Review: Royal Ballet - Viscera / Infra / Fool's Paradise - Royal Opera House

Performance: 3 - 14 November 2012
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Sunday 4 November 2012

Marianela Nunez and Ryoichi Hirano in Scarlett's 'Viscera'. Photo Andrej Uspenski, courtesy of ROH

Performance reviewed: 3 November

In the 20 years since Kenneth MacMillan’s death, the enduring lament of each succeeding season at Covent Garden has been the lack of meaningful new work. Now it would appear that The Royal Ballet is spoilt for choice. As if to prove the point, the first of Kevin O’Hare’s mixed programmes as the company’s new director is shared by the three men who can each now lay claim to being a home team choreographer. Wayne McGregor is the old hand, having joined as the resident choreographer in 2006; Christopher Wheeldon was an early addition to O’Hare’s team, becoming Artistic Associate in the summer; and after weeks of speculation concerning his future status, it was announced on the eve of this performance that the youngest gun, 26 year old Liam Scarlett, would cease dancing with the company to become its first-ever Artist in Residence.

The outcome is a triple bill of three brief works, the first and last of which were new to the company, having been made elsewhere. On one level the programme was a stimulating jolt of modernism – especially after an opening month of nothing but Swan Lakes – although the overall impact was perhaps diminished by a lack of variety. Each work had a structural framework that was often predictable in its linearity. Modern dance – even when infused by a neoclassical agenda – should always retain the capacity to surprise but as the music changes, you just know that the next section is to be a pas de deux. In fact the whole programme was held together by an assembly line of duets.

Nevertheless this programme was entertaining and the dancing was – as we must expect – admirable throughout. It is notable, however, that this is now a company of two styles with dancers divided into those who dance the modern repertoire and those who do not. It is rare to see a full evening’s work by The Royal Ballet where a significant majority of dancers in the soloist to principal ranks are absent. The few dancers who can fit into anything across the full spectrum of the repertoire – especially Marianela Nuñez, Sarah Lamb and Dawid Trzensimiech – are becoming indispensable and very busy.

Scarlett’s Viscera – premiered at the beginning of 2012 by Miami City Ballet – was just a brief capsule of the talents that have led to his new appointment. Once again, Scarlett uses a piano concerto for the score, following the Poulenc used in his award-winning Asphodel Meadows with Piano Concerto no 1 by American composer Lowell Liebermann. It provided occasional moments of déjà vu, particularly in the opening sequences for the corps de ballet, which seemed similar in style and substance to the earlier work. But perhaps that was just an aural illusion. In any event, the structure of the work – framing a central pas de deux with fast ensemble dancing – and the speed and attack of the movement in those opening and closing sections, gave a flavour of Balanchine which was no doubt stoked by it being ‘cooked’ in Miami at a time when Edward Villella – a Balanchine muse for 20 years – was still in charge.

A problem with this speed is that it easily exposes any lack of unison in the corps de ballet and there were moments when it looked perhaps under-rehearsed as dancers were occasionally out of synch from their intended harmonies. The best came in the long pas de deux for Nuñez and Ryoichi Hirano, with a sublime fusion of artistry and athleticism in which Scarlett finds new shapes as momentary pauses within a seamless flow of movement.

McGregor’s Infra will perhaps forever be remembered more for Julian Opie’s visuals – a succession of people, animated in Opie’s distinctively minimal style, as electronic black and white lights on LED screens, walk backwards and forwards along a line six metres or so high at the rear of the stage. A man with a briefcase, another with his hand casually pocketed and a girl with a swishing skirt: Opie’s figures are drawn with emphatic simplicity, without colour or any detailed definition but each one has a personality derived from their walk. Meanwhile, the dancers enact a parallel journey as if on another street in this faceless urban setting. The choreography is often lost in the battle with the stark linearity of Opie’s perambulating electronic people but the best of it comes when six pairs of dancers move in a strange unsynchronised cascade of similar movement while lit in rectangles of light as if dancing on a giant pedestrian crossing with Opie’s “walk”/ “don’t walk” symbols playing overhead. The sight of a single woman (Lamb) kneeling and silently screaming, while a crowd walks past her from left to right remains a potent image of urban loneliness and the soft, yet strangely erotic intensity of the final pas de deux finishes the work on a particularly strong accent. I have not enjoyed McGregor’s more recent work for The Royal Ballet but Infra (and Chroma before it) remain stunning examples of his skill in moulding dance into a rich mix with other art forms.

And finally onto Wheeldon’s Fool’s Paradise, which he made for the very first programme for the Morphoses/Wheeldon Company that he founded with Lourdes Lopez (who, by coincidence, is now director of Miami City Ballet), back in 2007. It was his first co-operation with the composer Joby Talbot (who subsequently composed the score for Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), although Talbot’s composition was made five years’ earlier as an accompaniment to a 1916 Russian silent film entitled The Dying Swan. This swan drifted into the other world elegantly and in peace. Talbot’s eerie, romantic music infuses the work with a gentle soporific quality that also flows through the dancers – dressed in warm, neutral colours by Narciso Rodriguez – and into their sculptured tableaux and poses. I grimaced a little at the over-use of the exaggerated shoulders-back running but it stops just the right side of becoming too sweet.

We have to congratulate new director Kevin O’Hare for being brave enough to programme a complete evening of modern work – repaid by a warmly responsive full house – and especially to be able to lay some permanent claim on all three of these world-class choreographers. Better still, how clever of him to acquire two new works without the expense of making them.

Continues: 5, 7, 8, 12, 14 November

Graham Watts writes for, 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.

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