Review: Morphoses - The Wheeldon Company in Programme 1: Commedia/ Leaving Songs/ Softly As I Leave You/ Bolero at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 21 & 22 Oct 09
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 22 October 2009

Morphoses - The Wheeldon Company. 21-24 Oct, Sadler's Wells. Photo - Drew Jacoby and Rubinald Pronk in 'One'. Photographer: Erin Baiano

Reviewed: 21 October

It’s becoming a pleasant autumnal rite to welcome Christopher Wheeldon’s company, back to Sadler’s Wells each year. Fast becoming the itinerant company to follow, perhaps even growing into the Ballets Russes of our age, Morphoses was initially transatlantic, shuffling between New York and London for periodic mini-seasons, but in 2009 it’s gone global. I was sorry to just miss them at the Sydney Festival last January and have been eagerly anticipating their return to London ever since.

Some of Sydney has been absorbed into the new-look Morphoses with two new Australian dancers in the ensemble – Andrew Crawford and Daniella Rowe (a guest from Australian Ballet) – and an Aussie choreographer new to London in Tim Harbour, a great name for someone picked up in Sydney, whose Leaving Songs was the world premiere in this mixed programme.

But, first up we welcomed back last year’s premiere in Wheeldon’s own Commedia, which he introduced last September as his tribute to Diaghilev to signpost the year of the Ballets Russes’ centenary. Its reprisal here, coming so soon after last week’s Spirit of Diaghilev programme on the same stage, seems to neatly book-end the centenary celebrations. Last time, I felt it was a project still in draft, an assessment that’s distinctly no longer true since the work has gained in profundity through performance and expresses a modern tribute to the Ballets Russes in a very meaningful, evocative ballet.

The choice of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite and its Commedia del Arte theme provides the work with an appropriate genealogical link to the Ballets Russes but it’s the unmistakable Wheeldon choreography, an exceptionally unique blend of classical ballet and edgy, modern twists, extensions and flexes that sets his style apart from others who have tried to capture the Diaghilev aura in contemporary work. The central duet for the sublime Leanne Benjamin and Ed Watson is the jewel in this 24-carat setting but there are many golden moments in the spiky, undulating pools of movement that flow throughout the piece.

Wheeldon had introduced the programme – and Commedia, in particular – with an endearingly informal front-of-house talk but the subsequent works were all front-ended with pieces of film. Perhaps it’s a legacy Wheeldon has inherited from his *Strictly Bolshoi* _relationship with the BalletBoyz, who also tend to interweave their dances with explanatory – and generally funny – films, but I hope that Christopher thinks again since these films did nothing to enhance the experience of the dance. In particular the one introducing Tim Harbour’s work gave us ambiguous information that was better left unsaid. After this pretentious beginning, the opening movement of _Leaving Songs was actually quite beautiful, with an organism of connected, rippling bodies moving in a soft, wriggling pattern. Like Commedia, it left me with the immediate feeling of wanting to see it again. The group’s performance, however, seemed unable to match the precision of the synchronised movement in Harbour’s second section and there were a number of obvious timing issues amongst the ensemble that will hopefully be corrected with further practice. I felt the same about the occasional lack of harmony in some of the group movement in both Commedia and Boléro.

One dancer who did stand out was Rubinald Pronk, a superbly agile and charismatic performer who, together with his regular partner – Drew Jacoby – performed the Lightfoot and León duet, Softly As I Leave You. The use of Bach’s Kyrie and Arvo Pärt’s haunting Spiegel im Spiegel immediately activates an emotional response and the powerful Jacoby/Pronk partnership drove this advantage home with a significant mutual passion.

The final piece was Alexei Ratmansky’s Boléro, again introduced by a fairly meaningless film. Ratmansky and Wheeldon are the kings of modern ballet choreography, as far as I’m concerned, and Ratmansky’s take on Ravel’s iconic melody (originally made in 2001) is a good test for The Wheeldon Company, led here by the incomparable Wendy Whelan and Edwaard Liaang (both Morphoses’ members from day one). I particularly love the way that Ratmansky plays with the pace of the choreography in response to the accelerated urgency of the music, slowing the movement down at times when any ordinary choreographer would have gone with the faster flow.

It’s excellent to see Wheeldon’s company becoming increasingly more assured at each visit, building up a nest of its own accomplished dancers (Jacoby, Pronk and Crawford are outstanding additions to the team) and establishing a repertoire of the best in modern choreography. My only concern is that we see them too infrequently here in London and I’m rather hoping that this may change in years to come.

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