Review: Royal Ballet - Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 - Royal Opera House
Reviewed: 14 July
One well-worn maxim asserts that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. This ideal seems to underpin the creation of great art where the norm is for a single composer, artist or author and, in the world of dance, a lone choreographer. Rarely, if ever, is art created by a committee – but, in the world of architecture and industry, the buildings that we inhabit and the infrastructure and products that dominate our lives have generally been designed by an integrated team.
For her farewell programme as Director of The Royal Ballet, Dame Monica Mason has stepped right outside of the comfort zone that has governed most of the decision-making during her tenure. Inspired by the suggestion for a creative collaboration with The National Gallery as part of the Cultural Olympiad, the concept for her valedictory performance has evolved into a group exercise for seven choreographers, three composers and three designers, plus an associated corps of other consultants. But has she constructed a “design committee” or an integrated team?
There was a very clear brief, which is a promising start. Every effort has been focused on bringing a modern slant to three Titian masterpieces – from the series of seven large mythological works inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses and described by Titian himself as the “poesies” – painted when the artist was over 70. The three works, all now owned in some way by the British nation, form the inspiration for this ballet triptych and the centrepiece to a concurrent exhibition in The National Gallery. They each concern the hunting goddess, Diana: one portrays the moment that Callisto’s pregnancy (by Jupiter) is discovered and the nymph is exiled by her enraged boss; and the other two tell the sorry tale of the naked Diana being discovered bathing by the young hunter, Actaeon, whom she then transforms into a deer that is hunted and devoured by Actaeon’s own hounds.
The outcome of this daring and unusual risk-taking is a very mixed bag with the good, the bad and the ugly spread across all three works. The balance of much of the good lies in the choreography and music, with the design elements generally appearing to be much less successful. An honourable exception lies in the power of the very colourful set designs and backdrop by Chris Ofili – an artist who has never worked in this medium before – for the Diana and Actaeon finale. The giant robot that dominates the Conrad Shawcross designs for the first part, Machina, had little impact for me since, placed at the back of the stage, much of it could not be seen from our seats at the back of the stalls circle (although it could certainly be heard). In any event, the machine’s movement appeared to be haphazard and uncoordinated with the dancers. I thought that the light-bearing extendable arm had broken down because it was stationary for so long. The set design for the middle work, Trespass, by Mark Wallinger seemed more suited to a bathroom trade exhibition; and again it created spaces on the stage where the action could not be seen from my seat. To my mind, these are unforgivable design errors.
Three new musical scores – by Nico Muhly (a baroque influence for Machina), Mark-Anthony Turnage (a magnificent panorama for Trespass) and Jonathan Dove (a piece that reminded me of*Janá?ek’s* style for Diana and Actaeon) – had to be absorbed by the ROH Orchestra, working – of necessity – under three different conductors. This was perhaps the most complex undertaking of the evening and the orchestra performed brilliantly with music that deserves to have a long life.
It is a shame (understandable perhaps, but nonetheless a shame) that all seven choreographers are male. Add in the composers, designers, librettist and the choreographers’ assistant and we have a committee of fifteen men responsible for creating this work. What on earth does this say about diversity in the arts? Thank heavens for Lucy Carter – the lighting designer for all three pieces – but really it is a serious own goal by both The National Gallery and The Royal Ballet to have allowed such inequality. There are outstanding young women choreographers around – at least one of whom is on the staff of The Royal Ballet – and a bit of thought could have redressed this lack of balance.
In Machina the pieces by Wayne McGregor and Kim Brandstrup were so obviously different that it seemed as if two very separate works had been spliced together. By far the best moments came in a creamy concluding pas de deux (clearly by Brandstrup) although an earlier duet by McGregor also had some strong elements and the duet for Carlos Acosta with the robot had a potential that never quite materialised. The most integrated choreography came in Trespass where it was impossible to see the join between the work of Alastair Marriott and Christopher Wheeldon. This included a remarkably inventive duet for Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb. But, it was the concept of the final work that appealed to me most, perhaps because (rightly in my view) Mason instructed this trio of choreographers to tell the story of ‘Diana and Actaeon’, rather than some abstract representation of it. Liam Scarlett, Will Tuckett and Jonathan Watkins each took a separate group (respectively the Nymphs, the Hounds and the Hunt) and this method of working seemed to have created a positive driving force. Although I loved the impact of Ofili’s scenery, I thoroughly disliked his costumes. As Diana, Marianela Nuñez looked like a cross between The Firebird – only plucked – and a red hot Chilli Pepper. In a ridiculous wig and make-up, she certainly didn’t look like Marianela Nuñez, which is a negative on any day of the week. Also, the idea of having the hounds represented by dancers carrying a dog’s head on a stick didn’t work (actually more than one looked like a pig’s head, which was very confusing). In their first scene, they looked like puppeteers carrying Sooty and Sweep but these then turned into a pack of vicious Hounds of the Baskervilles, devouring poor Actaeon (Federico Bonelli in perhaps his most vacant role yet) in an over-melodramatic death scene. It all looked ridiculous and the choreography suffers needlessly as a result.
Across the triptych, dancers made it look good wherever they could with strong performances by Acosta, Lamb, McRae, Ed Watson, Tamara Rojo, Leanne Benjamin, Nehemiah Kish, Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Melissa Hamilton. No-one could have asked more of them. I was a little sorry to see that Rojo’s final performance before leaving the company was so inconsequential but I suppose that, having waited years to have new work made on her, it is ironic that she should leave on the back of a new piece, however miniature it may have been.
The happiest moment came with Mason’s own curtain call when she came running onto the stage, leaping around with unabashed and unaccustomed glee. It was touching and she deserves praise for piloting a steady ship away from some turbulent waters at the time that she took the helm. It has been an unremarkable decade in terms of new adventures but one in which the quality and richness of the existing repertoire has been polished with great care and attention. Perhaps her excitement at the end shows that the adventurous spirit has been there all along, but budgets and other pressures have kept the company doing what it knows best? In any event, this final show – male dominated though it is – has been a brave undertaking which falls somewhere on the better side of what can be expected from an integrated committee. The outcome of their designs is not exactly a horse, but no camel either.
Continues at the Royal Opera House on 16, 17, 20 July 2012
Graham Watts writes for many publications including DanceTabs and Dancing Times. He is Chair of the Critics’ Circle Dance Section.
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