Review: Royal Ballet - Raven Girl / Connectome - Royal Opera House

Performance: 6 - 24 October 2015
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 7 October 2015

Royal Ballet 'Connectome' - Lauren Cuthbertson ©ROH, 2015. Photo: Bill Cooper.

Performance reviewed: 6 October

This was an evening of first returns for two ballets that premiered, respectively, at the end of the 2013 and ‘14 seasons. They work together as a programme rather better than either did at their premieres where they sat incongruously alongside mid-twentieth century classics by Frederick Ashton, Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine. Here, their freshness and modernity absorbs much more of the limelight.

It was also an evening to celebrate one of The Royal Ballet’s longest-serving dancers since – fortuitously – the programming (fixed many months ago) gave a strong focus to Edward Watson on what was to become, for him, a unique “red letter” day. Having received an MBE from The Princess Royal at Buckingham Palace, most people would settle for a smart luncheon with friends but – newly admitted into the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire – Mr Watson celebrated by treating more than 2,000 friends and admirers to absorbing – and appropriately chivalric – performances in both these works.

I thoroughly disliked Raven Girl on its first outing and am happy to acknowledge several improvements by Wayne McGregor to his interpretation of Audrey Niffenegger’s curious fairy tale. The intrusive scrim (the gauze front-screen) is raised rather earlier (although it remains, for me, an ongoing irritant, jumping up and down throughout proceedings) and Watson’s role as The Postman is given more prominence, notably in the final scenes. Best of all is the revisiting of the concluding scene and the addition of an aerial circus hoop, which leads to an eye-catching and impressive finale, particularly in the closing tableau.

It remains, however, a largely incomprehensible story. Watson’s Postman finds a raven chick-child (Tara Morris) that has fallen from the nest; he takes her home and she blossoms into a full-grown raven (an unrecognisable Olivia Cowley) whereupon the Postman’s quasi-parental love metamorphoses into romance! Their union apparently leads to the birth (or hatching) of the Raven Girl (Sarah Lamb). With or without the raven imagery, this early narrative raises some awkward questions.

As the girl herself grows to adulthood – perhaps, in a nod towards the Black Swan imagery of Darren Aronofsky’s 2012 film – she longs to complete her raven being. And, with the help of a plastic surgeon (surely the least meaningful role that Thiago Soares has ever been cast to play), her wings are procured and she returns to the cliffs where the ravens live and meets her Raven Prince (Eric Underwood). So, the moral seems to be: “you can take the girl out of the raven, but you can’t take the raven out of the girl”.

The best of the production elements, by far, lies in Vicki Mortimer’s set and costume designs, which capture an ageless austerity, accurately reflecting the grey-green colouring of Niffenegger’s graphic novel. Gabriel Yared’s filmic score mixes electronic and orchestral sequences mostly as incidental music until the final pas de deux between Lamb and Underwood, which is both the best of the choreography and the music with – at last – a memorable theme from a largely pedestrian score.

McGregor’s choreography rarely rises above commonplace, simple movement and his predilection for strong digital multi-media content is “hit-and-miss”: while I liked the typography and patterns of the back-projected narrative, much of the film content (designed by Ravi Deepres) is cluttered; such as when a large tree is projected onto the front gauze with other imagery illuminated on the back screen and dancers moving between. The imagery clashed so that half of the tree was obscured by the square white light from the rear projection and the dancers sandwiched between the two screens were indistinct.

The revisions that have been made since the first run improve the ballet but the story remains a struggle to follow without reading the synopsis and – even then – it requires a paradigm shift in thinking, even for an adult fairy tale. But, it is undeniably unique in style and design. There’s nothing like it in the repertoire of any company around the world. And, for that reason plus the cult combination of Neffernigger and McGregor, it may have staying power.

Alastair Marriott’s Connectome is definitely a “keeper”. He sticks to a simple central concept articulated in the title, which describes a sort of mental DNA established in each of us by the wiring in our brains, linking together matters of ancestry, personality, knowledge and memory to shape each individual identity. Like the preceding ballet, this is a work announced by an immense design statement with Es Devlin’s amazing forest of sparkly, luminescent poles (no doubt enhanced by the lighting designs of Bruno Poet). When raised sequentially, they give a mesmeric effect of a long fluid, rippling kaleidoscope of colour floating up into the flies.

Devlin’s phosphorescent-perspex-pole-forest provides a tantalising reveal of the ballet’s only woman with the delightful Lauren Cuthbertson taking over the role created by Natalia Osipova (who is now unlikely to be dancing for at least the remainder of this season). Cuthbertson was at her lithe, limber, piquant best; showing strengths we have missed over a long lay-off through injury; and a new maturity that has perhaps grown out of her endurance and patience during this enforced absence from the stage. Dancing can make dancers complacent; while not being able to dance builds a desire and ambition to return that is so palpably evident in Cuthbertson’s ebullience.

Jonathan Howells’ costumes are simple but effective and the choice of a compilation of Arvo Pärt’s music achieves that often elusive element of aural symbiosis with the action onstage. There is a mix of live orchestral delivery, featuring Sergey Levitin’s sensational violin solo in Fratres, and a recent recording of Vater Unser, including a haunting treble solo by Giuseppe Maurino of the London Oratory School. It’s a beautiful and impactful musical selection from one of the greatest living composers.

Cuthbertson’s two male leads are Watson and Steven McRae. They stand hidden and motionless – alongside four other men – within the “forest”. Although it may be a fanciful notion, the juxtaposition of these six men coming, initially unobserved, across Cuthbertson’s playful, nymph-like figure appeared to me as a modern gender-reversal of the nymphs encountering the lustful faune in Nijinsky’s famous brief ballet, L’Après-midi d’un faune. As if to emphasise this connection in Connectome, Marriott’s choreography for his group of guys occasionally seems to reflect the stylised two-dimensional, almost robotic, gait of the faune crossing the stage.

Marriott’s work is diversely structured, innovative and always fascinating to watch. For me, it was the best new work of 2014 and its powerful impact has not diminished. It really should elevate this under-used choreographer up The Royal Ballet’s ladder of priority.

Continues in rep until 24 October

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He writes for Dancing Times, Dance Europe, Shinshokan Dance Magazine in Japan,, and other magazines and websites in Europe and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and of the National Dance Awards in the UK. Find him on Twitter @GWDanceWriter

Main photo: Connectome – Bill Cooper, ROH

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