Review: Royal Ballet - After the Rain / Strapless / Within the Golden Hour

Performance: 12, 16, 17, 19 February & 10, 11 March 2016
Reviewed by Rachel Elderkin - Monday 15 February 2016

Royal Ballet, 'Strapless'. Natalia Osipova as Amélie Gautreau. Photo: Bill Cooper, ©ROH, 2015.

Performance reviewed: 12 February

Christopher Wheeldon’s latest commission for the Royal Ballet, Strapless received its world premiere as the centre piece of a triple bill that included two of his earlier works – After The Rain and Within The Golden Hour – which are new to the company repertoire.

After The Rain, originally created for New York City Ballet (where Wheeldon was a dancer and then Resident Choreographer) in 2005, is a work in two parts – a sextet set to Arvo Part’s Tabula Rasa and a pas de deux to Spiegel im Speigel.

The work closely follows its musical score. Tabula Rasa’s rapid string sections are captured in fast footwork, the three women twisting through fouette arabesques beneath the arms of their partners. As the music slows they subside into slow duets of fluid partner work, elegant lines slipping easily into long limbed penchés. There’s a hint of Balanchine in Wheeldon’s choreography, particularly in the quicker sections, where the six dancers attack their shapes with sharp precision.

Although the first movement of After The Rain is set as a sextet this work revolves around its couples. A series of pas de deux overlap, catching at the ends of phrases before developing into their own sequences. However, it’s the duet of the second half, originally created on New Yok City Ballet’s Wendy Whelan and Jack Soto, that this work is famed for and it’s this that lingers in the memory.

As the colours of the stage switch from blue greys to pink, the work softens, like the calm after a storm. The hair is loose, the shoes soft and the music tinkles like raindrops. Gone is any harshness from the opening sextet and Marianela Núñez and Thiago Soares’ movement melts at every step. There’s a sense of an intimate and tender connection between Nunez and Soares, yet there’s also something sorrowful about this work. Despite being in almost constant contact, teh dancers hardly look at each other. This distance creates a distinct sense that, as an audience, we are the onlookers to something deeply personal, a memory perhaps, of a treasured connection between two people. It’s a delicately choreographed pas de deux danced with a touching sensitivity.

Wheeldon’s new work, Strapless, is based on John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X, his painting of 19th century Parisian beauty Amélie Gautreau. Intended to increase the social standing of both artist and sitter, the portrait caused a scandal when it was finally revealed, Sargent having painted Gautreau with her dress strap slipping from her shoulder.

An empty frame hangs with Gautreau, danced by Natalia Osipova, stood downstage before it, a watching crowd waiting in the darkness. Inspired by Deborah Davis’ account of these events, Wheeldon returns to a narrative form for Strapless, approaching his subject in a clear, straightforward manner.
Osipova’s opening sequences display her as a proud, elegant character, seduced by the admiration of others. Her movement is indulgent, full of shimmying bourrées and delicate port de bras. Wheeldon emphasises her vanity, flirtations and liaisons, developing some cause for Sargent, danced by Edward Watson, to have painted her so provocatively and consequently ruined her reputation. It might be a somewhat sensationalised portrayal, but Wheeldon’s characterisation is strong and Osipova dances the role with lightness and charm.

Bob Crowley’s set design moves between salon scenes, where empty picture frames crowd the walls, to boudoirs and a bar that strongly resembles Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère. The ensemble cluster around the stage, looking at portraits or watching Osipova as she basks under their admiring gaze. These sequences are kept simple, the company’s movement gestural and naturalistic. Towards the end the corps adopt an animalistic physicality. They turn on Osipova, jutting their necks forward like an attacking flock of birds and undulating in a snake-like row, an attempt by Wheeldon, perhaps, to capture society’s fickle obsession with beauty.

In many respects Wheeldon has taken some large choreographic liberties with Strapless. In a scene where Sargent struggles to decide how to paint his subject, his ‘muse’ appears and a trio, (much like that between Des Grieux and Monsieur G.M. in Manon) commences; a phantom love triangle where the characters longingly switch between one other. Later, when the scandalous portrait is finally revealed, Osipova’s lustrous black dress is discarded for a white leotard and a shy, mournful solo, with swan-like, rippling arm movements commences. While her humiliation and despair is clear, comparisons with Fokine’s The Dying Swan are inescapable. Such moments may provide accessible images that portray clearly the emotions Wheeldon wishes to convey, but it’s a shame that he went for the obvious over subtlety and originality.

He may have been frivolous with his imagery but Wheeldon’s easy-to follow storyline is enjoyable, the dancing light-hearted and, after all, clarity in a narrative ballet is not as easy as Wheeldon makes it look. A deft twist in the final moments of Strapless shifts the perspective and suddenly highlights the relative insignificance of something which, at its time, was considered so shocking. It’s somewhat of an irony that the admiration Gautreau so desired is remembered today due to the scandal that destroyed it. This closing reflection could have held more poignancy if Wheeldon had chosen to explore it earlier on, but despite the odd niggle, Strapless remains an entertaining and enjoyable theatrical ballet.

Within The Golden Hour, originally created in 2008 for San Francisco Ballet’s 75th Birthday celebrations, marks a return to the muted blue greys and abstract choreography of After The Rain. A work rich in detail, it’s a contrast which seems to highlight an element lacking in Strapless. As it moves between a series of duets and short ensemble sections, rather like movements in an orchestral score, the range in this work’s movement vocabulary reveals itself to be striking.

It opens with a swift moving ensemble sequence, the constant entrances and exits of its duets creating a wave like flow of movement that shifts and soars with Ezio Bosso’s orchestral score. Once again Wheeldon’s choreography feels driven by its music. The changing backdrops, colours, music and movement merge seamlessly, resulting in a delicately nuanced work that feels rather like a journey through the seasons. Within The Golden Hour closes Wheeldon’s latest programme for the Royal Ballet on a strong note.

On the same day as its premiere, The Royal Ballet announced that Strapless is a co-production with The Bolshoi Theatre of Russia – and that this programme of Wheeldon’s work will be performed by the Bolshoi Ballet in 2017. Their interpretation will certainly be interesting to see.

Continues in rep – 16, 17, 19 February, 10 & 11 March 2016

Main photo: Natalia Osipova as Amélie Gautreau in Strapless. Photo: Bill Cooper, ©ROH, 2015

Rachel Elderkin is a freelance dancer and dance writer. She has written for a number of arts publications and regularly contributes to The Stage, Fjord Review and British Theatre Guide. Twitter: @Rachel_Elderkin

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