Review: Royal Ballet - Serenade / Sweet Violets / DGV - Royal Opera House

Performance: in rep 14 - 26 May 2014
Reviewed by Lise Smith - Monday 19 May 2014

Royal Ballet in 'Serenade' ©ROH / Tristram Kenton, 2014

Performance reviewed: 17 May

The Royal Ballet is often celebrated for its star principals; names such as Edward Watson and Marianela Núñez light up the eyes of balletomanes, and with good reason. Equally, the Royal’s corps have had some very good seasons of late; here is a programme that celebrates the company’s strength in depth, with two pieces that utilize large ensembles and a third with no fewer than ten named characters on stage.

First performed in 1935, George Balanchine’s Serenade looks amazingly fresh and modern set against its far more recently composed companion pieces in this bill. An abstract ensemble piece set to Tchaikovsky’s lovely Serenade for Strings, Balanchine’s choreography eases its dancers over the moonlit stage with supple ports-de-bras and graceful circles of swishy pique turns. The ladies of the company glide comfortably over the elegant choreography in their long translucent skirts; there’s a serene confidence to the performance that comes from deep within the corps, the well-drilled dancers working together as one body.
Sarah Lamb is the glacially cool lead in Saturday’s performance, flanked by Russian star Natalia Osipova and home-grown Olivia Cowley. Lamb and friends are supported through breezy pirouettes and arcing lifts by a short procession of men, and all project a cool composure that suits the mood of the piece well. The star of Serenade, however, is not a single dancer but the cast as a whole, rising and falling together in an effortless synchrony that’s enchanting to behold.

Rising star Liam Scarlett debuted his first narrative ballet, Sweet Violets, in 2012 to fairly mixed reviews. The one-act ballet peeks at the demi-monde of Edwardian London; painter Walter Sickert ( Bennet Gartside ) is fascinated by the unsolved “Camden Town murder” of prostitute Emily Dimmock ( Romany Pajdak ) of 1907. He paints his model Marie (a luminous Marianela Núñez) in a pose inspired by the murder, placing fellow artist (and rumoured killer) Robert Wood in the image with her. Like Degas in Paris, he is also attracted to the liminal world of stage performers, and regularly paints burlesque dancers at music halls.

If the narrative stopped there, Sweet Violets might have a chance of succeeding as a portrait of an artist drawn to the darker sides of life. Scarlett’s duets are legibly constructed, with an undertow of threat to the MacMillanesque hyperextensions. The women have a rough time of it; passed around, knocked about and chucked around like slabs of meat, few of them seem to have agency of any kind. Two of them are murdered, and a third wrongly institutionalised. Like Sickert’s paintings, Scarlett’s piece doesn’t flinch from reflecting the seamy underside of life for this bracket of London society.

To the work’s detriment, however, layers of narrative and further characters crowd in to this already dense mix. The Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, turns up in a three-piece suit – something to do with a royal scandal around an illegitimate heir mothered by another of Sickert’s models. Mary-Jane Kelly ( Laura Morera), another employee of Sickert, is brutally murdered in a similar fashion to Dimmock in the opening scene. Stuff happens at a relentless pace, to people who appear on stage with little expository introduction, and wearing unhelpfully similar costumes. It grows increasingly hard to care about the fates of a seemingly interchangeable crowd of abused women; the sheer number of people being violated diminishes the power of that violence, rather than intensifying it.
There’s a lot to admire (enjoy is not quite the word) about this dark, brooding ballet that touches on some of the Realist themes of Sickert’s own output, if only Scarlett would cut through some of the mass and focus on the essence of the work.

Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV ( Danse à grande vitesse ) brings the programme to a sprightly close. Created in 2006, the piece sets travelling pairs of dancers against a moving background of massed movement by the corps. There’s no plot as such, but DGV draws colours and textures from Michael Nyman’s vibrant score; like Smetana’s Vlatava or Strauss’s Danube, this journey audibly moves through scenes and locations picked out visually by in the choreography. Wheeldon’s frequent fascinations – artful balances and stretchy legs – are much in evidence here, but take on a new dynamic when set against his mass movement effects. One of the most enjoyable works in the RB repertory, DGV provides tops off a programme that shows the company in fine form.

Further performances of this programme on 21, 24 & 26 May
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Photo: The Royal Ballet in Serenade ©ROH / Tristram Kenton, 2014

Lise Smith is a dance manager and teacher who writes about dance for many publications, including Londonist, Dancetabs & Arts Professional.

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