piece opened and closed to a lone figure (Michael Stojko) awkwardly balanced on his hands and upper chest, legs and lower body curved and extended upwards like an inverted fish out of water. A “romantic” liaison between Steven McRae and Roberta Marquez (the Royal Ballet’s hottest new couple) overshadows the brief work, which closes with them parting at the back of the stage as Stojko resumes his isolated and uncomfortable vigil. I’ve no idea what the narrative meant but there was a distinct MacMillanesque flavour to this concept of an ‘outsider’ emotionally disconnected from his surroundings. Unfortunately for me and several others, Ondiviela’s work – Duplicity – was all but obliterated by the ill-mannered behaviour of a pair in the audience (more of which later) and I feel it would be inappropriate to comment on something that I didn’t enjoy for reasons completely unconnected to the choreography or its performance.

The second half was certainly more diverse, beginning with a stunning duet made by another ‘established’ choreographer, Alastair Marriott, danced exquisitely by Mara Galeazzi and Gary Avis. Marriott chose three Brahms’ songs – sung by the Baritone, Grant Doyle – as the basis for Lieder’ – two thirds of which was created originally for Galeazzi’s charitable Gala for Africa, in February, now extended by a new opening section. Marriott has already progressed to works on the main stage of the Opera House (notably Sensorium in 2009 and his choreography for the opera, The Tsarina’s Slippers) but it was the intimacy of the much smaller studio theatre that greatly enhanced the unrelenting emotional intensity of this powerful duet. Liberally packed with lifts and holds, the 12-minute work really tested Avis’ credentials as a strong partner but he seemed still up for more at the end of this intoxicating journey. With a partner like Galeazzi – totally immersed in a work that clearly meant a great deal to her – who could blame him. .

It’s a brave thing to begin a piece of choreography with the statement, ‘once a thing’s been done, it’s been done’, as Kristen McNally did here in the opening of her *Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game. McNally has earned the reputation as a dance-maker who thinks outside of the ballet bag and, once again, this was an astute piece of voyeurism through society’s window, picking up here on the ephemeral nature of fashion and fame. I love McNally’s attempts to fix ballet into the here and now and she does so in a quirky, idiosyncratic way that veers touchingly close to cliché at times but always remained true to its own path. *Thomas Whitehead gave a scintillating performance in the main role, throwing some b-boy moves into a mix of popping, robotics and ballet with a long and fearsomely tiring solo. Responding to her own challenge, I think McNally successfully avoided doing anything that had been done before. And finally we had Hallelujah Junction by Erico Montes which was intense, perpetual motion for its five performers all of whom did well to control their breathing in such close proximity to the audience. I was especially taken by Montes’ geometric use of the dancers, creating a torrent of patterns and shapes by his deployment of bodies in space.

After such effort it was odd to say the least to hear a loud “Boo” at the final curtain call but since two members of the audience had deliberately reacted to another’s polite request not to use their mobile phones during the first work by using them perpetually during the second, I suppose that I shouldn’t have been surprised at any such reaction. Thankfully, the mobile phone use was halted by the judicious placement of a member of staff close at hand but I hear that the booing man came on the next night to boo again. How very strange.

Two past members of this New Works collective at the Royal Opera House – Jonathan Watkins and Liam Scarlett – have graduated this year to deliver important works on the main stage and thus had nothing in this programme for the first time for awhile. The club is still doing pretty well without them and I suspect that some of their colleagues might have a similar chance to make bigger pieces in the not-too-distant future.

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