Review: Royal Ballet - Polyphonia / Sweet Violets / Carbon Life at the Royal Opera House

Performance: in rep until 23 April 2012
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 6 April 2012

The Royal Ballet's Johan Kobborg & Alina Cojocaru in 'Sweet Violets'. Photo: Bill Cooper

Reviewed: 5 April

It is rare to have two world premieres on a single evening at the Royal Opera House; rarer still to have a triple bill comprising work by three living choreographers, all of them British and all very much associated with the ‘home’ company. Three cheers for all of that. But this appreciation needs to be muted to some extent by the quality of the work premiered. Certainly, neither was helped through comparison with the sharp distillation of dance in the revival of Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia , which served as a prologue to the brand new works. Previously danced by the Royal Ballet in 2003 and 2006, the company continues to give a brilliant account of matching movement to the diverse rhythms to be found in this set of ten brief, but complex, piano studies that span 40 years of György Ligeti’s output.

Liam Scarlett dived headlong into his first ballet drama with a complex interpretation of a story that revolves around the murder of a prostitute in Camden Town and the involvement of the painter Walter Sickert, amongst many others. Sweet Violets was intriguingly designed by John MacFarlane, with a set that opened up to show the separate ‘day’ and ‘night’ lives of Sickert and his associates. Arresting flashes of passionate dance came notably in two duets for Johan Kobborg (as Sickert) and Alina Cojocaru (as his doomed employee, Mary-Jane Kelly, also the fifth of Jack the Ripper’s victims), the last of which extended into a pas de trois with Steven McRae (as “Jack”, a sinister, ethereal entity that I took to be the spirit of “the Ripper”). An underlying problem was the confusing proliferation of characters in a complex storyline that is impossible to follow without reading the performance notes. The purpose of several of the walk-on roles (such as Christopher Saunders as the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury) was so unclear that it might be as well to edit them out. The time travel between the Ripper years of the 1880s and the setting of the Camden murder in the early twentieth century was also confusing.

Scarlett has cast well and there were seven principal dancers in his premiere team, some of whom had little more than cameo turns, including an erotic striptease by Tamara Rojo as an artist’s model, which will have set some pulses racing. The talented Mr Scarlett exudes confidence and panache, as evidenced by his management of the curtain calls, full of sweeping gestures and dramatic pauses with his hand held to his heart.

I have been so wishing that Wayne McGregor can repeat the outstanding success of Chroma, his first work as the company’s resident choreographer in 2006, but each successive premiere seems to be sliding down a slippery pole, greased by the problems of concept outweighing choreography. The concept here was that a series of singers, including a rapper, and a live band at the rear of the stage played a ‘gig’ with a light show and a grid-like set that that was raised and lowered, all accompanied by a large group of 18 dancers, mixed into many permutations.

There are some absorbing moments in Carbon Life not least in a superb, flowing and pliable duet for Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb, some arresting sequences of extreme movement – by Edward Watson in particular – and a wonderful opening number in which dancers are illuminated with the shining aura of celestial beings (credit to the Lighting Designer Lucy Carter). But this surprisingly beautiful beginning flattered to deceive because the next songs gave the impression of the set having been transported to the launch of a new tractor engine at a manufacturer’s trade show on an industrial estate in Plovdiv. It was that gaudy, repetitive and inconsequential. One number seemed to be defined by a looped sequence of jumps, pirouette right, pirouette left, squat, skip and jump again. The only time I would have expected to see such languid choreography at the Royal Opera House would be in one of the Awards shows it now seems to host so regularly.

Overall, the work seemed rushed and unready and even some of the vocals across the nine songs were occasionally inaudible. Only the opening and closing songs in Mark Ronson’s eclectic mix (respectively Sacred Heart and Someone To Love Me, both orchestrated by Rufus Wainwright and the latter sung by Boy George) made a memorable impact. I’d like to give Carbon Life a second chance – just in case this first performance was overrun by gremlins – but I suspect that I’m signing up to join the campaign for zero carbon from there on.

The outcome of this programme of work by an all-British line-up of choreographers suggests that Wheeldon and McGregor have set such high standards of expectation with the quality of their early work that both have subsequently struggled to match. Meanwhile, Liam Scarlett continues to build a robust reputation and, right now, he seems to me to be in a much better place for the longer term. The best tribute one can pay to this young choreographer is that his new ballet accentuates the legacy of expressionist, psychological dance drama that has been a major hallmark of the Royal Ballet since the early choreography of Kenneth MacMillan in the 1950s. I haven’t seen work by anyone more deserving of that comparison since MacMillan’s untimely death in 1992.

Continues at The Royal Opera House on 10, 12, 14, 18, 23 April 2012 – but no tickets now available.

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