Review: Royal Ballet- Chroma/The Human Seasons/The Rite of Spring - Royal Opera House

Performance: 9, 13, 19, 20, 23 November 2013
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 11 November 2013

The Royal Ballet's Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae in 'The Human Seasons. Photo: Bill Cooper, courtesy ROH.

Performance reviewed: 9 November 2013

It has taken a long time for David Dawson to return. A Londoner, trained at The Royal Ballet School, his dance career took Dawson to the Netherlands and Germany, where the urge to make work led to its premature demise. At around the age of 30, Dawson gave up dancing to concentrate energies full-time in developing his craft as a choreographer. His successes came thick and fast and Dawson’s work now resides in the repertory of many of the world’s great ballet companies. But, although he returned to the UK to make Faun(e) for English National Ballet in 2009, The Human Seasons is his first commission for The Royal Ballet. Given that the company already has three male choreographers in various degrees of residency (Wayne McGregor, Christopher Wheeldon and Liam Scarlett) it must be difficult for any other man to find the room to break in. And, it would seem, quite impossible for any woman.

Having waited so long for the chance, it’s the worst of programming for Dawson’s gentle, lyrical choreography to have been sandwiched between two of the most impactful works in The Royal Ballet’s repertory. Chroma is not quite as stunning as when first released by the company in 2006 but it retains a mighty effect and Kenneth McMillan’s interpretation of an ancient pagan ritual with which to illustrate Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring has lost little of its visceral impact as it approaches a century of performances at The Royal Opera House. Frankly, Dawson’s work was completely over-powered in this mix.

His choreography transforms classical ballet with deeper and more extended movements and emphasises beautiful upper body shapes but these shiny embellishments might then be counteracted by having a ballerina dragged across the floor or dancers running around, yearningly looking earnest. Generally, he plays to their strengths, a fact ably illustrated in a memorable early solo for Stephen McRae, which has him spinning round the stage like a record on a deck (at 78 rpm) and in a sophisticated duet for Lauren Cuthbertson and Edward Watson; but I winced each time that Marianela Nuñez was dragged around the floor en pointe or, worse still, by the seat of her pants. To be fair, there were some gorgeous moments in her pas de deux with Federico Bonelli but it seemed to me that assimilating a carcass being dragged from the abattoir is no way to treat such an exceptional ballerina.

Dawson’s choreography suffered through being displayed in a monolithic and unattractive box, one monstrous corner of which looked like a giant 1960s desk blotter folded in the middle. Occasionally, some creeping light flowed across the set like a fluorescent zip-fastener or a trickle of golden oil creeping down the tin and this provided a temporary invigoration to an otherwise dispiriting design. In all other respects the lighting was more of a hindrance and I couldn’t see the sense in having bright light reflecting off dancers’ shoulders where their faces (and mostly everything else) were masked in dusk. The costumes by Yumiko Takeshima and original score by Greg Haines were similarly uninspiring, all adding to an overall impression that Dawson was not helped to create any lasting impact by his various long-term collaborators.

I found it difficult to make any meaningful connection between the choreography and an implied narrative based upon Keats’ eponymous poem, which likens the four seasons to the ‘mind of man’ (lusty in spring, contented in autumn etc). All of these concerns are a pity because within the dance there were many moments that could be treasured but they sparkled only intermittently within this cavernous and dingy setting.

Chroma had a massive impact when first shown on this stage, a fact confirmed by this being the third revival in the seven subsequent years (set against several new ballets of the past decade having apparently been packed away for good). In contrast to The Human Seasons, it is a ballet that is greatly enriched by design and lighting and draws enormous power from the gloriously interwoven music of Joby Talbot and Jack White III (of The White Stripes). Chroma can only continue to reap the rewards of these enormous benefits, the quality of which is there for good, but the usual sharpness of the choreography was blunted by some uncharacteristic awkwardness, especially in the opening numbers. This time around, however, I was drawn especially to the quieter, more reflective moments. Eric Underwood, in particular, was superb.

If anyone left at the second interval then they could have been forgiven for thinking that The Royal Ballet was a small company since seven of the eight principals in The Human Season had been amongst the ten-strong cast of Chroma. It seems odd (and in a worrying way) that such a small elite should carry so much work.

The Rite of Spring looks fresh and brilliant despite being one of the late Kenneth MacMillan’s earliest successes. He created the ballet in 1962, a date that now conveniently sits almost at the halfway point between the Parisian premiere of Stravinsky’s epoch-making score and it’s centenary. These performances are a late addition to the plethora of choreographic interpretations that have littered this celebratory year and they show that MacMillan’s striking invention and musicality stands the test of time.

Looking through the lengthy cast list, I was taken by the sea change in personnel with many new names replacing those in the last revival, and yet it retains all the same powerful characteristics, which must stem from expert coaching and each dancer passing on the intricacies of their role within the group dynamic to their successors. It is easy to focus attention on Zenaida Yanowsky’s mature and meaningful performance as the Chosen One but the real success of this ballet lies in the tremendous integration of the whole company performing these complex rhythms as if a single organism.

MacMillan’s lasting success with this ballet has gained traction from the astounding imagery in Sidney Nolan’s designs and the same can be said for the team that helped McGregor to make Chroma look so good. Both will remain cornerstones of The Royal Ballet’s repertory for decades ahead because of this holistic achievement that owes almost as much to design as to the choreography. Unfortunately, the new ballet on this programme is so significantly undersold by its designs and music that I feel it is destined to be quickly forgotten.

Further performances on 13, 19, 20, 23 November 2013

Photos: Bill Cooper, courtesy ROH

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.

Your Comments

  1. Symeon Kyriakopoulos 20 November 2013

    I totally agree about Dawson's piece. I thought it was a great choreography but the set design was so "dry" and the costumes lacked any kind of imagination. The lighting was also bad. It makes me choreographers have a saying in those aspects in their piece?

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