Review: Royal Ballet - Cassandra - Linbury Studio Theatre

Performance: 30 October - 1 November 2014
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 31 October 2014

Royal Ballet 'Cassandra' Olivia Cowley and Thomas Whitehead. Photo: Andrej Uspenski, courtesy ROH, 2014

This performance was not only the world premiere of Cassandra, but also that of its choreographer, Ludovic Ondiviela, a young man who recently resigned as a Royal Ballet dancer (after 11 years with the company) to concentrate on making his own dance instead of performing other people’s steps. Ondiviela has many small-scale works to his credit – in programmes like The Royal Ballet’s First Drafts and last year’s Dopamine (you make me silly) for Ballet Black – but Cassandra represents his first major step on the journey to becoming a world-class choreographer. And, on this evidence, I don’t doubt his arrival at that destination, sooner rather than later.

Credit must go to Royal Ballet director, Kevin O’Hare, for giving his former dancer this golden opportunity of three nights in the Linbury Studio Theatre, a perfect venue for this piece in every sense. The Royal Ballet is brimful of elite choreographers (no less than three of them – Wayne McGregor, Christopher Wheeldon and Liam Scarlett – have official titles) and here is another to join the queue. It is only a pity that, thus far, the only dancers to make the successful transition to full-time choreographer through the company ranks have all been male.

I particularly like the fact that Ondiviela has taken a deep dive into a very big pool for the subject of his first major work, linking the mythical story of Cassandra into a modern day narrative about mental illness (Ondiviela has spoken of the fact that psychosis is still often referred to as the Cassandra Syndrome). His contemporary character of that name works in a call centre, obviously linked to the financial services industry, and the ballet traces Cassandra’s psychiatric unravelling, viewed through interactions with her family, a lover and sundry medical staff.

In the absence of Lauren Cuthbertson through injury (a ballerina who has suffered the most awful bad luck in recent years), Olivia Cowley stepped up to the plate to give an assured and ethereal performance in the title role. Her facial expressions seemed to be painted on porcelain, an allusion that emphasised her vulnerability to be cracked or broken at any time. Here was an under-stated delivery of such alabaster purity, gradually opening up to reveal the spiral of distress and pathos caused by her character’s deteriorating mental torment.

An exciting aspect of this production was the welcome return to Covent Garden of Mara Galeazzi in the role of the Mother. Always a powerfully expressive performer with her own distinct soft quality of movement, Ondiviela gave her many choreographic opportunities to remind us of Galeazzi’s special gifts as an absorbing dance actress. Yuhui Choe (as the Nurse) had a unique opportunity to perform a duet with herself (on film), which provided a welcome divertissement from the pathos of Cassandra’s mental disintegration. Alongside Galeazzi, Ondiviela employed two of The Royal Ballet’s most experienced male dancers, Gary Avis (as the Doctor) and Thomas Whitehead (as the Lover) and it was welcome to see them both get more of a chance to dance in place of their usual character roles. Whitehead’s sentimental, yearning central duet with Cowley was a choreographic highlight and the dance reunion of Avis and Galeazzi was a personal highlight for me.

Ondiviela demonstrates a good eye for pacing his 70-minute work, punctuating it with refreshing moments of humour such as the aforementioned Choe “duet” and by introducing Galeazzi as the Mother when she turns on an old-fashioned Roberts radio in the kitchen and Charles Trenet’s La Mer (La Mère, get it!) is playing. As the song progresses, atmospheric interruptions signpost the fact that all is not well in this household.

The downside to Ondiviela’s introduction to big ballets is a common mistake for those learning the craft, which is simply that he throws too many ideas into play, thus over-powering the narrative and choreography. He shares the creative limelight with singer-songwriter Ana Silvera, and film-maker Kate Church, and while Silvera’s score is effective, having her singing live onstage (as the Ancient Cassandra) seems an unnecessary complication. Church’s opening wet and windswept landscape provides an impactful beginning but thereafter, I struggled to find much other than the passing interest of visual contrast in the added value of the filmed contribution.

Some elements of the design and dramaturgy were cliché-ridden: the opening sequence, danced around tables that looked variously like post office counters or the tables at which prison visits are made, but apparently representing a call centre, has the feel of a ’60s musical – it could have been straight out of a scene in Thoroughly Modern Millie or Hello Dolly! The later hospital sequences, largely represented by moveable white screens and performers walking around in white coats, showed a similarly hackneyed approach to the subject.

Nonetheless, Ondiviela has scored a hit with his first major work and, importantly, it is the music and his choreography that are the most successful components, especially in terms of weaving key solos and duets amongst the group to help introduce and describe characters and their relationships. With this difficult skill already at his disposal, coupled with an excellent eye in casting to maximise the impact of his work, I have no doubt that Ondiviela will quickly become a choreographer in demand.

Continues until 1 November. Return tickets only

Photo: Olivia Cowley and Thomas Whitehead. Photo: Andrej Uspenski, courtesy ROH, 2014

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 and the National Dance Awards in the UK.

Leave a comment

You must be signed in to post comments.

Sign in now

What’s On