Review: Royal Ballet - Ceremony Of Innocence / The Age Of Anxiety / Aeternum – Royal Opera House

Performance: 7 - 17 November 2014
Reviewed by Siobhan Murphy - Monday 10 November 2014

The Royal Ballet - Bennet Gartside Steven McRae, Laura Morera, Tristan Dyer in Liam Scarlett's 'The Age of Anxiety' Photo: Bill Cooper ©ROH, 2014

Performance reviewed: 7 November

W. H. Auden’s 1946, Pulitzer Prize winning long poem The Age Of Anxiety – which inspired Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No.2 – captured the mood of a fractured, frightened post-war society. Four drifting souls meet in a New York bar during wartime, fall into an increasingly well-lubricated debate about modern times and the human condition, then continue carousing – via an extended dream quest – back at the swanky apartment of the one woman in the quartet.

Rich and challenging fare for the Royal Ballet’s resident storyteller Liam Scarlett. The world premiere of the young choreographer’s response opens on a bar scene (created by John Macfarlane) that looks lifted straight out of an Edward Hopper painting, with its inviting array of spirit bottles uplit and glinting in the gloom. The protagonists assemble, with Steven McRae’s naval recruit Emble taking centre-stage, full of swaggering, blustering solos and a cocky confidence in his allure to both sexes (which McRae does with aplomb, although seeing him as ‘teenage’ feels a bit tricky). As the evening descends into febrile drunkenness, and the bar’s light becomes increasingly red, he’s nothing less than the satyr leading the bacchanal.

Scarlett finds his focus for the piece by centring on the sexual: Laura Morera gives Rosetta a jumpy skittishness and ‘look at me’ anxiousness as the game of desire takes its many turns; Tristan Dyer’s airman Malin seems in his solo to offer a rather dreamy, romantic corrective to Emble’s rampant masculinity, then becomes increasingly agitated as his desire for Emble is not reciprocated. Bennet Gartside, as ageing businessman Quant, shows a touching world-weariness, stretching melancholy through his reaches, and curling on the floor after his bar-room solo in affecting despair – but in this context it could be physical longing as much as existential angst, particularly given the twist Scarlett gives his parting from Malin at night’s end.

It’s a valid way to chart a course through Auden’s tricky creation… and yet it means we don’t really delve into the fears that lurk underneath these four characters’ desperate inebriation and clumsy scramble for human contact. The Hollywood-style uplift of the closing scene, with Malin embracing a Manhattan dawn, is somewhat necessitated by the swelling end of Bernstein’s score but adds to the sense that we’ve only skimmed the surface of this Age Of Anxiety.

The Scarlett premiere is the centrepiece of a triple bill of very modern work with an eye firmly fixed on the past. It’s preceded by Kim Brandstrup’s Ceremony Of Innocence, commissioned for last year’s Aldeburgh Festival and presented for the first time at Covent Garden. This is a brooding work set to Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge and preoccupied with memory and melancholy as evoked in Britten’s Death In Venice. It’s wonderfully danced – but also rather narratively muddy.

Edward Watson is a man looking back on his life; Marcelino Sambé is the same man in his exuberant youthful prime, throwing himself into carefree games and flirtations with a vigorous display of jumps, spins, cartwheels and handstands. But who is the woman (here danced with liquid grace by Christina Arestis) who flits between them? You’d think it was a lover, given the yearning duets she performs with both, particularly her pairing with Watson, full of long, aching lines. It was only two thirds of the way through I remembered the programme notes said she was supposed to be his mother, which then requires a rather awkward reshuffle of your previous presumptions. The push and pull of emotional ties between this time-spanning trio does, however, rather beautifully echo the sea theme that runs through the piece, most noticeably in Leo Warner’s video designs (he also creates some marvellously evocative shadow work).

The evening closes with more Britten, this time his 1940 Sinfonia da Requiem, for Christopher Wheeldon’s Aeternum, getting its first return after last year’s premiere. It’s a punishing piece of music, created in response to the horrors of war, and Wheeldon’s piece is suitably powerful, though I’m still not sure about the huge driftwood construction that rotates slowly above the dancers’ heads, like a whale’s carcass. The surge and swell of movement here is menacing; the repeated visual image of seated female dancers holding and pointing their legs at us like rifles doubly so. And then we have Marianela Nuñez and Federico Bonelli’s rapturous closing pas de deux, an exquisite movement towards the final light in which these two dancers manage to share with us joy and trepidation, vulnerability and strength. Beautiful.

Continues in rep until 17 November

Siobhan Murphy is a freelance writer and until recently was Arts Editor of Metro. Find her on Twitter @blacktigerlily

Photo: The Age of Anxiety by Bill Cooper ©ROH, 2014

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