February 27, 2024

Modernist triple bill at the Royal Opera House

Mark Ronson personifies a modern-day Midas; as whatever he touches seems to turn to gold, or more specifically, $$$$. The Royal Opera House and Wayne McGregor are next in line to cash in on his inevitable notoriety for their upcoming triple bill, which also features works by Christopher Wheeldon and (another world premiere by) Liam Scarlett. The run of performances premiered on April 5th and continues until the 23rd.

The bill opened with Wheeldon’s 2001 work Polyphonia. Originally created for the New York City Ballet, the piece is recognised as a key work, and has since been acquired by most major classical ballet companies worldwide. The eight dancers (4 men/4 women) perform in different groupings to a diverse collection of Ligeti scores, which Wheeldon uses to take the audience from heartfelt pas de deux, to boisterous bravado. When contemplating the work’s movement language/choreographic structure, one can see aspects of both Wheeldon’s training and professional circumstance in play (London/New York), and understand why he is touted as the probable successor to Balanchine’s illustrious mantle.

On opening night the (11 year old) piece looked as current as ever, and was well danced by the company. Wheeldon’s movement language has a mode of survival – like most modernist art – in that it doesn’t date, and seems to get more relevant with time. Knowing the music well I was disappointed with the execution of Désordre. One has to admit to the difficulty of the score, but when played well, it soars. What seemed to be missing was clarity of note and clear rhythm. Alexander Campbell led the male cast proficiently, and poised the question ‘why have they been hiding him in Birmingham all this time?’ He has a dynamic flair which he uses well, and an apparent, balanced masculinity. Leanne Benjamin seems set in continuing to defy evolution, by getting younger looking yet more experienced each time she enters the stage – one wonders what her secret is? In closing, a well deserved nod to Mark Stanley’s lighting design – a fine example to his peers.

Next came the world premiere of Liam Scarlett’s Sweet Violets. Scarlett seems to be in the lucky position of serious consideration i.e. the Royal Ballet is looking for a new generation of dance-makers from within its fold, and with Asphodel Meadows (2011) considered an overall success, the commissions keep coming. For this work, Scarlett took inspiration from Victorian London, using actual people involved in the Jack the Ripper/Camden Town murder cases, as well as the paintings of Walter Sickert. Many of the Royal Ballet’s iconic narrative works (Manon, Mayerling, Marguerite & Armand) are based upon similar narratives, featuring women in desperate situations using their sexual prowess to little, or no avail. For this reason, Scarlett looks set to succeed – but the continued dialogue does little for female empowerment.

When Scarlett entered the stage for his reverence at the close of the work, the house went berserk. They have found their new hope – and it seems he won’t let them down. Scarlett is a storyteller first and foremost, and this is well supported by his capacity for concept. He managed to cram a 3 act ballet into just 48 minutes, so imagine what he will do with a full evening at his disposal. He also seems to have the support of the dancers behind him – and by dancers, I mean ‘cream of the crop’. Movement-wise; there’s still a way to go, but this aspect will be refined with experience – most importantly, he has the capability for greatness. He must be careful not to get too carried away though. Yes, dramatic, emotive pas de deux needs to communicate violence at times, but it felt like the audience were actually wincing at the reality of the choreography. Let’s remember that some of those bodies are probably insured for millions of pounds (or perhaps they should be when performing in a Scarlett narrative work from now on). Performance wise, Laura Morera stole the show. Her character (Annie E. Crook) giving her two aspects to communicate – the attractive women, and the ruined victim; the latter a tour de force aided by Scarlett’s panic-stricken movement language. The work’s success was further supported by the lushly dark Rachmaninoff score, and the Dickensian squalor of John Macfarlane’s designs.

Intelligent people realise that in order to stay zeitgeist one shouldn’t be afraid of collaboration. McGregor took this notion, and ran with it considering the creative team behind his newest work Carbon Life. All of the big-guns are involved. Ronson (and Andrew Wyatt) on music, supported by Rufus Wainwright’s orchestration, and a team of hip vocalists. The designs, overseen by London’s own enfant terrible of the fashion world, Gareth Pugh. The odds were 50/50: would it be a ‘meeting of minds’ or a case of ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’? And could McGregor’s movement withstand the multi-layered production, or would it turn into ‘movemak’ (as in ‘muzak’)?

For me, it was a case of ‘too many cooks’. Though some of the music could stand on its own, and Pugh’s designs have a place somewhere – all together, it seemed a bit desperate…a bit try hard. McGregor’s offering was below par, with the movement language not seeming to have gone anywhere development wise. My attention wasn’t captivated, and I’m pretty sure I could sense the same irreverence from some of McGregor’s long time (on-stage) collaborators. The whole episode felt quite Michael Clark-esque – like a retrospective. But Clark is busy doing his own thing at the Whitney – which speaks for itself. A return to form had been hoped for (and by form, I mean Chroma [2006]). Sadly this wasn’t to be – and one wonders whether it will happen again…

So – is the choreographic future of the Royal Ballet safe? If we consider this triple bill as a demonstration of their three biggest players; in general – yes! Wheeldon secured his clout long ago, and continues to show his strengths through (emotionally weighted) abstract works. Scarlett looks set to become the Royal Ballet’s next dramatist, confirming that ‘the future isn’t in fact orange – but scarlet(t)’. And for me, McGregor has one more chance to prove his (supposed) worth – as I’m sure I can hear his competitors in the distance, beating on the backdoor of the Opera House, wanting in!

Matthew Paluch.


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