Review: The Royal Ballet, Wayne McGregor - Chroma / Multiverse / Carbon Life - The Royal Opera House

Performance: 10 - 19 November 2016
- Monday 21 November 2016

Performances reviewed: 10 and 14 November 2016

That Wayne McGregor is still live and firing exercises at the dancers of The Royal Ballet, ever expanding how they can move their bodies in wondrous ways, ten years’ on from his somewhat controversial appointment as the company’s resident choreographer is a remarkable achievement, well worth celebrating.

For much of his tenure, McGregor has mostly shared the stage; generally contributing one part of a triple bill. In recent years, that engagement has spread to two full-evening works: the fantasy ballet, Raven Girl – his first story-based work – made in 2013, in collaboration with visual artist and author, Audrey Niffenegger; and the award-winning Woolf Works, made in 2015 and set to return as part of these tenth anniversary celebrations, in January 2017.

It’s a moot point at to whether Woolf Works is one three-act work or a triptych of separate ballets, each inspired by a different novel, but nonetheless, this programme is officially the first all-McGregor triple bill, featuring Chroma, the work that absolutely nailed his credentials onto the Covent Garden stage as an enthralling maker of modern dance and purveyor of impactful visual spectacle; the world premiere of Multiverse; and a welcome reprise for perhaps the most erotic of his Royal Ballet repertoire, Carbon Life, which first appeared in 2012.

To avoid a kneejerk reaction to such an important event, I kept my metaphorical “ink” dry until seeing the programme, twice; taking in a second cast for both Multiverse and Carbon Life. The impact of the opening night was very much reinforced on the return visit, which is to say that Chroma is a classic that easily withstands any amount of casting change; and Carbon Life is a “keeper”, the effect of which is entertaining and improving. The disappointment is that the newest work is so dire and I suspect that no amount of repeat viewings will alter my first impression.

I wonder if the essential problem with Multiverse is simply a lack of artistic oversight combined with insufficient time to develop a new ballet. Being resident choreographer seems to demand a prolific output but in my view less might be more within a regime that should be easier in respect of time pressures but more challenging in terms of artistic oversight and advice. McGregor’s last one-act work, the all-Male Obsidian Tear, showed immense promise but it could have been honed to be even better; and it would have made this an excellent all-round programme, instead of one that had an impressive beginning and end enveloping a woolly centre.

Multiverse throws up too many ideas without satisfactory progression. It has two distinctly different sections, although one could argue that there are other sub-divisions that suggest a more fragmented work. The consistent elements are an interesting architectural set design (by Rashid Rana) with two walls joined at a sharp angle, as if the performers were tiny people trapped in one corner of a very large box; and the excellent lighting by Lucy Carter (an ever-present in Team McGregor) . The walls took the projections designed by Murtaza Ali, which included the fractured contemporary photographs of refugees at sea linked to similarly broken pieces of Gèricault’s painting, The Raft of the Medusa. This fascinating juxtaposition had no more than a momentary impact that seemed without relevance to the rest of the work.

Another problem was McGregor’s choice of music and – most especially – the particular over-minimalist use of Steve Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain (1965), which is based upon an evangelical preacher’s fervent warnings about the end of the world in another Noah’s Flood. The recording is looped into two separate reductive repetitions that spiral inwards until we are left with what sounds like a fire alarm that is ringing incessantly; and is just as annoying. I understand that linking choreography to each loop of sound for each of the two male dancers (an idea left hanging from Obsidian Tear?) is very clever and, indeed, it is, up to a point. This duet was superbly danced on the opening night by Steven McRae and Paul Kay but even their excellence could not overcome the unwelcome aural tedium, which to be blunt was even more annoying on the second visit.

The orchestral music of the second half – Reich’s more recent Runner, composed in 2015 – was a welcome change (frankly, the looped sound of snoring would have been welcome after the fire alarm din). McGregor’s choreography for the group took on frenetic desperate attitudes of finding space and looping repetitive phrasings, often in canon, such that we had both randomness and uniformity simultaneously spreading through the ensemble. Apart from the opening section of the male duet this closing episode contained potentially the most interesting choreography but it was hard to refocus concentration – on both viewings – after the tedium in the centre. The opening night cast contained more than double the number of principals of the second cast and it is to the latter’s credit that their group performance met the same level of intensity. Edward Watson – perhaps appropriately, given his personal importance to McGregor’s work, over the past decade – was the only dancer to do double duty in both casts.

Chroma had perhaps the most powerful immediate impact of any new work at The Royal Ballet, so far this century, and it remains an absolute gem. It is a superb example of all artistic elements working together, beginning with John Pawson’s stunning architectural set design, which retains all its monumental power despite multiple viewings. The White Stripes music by Joby Talbot (and Jack White III) is often described as “explosive”, or similar, but I find the contrasting quieter, more reflective, sections to be just as impactful as the powerful opening and ending. It remains, for me, the jewel in the crown of McGregor’s output. He has made many excellent works since (Infra, Limen and Tetractys, for example) but none yet with the same breath-taking brilliance as Chroma.

This was a very different performance since although four of the original cast remain (McRae, Sarah Lamb, Federico Bonelli and Lauren Cuthbertson), half of this cast were borrowed from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, which also has Chroma in its repertoire. These five dancers bring different dimensions to the work; less edgy and perhaps more lyrical, or fluid. They accounted for a heightened subliminal impact, which I appreciated more on the second viewing. Although I missed the presence of Tamara Rojo and Eric Underwood, there were compensations in the imposing figure of Jamar Roberts and the elegance of Rachael McLaren; and a special word is due for corps de ballet dancer, Calvin Richardson for his outstanding introduction alongside the experienced quartet of Royal Ballet principals on the “home” team.

As in Multiverse, a problem with new McGregor works is sometimes that the concept often outweighs the product and this was certainly my initial assessment of Carbon Life, back in 2012. The concept lies somewhere between a live gig and fashion show, enlivened by eighteen great dancers wearing Gareth Pugh’s extraordinary costumes while a grid-like transparent curtain, separating the dancers and musicians, intermittently rises and falls. The lighting (again by Carter) is a major contributor to the work’s visual splendour, especially in the opening number where dancers “float” behind a scrim, like ethereal beings surrounded by their auras; and again later when a superb duet (Watson and Olivia Cowley in the opening cast) is lit by a spiralling cone of light.

There were changes from the original production. I recall that two male dancers wore the heavy black boots in the final numbers but here only one had that movement-restriction and only Eric Underwood (in the first cast) appeared capable of managing this troublesome, fetishist footwear. And, of course, back then, Boy George was memorably the singer of the final number (Mark Ronson’s excellent Someone to Love Me).

Carbon Life was akin to watching a post-modern version of Top of the Pops meets Eurotrash (at least in terms of J-P Gautier’s fashion influences on the latter) where some of the nine musical numbers (including the opening and closing pairs) were memorable; others, including a forgettable rap sequence, were repetitive and inconsequential. When I reviewed the premiere in 2012, I thought it deserved a second chance and I appreciated these new opportunities to re-evaluate its successes. Bluntly, I’m not sure that Multiverse merits a similar reprieve.

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for Londondance.com, Dancetabs.com 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 and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

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