Review: Royal Ballet - Connectome / The Dream / The Concert - Royal Opera House

Performance: 31 May - 13 June 2014
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 6 June 2014

Alexander Campbell, Solomon Golding, Matthew Ball and Nicol Edmonds in 'Connectome'. Photo: Bill Cooper, courtesy ROH

Performance reviewed: 5 June

June is bustin’ out all over this amusing mixed programme, which signals both the beginning of summer and the bell for the last lap of The Royal Ballet’s 2013/14 season. Opening with the events of a certain midsummer’s night in a wood somewhere near Athens, forever immortalised by Shakespeare and captured in ballet and pantomime so quintessentially – exactly half-a-century ago – by Frederick Ashton; and closing with another comic gem – surprisingly almost 60 years’ old – in Jerome Robbins’ The Concert, with its warming, quirky reveries loosely themed around images randomly conjured from the piano music of Chopin.

If there is something of the gentle sophistication of an Ealing Comedy about Ashton’s staging of The Dream then the more physical humour of The Concert comes straight out of the same basket that made the comic pianist, Victor Borge a huge star in the US. Robert Clark’s preparations at the piano, a silent opening to The Concert – where he can’t find his glasses, struggles to raise the piano stool and wipes a mini-sandstorm of dust from the keys – almost mimics the beginning of a Borge show, perhaps from 1956, the year in which Robbins made this piece as his contribution to that era of zany US comedy.

These two long-established illustrations of ballet humour at its best were wrapped around a new work by Alastair Marriott, entitled Connectome, which apparently describes a sort of mental DNA: the notion that the connections in the brain – linking aspects of memory, personality and intellect – are all encoded to shape our individual identities. Well, it seems an obvious concept but until Mr Marriott pointed it out, I didn’t know it had a name. Leaving aside the current predilection of Royal Ballet choreographers to give their work titles that seem intended to keep sub-editors on their mettle – often taken from science (or sometimes just made up) – this was an extraordinary new work, which deserved a name to match.

It’s a rare occurrence these days to find new ballets in which all the collaborative creative elements come together with an equal force but Marriott and his team have achieved that level of excellence. The extraordinary set designs – essentially a forest of radiant, luminescent poles – by the uber-talented Es Devlin are raised to an even greater level of impact by Bruno Poet’s lighting and provide an absorbing, mottled canvas for Luke Halls’ video design. This has greatest effect in projecting the head of an indistinct, mottled, giant “goddess” onto the structure of the raised rods, singing to the Lilliputian world below. The ripple effect of the lighting on the structured rises and falls of the rods was spectacular. By a unique coincidence, I watched a rehearsal of Russell Maliphant’s award-winning AfterLight at Sadler’s Wells on the same day as this performance (Devlin has regularly collaborated with Maliphant and his lighting designer, Michael Hulls) and a continuum of the same mutually-supportive integration of design, lighting and choreography is evident here in Connectome. The music of Arvo Pärt is, these days, much over-used for dance but it strikes just the right balance and intimacy throughout the piece.

The phosphorescent forest also acted as a fascinating downstage lens through which to focus on the dancers, not least in the inspiring opening of viewing Natalia Osipova jumping enthusiastically, through the “trees”, while realising that hidden silently within them were motionless men. Any sinister connotation evaporated with the first raising of the “forest” and there is nothing but playfulness and joy in this little group of seven. Osipova is the sole ballerina but she is almost anything but the traditional image of a ballet dancer. Borrowing a reference from another Jerome Robbins’ production (West Side Story), she could have been the Anybodys of this gang (and there was certainly a “tomboy” quality to her strength of attitude) but this was no tag-along, token female. If anything she was the Riff of these Jets, the leader and certainly the star. Osipova would elevate the quality of the most mundane choreography but here she glistens in a work of great worth.

Steven McRae and Edward Watson provide strong support as her twin partners and four young men from the corps de ballet (Luca Acri, Matthew Ball, Tomas Mock and Marcelino Sambé) made every good use of this chance to plant themselves in our consciousness through their lyrical gambols in this futuristic “woodland”. Although appreciating that – in keeping with the inspiration for the work – the rods are more likely to represent the wiring of a human brain, it did seem that the theme of merry capers in the woods had somehow carried over from David Walker’s wonderful designs for The Dream.

Marriott has long been a choreographer of note at The Royal Ballet – his first work for the main stage was Tanglewood, in 2005, since when he has made two other works and collaborated with Christopher Wheeldon in one of the triptych of ballets that comprised the Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 programme. Although he has consistently created work for the Royal Ballet School, this is not a huge output for a “home team” man and perhaps Marriott has suffered in comparison with some of the more recent crop of talented (and I must stress, invariably male) choreographers to emerge from the ranks of company dancers. The Royal Ballet already has three choreographers with a status – Wayne McGregor (Resident), Christopher Wheeldon (Artistic Associate) and Liam Scarlett (Artist in Residence) – and I doubt if there is room – or indeed an unused title – for another in this elite queue but with Connectome, Marriott has reminded us that he too is able to create a work of the highest order and, perhaps more pertinently, he knows how to choose and make the best out of a creative team. In this regard, it would be remiss not to give due credit to Jonathan Howells, Marriott’s assistant who also designed the simple, yet stunning, costumes for Connectome.

The performance of The Dream was a great credit to the company on the half-centenary of one of its finest works. McRae and Roberta Marquez were glorious as Titania and Oberon – a match made in fairy heaven, perhaps with a little help from the very first Oberon (Sir Anthony Dowell) in the precision of his staging for these performances. The humour and poignancy of the four potion-crossed lovers was superb and Bennet Gartside’s Bottom is an ass of a very different colour to any other. Thinking of Bottom somehow reminds me of comedian Ade Edmondson and if either of his comic characters “Vyvyan” or “Eddie Hitler” could stand on pointe then the comedy would be in a similar vein (perhaps the orange hair helps). The whole ensemble was a credit to the special comedy timing required for The Concert, which made this programme first class entertainment from start-to-finish. Go, if you can.

In rep until 13 June
www.roh.org.uk

Photos: Bill Cooper, courtesy ROH

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He writes for londondance.com, Dancetabs.com, Dancing Times, Dance Europe and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and of the National Dance Awards in the UK.

Leave a comment

You must be signed in to post comments.

Sign in now

What’s On

Join us

Sign up for email updates from dance venues & companies, special offers, updates on new site features & to access our noticeboard, jobs & auditions.

Follow us

Keep in touch with us online