This is a very long evening. The gift of constructing a ballet Triple Bill is a rare one indeed, which, on present form, The Royal Ballet director Kevin O'Hare does not yet demonstrate. To couple Balanchine's weighty The Four Temperaments with MacMillan's massive Song of the Earth is brave enough, but then to commission a work from Hofesh Shechter, choreographer du moment known for dark, brooding work, seems questionable; and so it proved with the sombre Untouchable, which provides anything but light relief sandwiched between them. It is a programme of 'big' ballets, with large stage forces and bare stages, and 'heavy' music - Hindemith's 'theme with four variations' and Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde alongside a new composition from Shechter himself and Nell Catchpole It is unrelenting and unremittingly serious in tone; the best Triple Bills provide illumination in which works either establish contrast or similarity.
Most successful was the revival of The Four Temperaments whose continuing modernity is striking, all the more so given the date of its creation, 1946. The company proved sure in the requisite style, a pared-back neo-classicism which characterises Balanchine at his finest. And indeed this work is one of his greatest achievements, establishing a close relationship with Hindemith's musical brilliance with choreography flashing with unpredictable, fantastic creativity, the underlying concept based on the medieval concept of the four temperaments: Melancholic, Sanguinic, Phlegmatic and Choleric. Throughout, the corps de ballet impressed greatly (as is common these days with The Royal Ballet), jutting its hips and stabbing its pointe shoes with suitable attack, and soloists were consistently good.
It was good to see First Soloist Akane Takada paired with a re-energised Federico Bonelli again after their highly successful recent Swan Lake; it makes a felicitous dance partnership and they both launched themselves into the confident moves of Sanguinic with panache. Zenaida Yanowsky was in imperious form in Choleric but the laurels ultimately go to Edward Watson whose intelligence made perfect sense of the stop-start choreography of Phlegmatic which can seem frustrating when performed by a lesser artist – the company is lucky to posses such a dancer. The orchestra delivered an assured performance.
Song of the Earth was a less happy and stylistically less assured performance, betraying perhaps a lack of rehearsal time. It is a massive undertaking for any company and must be performed with consistency and focus; it was a shame that the opening movement was scrappily danced, and betrayed an uncertain relationship with the music. The performance then proceeded to move in and out of focus, at times marshalling its forces, at others letting them veer dangerously away from each other. At the heart of this ballet is the central trio of The Woman, The Man, and The Messenger of Death, and here there was too little shared focus. Everything Marianela Nuñez does is beautifully phrased and formed, her line pure, her body sculpted out of balletic alabaster, but she is yet to find the emotional core of the role, the inner soul which illuminates all the movements. Thiago Soares was out of sorts, and while Carlos Acosta established a threatening implacability as the Messenger, there is more that can be done with this part. I missed the drive and impetus that can be heard in this work in Stuttgart (where the ballet was first created and where it remains healthily in the repertoire) from both orchestra and vocal soloists.
And so to Hofesh Shechter. This Israeli-born choreographer has had the most meteoric of rises: from the most modest beginnings of experimental work at The Place in 2004, he has progressed to the South Bank, Sadler's Wells, residency in Brighton and now a commission from The Royal Ballet. He is not a ballet choreographer, this company has gleefully jumped on the fashionable bandwagon amongst ballet companies worldwide to invite non-classical dance creators into their hallowed sanctums, proudly trumpeting the virtues of breaking down the boundaries within dance as an art form. And so after the 'acquisition' of modern dance maker Wayne McGregor, who subsequently became the company's Resident Choreographer (following in the steps of Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan...), The Royal Ballet has thought it wise to turn to Shechter, whose dance style is highly personal and not based on any particular school of training.
Shechter has made his name with brooding, often angry, anguished works, which have seen him create the scores and well as the movement. It is loud and brash stuff and, with his most successful pieces, very impressive; what was a fascinating prospect was how he would interact with the classically trained bodies of The Royal Ballet's dancers, how his own aesthetic and focus might be altered in an encounter with dance artists from a world far removed from his own. The major disappointment with Untouchable is that they have not. The twenty young dancers are clearly having a ball, freed from the strictures of the perfect placement required by their level of classical dance, but Shechter seems to have taken little if anything of what they have to offer – they have learned how to perform his own brand of movement in the fashion of the dancers of his eponymously-named company. They bring the flexibility of their spines and the expressively of their arms to his choreography, rolling and lolling in true Shechter-like fashion.
Untouchable is apparently on the theme of immigration as Shechter himself declares himself to be an immigrant to this country. It opens with militaristic marching and immediately impresses with the cohesion of the twenty-strong ensemble, and indeed, ensemble is what Shechter does best, the mass movement rolling back and forth across the stage in an organic manner, dancers subsumed into the mass. Quite what it all has to do with immigration is anyone's guess (hints at different ethnictiies are to be gleaned from the costuming), but, no doubt to add the piquancy of relevance to this particular brew, it dawns on the audience that a voice intoning a repeated phrase in this Middle-Eastern inspired score is actually saying 'Nigel Farage' over and over again; I was unaware that the Leader of UKIP had as yet declared his policy on modern dance. And so it rolls on, the structure remaining unclear, despite stops and starts which divide the work into obvious sections but establish little if any difference between them. At one time matters seem to be coming to something of a climax only for it all to stop and start up again; at another juncture, the composers have thought it a musical wheeze, and perhaps a nod at lyric theatre itself, for the orchestra to deliver the sound of itself tuning up; this is typical of a creation which seems to be a conflation of disjointed ideas.
The new can be meant to shock, and when Kenneth MacMillan's version of The Rite of Spring for The Royal Ballet was premiered in 1962, there were howls of protest that there was not a single ballet move in the whole undertaking; that did not stop it from becoming one of the pearls of the company's repertoire and a towering achievement. Shechter's Untouchable is unlikely to attain such heights, for where MacMillan, a classical choreographer, forged a new, brilliant movement language for Stravinsky's extraordinary score and never repeated it, Shechter has simply brought more of what he has already created elsewhere. As an experiment for the company, it is to be applauded and has clearly stimulated its grouping of young dancers, but ultimately, that is as far as it goes.