Review: Royal Ballet - The Four Temperaments / Untouchable / Song of the Earth - Royal Opera House

Performance: 27 March - 14 April 2015
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Saturday 28 March 2015

Triple Bill - Royal Ballet - Artists of The Royal Ballet in 'Untouchable'
Photo: Tristram Kenton ©ROH, 2015

Performance reviewed: 27 March

Innovation and dislocation were the accidental themes of this challenging triple bill; featuring over two hours of dance flavoured only by the merest hints of subject matter, without narrative or any other unifying idea.

The Four Temperaments was made by a Russian-born choreographer relocated to the USA, as part of a double bill that launched the Ballet Society, in November 1946. This subscriber-supported, non-profit organisation was invented by Lincoln Kirstein and the choreographer, George Balanchine. Their idea to rekindle post-war interest in classical ballet was to grow – within a couple of years – into the New York City Ballet. It is also seen as the beginning of a new direction for the choreographer – the forerunner to the pared-down, more puritanical, rehearsal studio feel to later classics such as Agon (1957), although in truth it took Balanchine several revisions, culminating in a televised performance in 1977, more than 30 years after its premiere, to arrive at the final choreography.

Song of the Earth was also an innovative production achieved only through the dislocation of its creator. It was the realisation of a choreographic dream that the powers-that-be at the Royal Opera House (back in 1965) felt could not work, so the dream maker (Kenneth MacMillan) took his concept of setting Mahler’s excruciatingly poignant Das Lied von der Erde to Stuttgart, where he was welcomed with open arms.

It is certainly innovative for Hofesh Shechter to have been asked to make a work on The Royal Ballet – a decision exemplifying that director, Kevin O’Hare, has a keen feel for dance fashion amongst the young – and since much of this choreographer’s work is politically motivated (albeit, as he says, with a small “p”), his own history as an Israeli dislocated to Southern England, brings much to bear on his sense of theatre and choreographic style. His work carries a fierce undercurrent of rage against all manners of political indoctrination, injustice, colonialism and anti-Semitism, as well as a tendency to lay his own personality bare. More than any UK-based choreographer today, Shechter seems to capture the mood of the times and his role as a composer as well as choreographer of the work he directs gives it a firmly-rooted holism, which has all the elements of his stage productions functioning as something greater than their component parts.

The downside of the ubiquitous principles exercised in his work is that elements cross-over from one piece to another. I was hoping that this innovative commission for The Royal Ballet might be applied more inventively but what we got was a Hofesh Shechter Company work made on different dancers. Perhaps, it was wrong to expect anything else but from the moment that his 20-strong ensemble opened up by marching menacingly downstage from out of the darkness, I had the feeling that nothing was new. Indeed, Untouchable was replete with leit motifs that often appear within Shechter’s choreographic style.

Let me not deny that there were many arresting moments throughout the half-hour piece, especially in the choreographer’s uncanny command of a large ensemble, making it move fluidly as if a single organism. One particular movement sequence early on had the dancers clustered into a rough circle, with the inner core contracting and the outer edge peeling away. It was like watching humans’ replicate time-lapse photography of a flower budding and then dying. These were moments of beauty in a war-torn landscape.

It also looked fun to dance and Shechter’s insistence on not pandering to the hierarchy of The Royal Ballet by choosing only dancers at the level of Soloist or Artist is commendable and must have helped create the unity of co-operative purpose that he clearly seeks to achieve. I’m sure that it must have taken these 20 ballet dancers some while to acquire the non-balletic, earthier, heavier force of his movement but they certainly got it as one. The bespoke music was co-written by Shechter and Nell Catchpole (his regular musical collaborator) and included sampling from the late Consuelo Velázquez’s 1940 song Bésame Mucho (kiss me a lot, as much as you can). The indistinct, repeated text caused much conjecture in the interval with the favoured alternatives being “Not farting” and “Nigel Farage”! I was quick to point out that the latter couldn’t be possible on the eve of a General Election campaign, since – as a publicly-funded body – The Royal Opera House would have had to insist that all the other party leaders’ names were given equal airtime!

Untouchable was dark (employing the usual, largely sombre lighting effects of Lee Curran); it had a militaristic feel (helped by the combat-style costumes of Holly Waddington and the parade ground lines); it was almost biology viewed under a microscope in terms of the fluid patterns achieved with 20 bodies in Shechter’s excellent use of space. It certainly extends the artistic boundaries of The Royal Ballet and one felt that the dancers chosen by Shechter greatly enjoyed the challenge. I enjoyed it although retaining a question mark about whether the company isn’t becoming too diverse in the extension of its natural territory; I also question whether Untouchable would not have sat better in a programme of all-new work (or at least 21st century work) – perhaps in between Wayne McGregor’s Chroma and Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV, for example – rather than as the centrepiece, between work of a wholly different kind.

The Four Temperaments was beautifully performed with an especially outstanding rendition of the Phlegmatic variation by Edward Watson that sensitised my alertness to a high degree. I’m guessing that New Yorkers might still argue that the Royal’s dancers don’t have the attacking flair of their homegrown experts but I thought they did a damn fine job.

Song of the Earth, by contrast, felt a tad under-rehearsed, especially in the opening song where it seemed that one key dancer moved on the wrong count (and had to step back to wait for the right moment). Nonetheless, this is a work of such masterful composition that it rises above any indifference in performance. The singing of Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Samuel Sakker was heavenly; Marianela Nuñez continued her run of flawless opening nights in the 2014/15 season with an indelible and wistful account of the woman; Carlos Acosta haunted the songs as the surprisingly earthy Messenger of Death; and Thiago Soares had a yearning, suitably tragic quality as the man being stalked by death. It just needs a bit more tidying up amongst the cast and it will be back to its best.

These are each excellent and very attractive works, in very different ways. In a counter-intuitive response to the holism of Shechter’s modus operandii, if they are reduced to a consideration entirely on their own account, all would be fine. However, they didn’t work together.

There is something about the politics of dance that considers itself untouchable in terms of cultural norms. I can’t imagine a successful classical music concert that would begin and end with colossal works of the early twentieth century (Hindemith and Mahler) and stick a previously unheard aural potpourri of electronica and thumping drums in the middle. Add in the fact that the composer/choreographer had (by choice) never heard or seen the works on either side of his world premiere and the result is likely to be a mis-match and that’s exactly what it was.

Continues in rep: 30 March, 8, 10, 14 April.

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, 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 and of the National Dance Awards.

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