Review: Royal Ballet - Les Enfants Terribles – Barbican

Performance: 27 - 29 January
Reviewed by Siobhan Murphy - Monday 30 January 2017

Photo: Rick Guest

Performance reviewed: January 28

The composer Philip Glass finished his trilogy of operas celebrating the extraordinary avant-garde imagination of Jean Cocteau with Les Enfants Terribles, a dark, twisting tale of sibling obsession. In Glass’s hands, Cocteau’s 1929 novel morphed into a “dance-opera”: for the Barbican’s Glass at 80 celebrations, Javier de Frutos created a completely new choreography for the piece, and drew in a delicious combination of top classical and contemporary dancers to perform it.

De Frutos makes his intention clear from the start. There is no explicit mention of incest in Cocteau’s novel, or the 1950 film adaptation, which depicts an orphaned brother and sister who play a psychologically torturous Game that eventually subsumes reality with deadly effect. Yet, circling and cavorting in a roll top bathtub in a silent prelude, De Frutos’s iteration of Paul and Lise is a seethingly sexual one. There’s also an awful lot of them. Four couples dance Paul and Lise, often simultaneously, while Gyula Nagy and Jennifer Davis are the singing versions of them. This is less confusing than you might suppose. While Nagy (marvellously petulant) and Davis are antagonistic and confrontational as the siblings who become more and more delusional as their isolation increases, their dance “shadows” reveal the explicit sensual desire driving this toxic relationship.

The dramatic force of sheer numbers, particularly as the story hurtles towards its terrible denouement, is bolstered by the skill of the dancers. Zenaida Yanowsky (showing simple but luminous pointe work) and Edward Watson are the principal Lise and Paul; Jonathan Goddard, Kristen McNally, Clemmie Sveaas and Thomasin Gülgeç are also in the cast. They add layers and complexity as individual dancers and in torquing, jagged combinations – the downside is you never feel you see enough of any one of these talents.

De Frutos’s angry swirl of activity is often uncompromising, reacting aggressively to Glass’s challenging score for three pianos. More than once, we’re flung out of the fantasy by the cast coming out of character to effect deliberately noisy set changes – a disruption that reminds us we’re all in on the Game? And there’s a suitably Buñuelian touch when all the cast create a debauched Last Supper scene.

Narrative clarity is given through Tal Rosner’s projected video work, which enlivens Jean-Marc Puissant’s sectional, revolving grey and dirty-white set, while narration (in English, while the singing is in French) is provided by the character of Gerard (Paul Curievici), a hapless but willing participant in the siblings’ Game. At times, though, there is too much happening at once to take in – surtitles to read, various danced vignettes occurring across the stage. It is, nevertheless, a powerful interpretation of madness and vicious passion.

Les Enfants Terribles at the Barbican, January 27-29 2017

Siobhan Murphy is a freelance writer and editor, who also contributes to Dancetabs and Time Out. Find her on Twitter @blacktigerlily

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