Review: Wendy Whelan / Edward Watson - Other Stories - Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House

Performance: 9 - 12 July 2015
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 10 July 2015

Wendy Whelan & Edward Watson in 'Other Stories'. Photo: Andrej Uspenski, courtesy ROH

Performance reviewed: 9 July

There is something compelling about two established and mature ballet dancers bearing their souls (and most of their bodies) in pursuit of something new. Wendy Whelan danced with the New York City Ballet for 28 years, 23 as a principal; Edward Watson is still counting his tenure at The Royal Ballet (currently, 21 years in the company, 10 as a principal). So, if Watson makes it through another season (and who on earth would bet against that), this pair of extraordinary people will have clocked up half a century – between them – as dancers in two of the world’s great neoclassical ballet companies.

But, this event is another story: Other Stories, to be precise. It’s a narrative about seeking different challenges through bold and innovative, new choreography, which is much more about feeling and expression than technical prowess. Whelan, now 48 and in full retention of her youthful, dancerly physique, has been developing her journey towards these new horizons since 2012 (including bringing the auto-biographical programme, Restless Creature, to the Linbury Studio, last summer); Watson – a decade younger and newly minted as an MBE in last month’s Queen’s Birthday Honours – has also been experimenting with new frontiers in dance for several years. I recall de-camping to Bromley a decade or more ago to see a programme of new and borrowed work he was fronting; and Watson won huge acclaim (and an Olivier Award) for his exceptional performance as Gregor Samsa in Arthur Pita’s The Metamorphosis, in 2011/12.

It was Morphoses, the short-lived company set up by Christopher Wheeldon, that brought Whelan and Watson together and inspired this event; although busy schedules and the Atlantic Ocean kept their partnership separated sufficiently to delay its realisation for several years. But, the central concept of bringing two mature dancers together, each individually steeped in the traditions and culture of ballet in two very different places, with a view to achieving something special in the meeting place between those contrasting styles, has been bubbling away on their respective back burners over the past decade.

The idea of a meeting place was set by the opening work. In this brief prologue, Javier de Frutos sites the two dancers in a place with chairs and the idea of a waiting room – a meeting place – is suggested in the title First and Wait. Dressed in studio practice gear, Watson and Whelan take it in turns to sit – perhaps, slouch might be the more accurate term – while a clock on the wall behind ticks away the time. Each, in turn, teasingly extends a leg to prevent the other from passing. The idea of dancers’ waiting has a heightened resonance for this pair with half-a-century of experience; and we come to understand that waiting is an essential ingredient in the process of creation. It was neatly done; an excellent scene-setter for the remaining four works.

Next was a fascinating opportunity to see choreography by Arlene Phillips, a national treasure of the British dance scene; unique – for her – in being set on two ballet dancers. The crossover from ballet to song-and-dance shows is rarely attempted. Three choreographers that have managed the transition to great effect have been George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and Christopher Wheeldon – all of whom had significant associations with Whelan’s alma mater, New York City Ballet – but I can’t think of anyone who has tackled ballet from the other direction.

In Dance Me To The End Of Love, Phillips mixes brief extracts from popular songs (often not much more than the first line) about dancing; from Irving Berlin’s The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing; to two disco classics – I Wanna Dance With Somebody and He’s the Greatest Dancer. Extracts are sung by Bev Lee Harling (who also played the violin throughout the show) and in between each song, Watson dances a compulsive solo to the baroque music of Georg Philipp Telemann, a composer active in the early eighteenth century. I’m willing to hazard the guess that his music has never previously sat between songs by Sister Sledge, Whitney Houston and Leonard Cohen! The palpable anguish in Watson’s expression as he dances (often partnering an empty chair) suggests loss and the programme note confirms that he is reliving, through dance, memories of the partner he once loved. It was a work of strong impact made all the more mesmerising through Watson’s suffering.

His solo was followed by another for Whelan, made on her by American choreographer, Annie-B Parson (of Big Dance Theater) and danced to the complex rhythms of Julia Wolfe’s Dark Ride Out interpreted through the urgency of Dave Price’s virtuoso drumming. Parson began by erasing notes from an uncredited work by Stravinsky and then developed Short Ride Out as a work devoid of any narrative, driven on by Balanchine’s reference to “the fact of dancing”. The outcome is an abstract duet between the dancer and the drummer that was as absorbing as the most arresting of stories. Suffering by comparison with the rest of the programme, Daniéle Desnoyers’ The Song We Share was the least memorable of this quintet of world premieres, although it perhaps set the most challenges in terms of a duet of pure dance.

The most substantial – and theatrical – work on the programme brought proceedings to a close. Arthur Pita’s The Ballad of Mack and Ginny was inspired by the Tango-Ballad from The Threepenny Opera, notably in Berthold Brecht’s description of the masochistic relationship between Macheath (aka Mack the Knife) and the prostitute, “Low-Dive” Jenny (also known as Ginny). Kurt Weill’s tango has been arranged by the Other Stories’ musical director, Frank Moon and Pita has drawn a fascinating set of parallels between physical intimacy in the closeness of the tango hold (emphasised by Whelan’s semi-naked, stocking-clad body being hugged into Watson’s torso) and the periodic eruptions of violence between the partners.

Pita explores issues of trust and alienation; tension and affection; love and hate; intimacy and repulsion. As with all of his work – and in this instance with little design embellishment – Pita concocts the strongest sense of theatre and dramatic input and it is here that Watson and Whelan are at their best in unravelling the complex emotional wrappings in this rollercoaster relationship, stripping metaphorically as well as shedding clothes. Here is yet another work of great power by Pita, albeit one that would struggle to hit the same heights with a second cast.

The choice of choreographers for this project is refreshingly eclectic. Human diversity is achieved through a majority of the five being women; and a rich mix of dance forms was assured through their varied backgrounds and styles. However, despite these credentials, this was a programme of cabaret dance that could have fallen tediously flat in the performances of less experienced and expressive artists. Other Stories was made by Whelan and Watson, in every sense.

Continues at Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House until Sunday (returns only)

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, 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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