Review: Royal Ballet - Apollo / 24 Preludes / Aeternum - Royal Opera House

Performance: 22, 23 February 7, 9 & 14 March 2013
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 25 February 2013

Artists of The Royal Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon's 'Aeternum'. Photo Johan Persson, courtesy ROH

Apollo / 24 Preludes / Aeternum
Performance reviewed: 22 February

It requires a strong nerve to present a world premiere as a follow-up to George Balanchine’s Apollo , certainly one of the most innovative and influential works of the twentieth century. At least Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon could hold hands in facing these inevitable comparisons, not to mention that having both spent some considerable time creating new work in the USA they have lots of prior form in facing up to Balanchine (who was active in New York for most of his choreographic career).

If we might imagine an Olympic competition for the best classical choreographer working today then Ratmansky and Wheeldon would have prior claim to the top podium places. And this elite quality is certainly evident in their newest works. I doubt that there is a more skilled crafter of classical ballet alive today than Ratmansky, nor one better able to tackle complex musical structures, than Wheeldon.

Ratmansky’s unimaginatively titled work – I suppose that 24 Preludes says what it is on the tin – has the immediate challenge of a brave musical choice. Does Jean Françaix’s orchestration of Chopin’s preludes improve upon the composer’s own medium for the composition? Well, in my humble view, musically the answer is unequivocally negative; but as a setting for dance, I’m more convinced. 24 Preludes was bound to draw comparisons with Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering and In the Night , other plotless works set to Chopin’s compositions, especially if Ratmansky’s dances were performed to the pure, unadulterated pianism. The adulteration doesn’t do Chopin any favours, adding layers of lushness to the flawless clarity of the original music: but, on the other hand it distances this work from both the Robbins’ Chopin-inspired choreography (now both in the Royal’s repertoire) and Ratmansky’s own Seven Sonatas (also to keyboard compositions, by Scarlatti); and it provides a unifying framework for what are essentially 24 miniature dances (some lasting less than a minute). As someone said to me in the interval, the orchestration probably made it “less bitty”!

I might add that the designs do little to help. The men appear to be wearing heavily belted chain-mail tops and the women are in an assortment of glittery, party frocks. There is no set design as such (not a bad thing) but the backdrop provides a quasi-meteorological theme with what appears to be a skyscape routinely changing with the emphasis of Neil Austin’s lighting design.

Like Balanchine before him, Ratmansky’s choreography takes the best of Russian and Western characteristics in order to create fluid compositions that use the precise classical language of ballet but stitched together in an exciting way. By definition, the steps are not innovative. Much of what is being done can be seen in the centre work combinations of advanced professional ballet classes the world over but Ratmansky crafts the dance with an alchemical skill. Moreover, he fits the steps with great empathy to his cast of eight dancers (amongst whom only Valeri Hristov – a first soloist – is not a principal) drawing out their own personal characters and strengths in the work that he ascribes to them. It will be interesting to see how this translates to a second cast (although, oddly, this only gets one shot at performing, on the final night). This is an event for frolicking couples with some minor complicating dalliances thrown in to enable a small group of pas de trois. Excepting Steven McRae’s extravagant bravura, I thought that the work illustrated the comparative weaknesses in the Royal Ballet’s male retinue compared with the strength it has in the ranks of the principal ballerinas. All in all, however, it is a work to be seen again and again to enable the full panoply of Ratmansky’s magic to be absorbed. It will be a keeper.

Wheeldon’s Aeternum was – at around 20 minutes – half the length of 24 Preludes. It seems too short, almost as if it were a triptych missing the middle panel, although the three movements in Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem are reflected by three movements in the ballet.

It opens strongly with a similar dynamism to his DGV: Danse á grande vitesse, Wheeldon’s finest work for the Royal Ballet to date, and unsurprisingly shares the same set designer (Jean-Mark Puissant) who brings a strong angular, almost prehistoric feel to the work. Credit also to the fact that Wheeldon does not take a traditional approach to this as a Requiem but emphasises instead the notion of “forever”: taking us into a continuing afterlife instead of mourning a loss. And to do so, he is aided impressively by Marianela Nuñez, for whom this brief ballet is a tour de force: from the ebullience of her first part duet with Nehemiah Kish to the poignancy of her concluding pas de deux with Federico Bonelli. Wheeldon also brings us some moments of quiet innovation, not least when the seated Nuñez raises her right leg as if a rifle, aiming it into the orchestra stalls. I was less impressed by the mid-section and the whole piece suffered from low light, which seems increasingly to be a modern fad, but this was the best new Wheeldon for the Royal Ballet since DGV and a fitting tribute to Britten on the centenary of his birth.

It would have been a miracle if either world premiere had matched the matchless Apollo, in which wonderful, challenging music is fused with iconic, articulate choreography and a clear no-nonsense structure. The title role is one which Carlos Acosta chooses to perform for himself in his own productions and he danced with relish, respect and aplomb. Nuñez was again strong in her debut as Terpsichore (what a very special night for her), not least because she succeeded in harmonising with Olivia Cowley and Itziar Mendizabal as the other muses (respectively Calliope and Polyhymnia). It is not an easy thing when you are not used to dancing in harmony with other ballerinas. It was a special evening for Mayara Magri as one of the handmaidens. She has not previously featured in a Royal Ballet cast list but I feel sure she is destined to be a principal in not too many years.

So, the courage paid off. Apollo may still be without equal but Kevin O’Hare’s first season as Director continues to build up a head of steam and these two new commissions are strong investments for the future. His next task must be to bolster an under-strength roster of male principals.

Further performances: 7, 9 & 14 March 2013

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK.

Photos: Johan Persson, courtesy, ROH

Leave a comment

You must be signed in to post comments.

Sign in now

What’s On