Review: Royal Ballet - Raven Girl/Symphony in C - Royal Opera House

Performance: in rep until 8 June 2013
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Tuesday 28 May 2013

Royal Ballet - Sarah Lamb in Wayne McGregor's 'Raven Girl'. © ROH / JOHAN PERSSON, 2013

Performance reviewed: 24 May

An excellent season at The Royal Ballet comes to a close with a double bill that points in two directions at once: forward to the past via the gothic, post-modern fantasy world of a disturbing new ballet by resident choreographer, Wayne McGregor – and then back to the future with George Balanchine’s vivacious, post-war tribute to the scintillating technique of dancers at the Paris Opéra Ballet. Here were two single-act ballets based on contrasting enchantments with the deep, dark, soporific expressionism of McGregor long overstaying its welcome; followed by the glittering, effervescent, uplifting romance of Balanchine that leaves one wanting more.

There is a noble tradition of bird-themed ballets, typified by the most popular entry in the whole back catalogue of the art form. Swan Lake gives the impression of a prince falling in love with a swan; but, she is only temporarily feathered by a sorcerer’s enchantment and turns back into human form for the awakening of true love. In Raven Girl, a lonely Postman (played unremarkably by Edward Watson) finds a raven chick (Mirabelle Seymour) that has fallen from its nest; he takes it home where – in due course – the raven grows into adulthood (as Olivia Cowley); they fall in love and the relationship is sufficiently consummated to deliver an egg, which duly hatches into the Raven Girl of the title. Our imagination is often required to make paradigm shifts in the cause of ballet, but this notion of a sexual liaison between man and bird, not least one brought home as a “raven child”, is well beyond the pale. Frankly by the time the egg was laid, I could not have cared less if it had been eaten for breakfast.

Having built a considerable international reputation for his unique brand of movement, this is McGregor’s first foray into the business of narrative ballet (although he prefers to call it visual theatre) and his plot has been derived from a new graphic novella by Audrey Niffenegger. The ballet certainly brings her unique brand of austere grey-green aquatints to life sympathetically with designs by Vicki Mortimer that capture the essence of Niffenegger’s simple yet innovative art. I particularly admired the opening designs of the postman’s house and his smart uniform (as if he were delivering the mail in 1890s Bohemia).

However, if the artwork is interesting, the live action is unbearably ponderous, with this monotonous die cast in the first 10 minutes where the postman’s lonely existence is sketched through a repetitive cycle of sorting letters on his kitchen table, riding his bicycle, changing his satchel from left to right, performing a turn and metaphorically posting a letter. Walking was more prevalent than dance, and there was a significant overkill of symbolism with the graphics of a growing circle of letters projected onto the mesh screen. Lately, McGregor seems unable to work without such multi-media embellishments but it is not always necessary and can be a distraction from what really matters. What made it worse here is that the sombre lighting of the piece is exacerbated by the presence of the mesh curtain at front of stage. Certainly, from where I sat – in the stalls circle – much of the action was indistinct and often confusing.

The heart of the story concerns the Raven Girl’s feelings of incompleteness as she matures into a woman but longs to sprout wings with which to find her avian self. Eventually these appendages are procured from a plastic surgeon (perhaps the most incongruous role ever played by Thiago Soares). Both the choreography and any attempt at projecting emotion were overwhelmed by the sombre darkness of the work. It was hard to recognise let alone empathise with characters. Even the film-style score of Gabriel Yared, layering computerised electronic sounds with a live orchestra, failed to rouse me from my disappointment. The greatest irony is that just as the work appears about to end, it suddenly bursts into life with a very moving and poetic pas de deux between Sarah Lamb, unrecognisable in a black wig as the Raven Girl, and Eric Underwood as the unexplained Raven Prince who just mysteriously appears at the end. This epilogue is the choreographic jewel in an otherwise threadbare work.

So, thank heaven for Balanchine’s Symphony in C, this dazzling showpiece that really deserves to have kept the glitzy descriptiveness of its original title (Le Palais de Cristal) from when it premiered at the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1947. The four movements to Bizet’s masterpiece (hidden for 80 years after its composition, when Bizet was just 17) are superbly mastered by the Royal Ballet’s much-depleted roster of Principals and Soloists (accommodating four major cast changes due to injury). Núñez is especially radiant in the Adagio movement, and Steven McRae and Yuhui Choe dance majestically together in the speed of the third movement. This was a bright and sparkling end to an otherwise dark and disappointing evening with the Royal Opera House Orchestra, conducted by Koen Kessels, giving an enjoyable account of this magical score.

Continues in rep until 8 June:
www.roh.org.uk


Graham Watts writes for londondance.com, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK.

Photos: Johan Persson & Bill Cooper, courtesy, ROH.

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