“Something borrowed, something new…” might well be the subtitle of The Royal Ballet’s latest mixed bill comprising four works which do not complement each other in any way. The skill of constructing a successful mixed programme is rare indeed – Sir Peter Wright, when Director of Birmingham Royal ballet was, perhaps, the last to put together works which not only stood alone but also established contrasts and similarities which made the whole very much greater than the sum of its parts. This latest mixed evening does not do that. Billed by the company director as an evening contemporary ballet, it nevertheless includes William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude from 1996 and George Balanchine’s Tarantella, created in 1964, a revival of Christopher Wheeldon’s Strapless and a new work, Symphonic Dances by Liam Scarlett, which, with almost an hour of interval, makes for a long evening indeed. This performance was given by the ‘second’ casts in each of the works, always a litmus-test of the depth of talent in any company away from the glare of a premiere.
The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude is a superb work, a demanding, gruelling, fifteen-minute high-octane ballet, created for ballet Frankfurt, Forsythe’s own company and a particularly talented quintet of dancers within it. It is very much a dancer’s ballet, an opportunity to push oneself to the limits, all within the classical dance idiom. Set brilliantly to the final movement of Schubert’s ‘Great’ C-major symphony, it is underpinned by the pulse and drive of that superb piece of music, and launches the dancers in a whirlwind of movement, a showcase for both their contemporaneity and classicism. Stephen Galloway’s stripped down costuming is striking, not least the streamlined, lime-green saucer tutus sported by the women and the magenta all-in-ones by the men. High praise indeed to the five dancers, something of the cream of younger talent in the company, at ease in Forsythe’s almost lyrical idiom for this piece – the twisting and bending, the pliant torso he requires are, fortuitously, second nature to dancers of this company, given their Ashton heritage. Special mention to Itziar Mendizabal, cool and glamourous, and the impeccably-mannered James Hay, whose carves his movements with elegance and fine-tuned musicality – his rise through the ranks since joining in 2008 has been a pleasure to watch.
Fun as it may be, Tarantella’s entry into the repertoire is a strange decision. It is a showcase for two strong and vivacious dancers, but there are many such works which lie neglected in the company’s repertoire drawer and which deserve revival if they are not to disappear altogether. Valentino Zucchetti and Yasmine Naghdi donned the Neapolitan costumes to rattle through this ten-minute balletic soufflé – both impressed, Naghdi by the insouciance of her performance, tossing off technical challenges with the shrug of a shoulder; Zucchetti brought a lively stage presence and indefatigable brio, even if his sauciness at times bordered on the too knowing. What do with your mouth as a dancer must be a thorny question; there is the slightly dyspeptic stony-face beloved of modern choreographers or the rictus smile of the classical fairy, but perhaps the least attractive is the open-eyed and mouthed surprised look which is all too redolent of Harlequin and his unfunny caperings. Tarantella doesn’t need it.
A pall descended on the theatre with Christopher Wheeldon’s dreadful Strapless, a woefully misconceived attempt to tell the frankly uninteresting story of the fall from social grace of Amélie Gautreau, the subject of John Singer Sargent’s ‘Portrait de Madame X’, which scandalised the beau monde of Paris in 1884. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s score manages to be both vapid and overblown, a filmic skitter which creates a feeling for neither place nor time; Bob Crowley’s designs are a shade too West End/Broadway, with items of set rolling on and off, and no sense of period, which is left to the costuming.
Strapless was not well-received at its premiere in 2016 and it is reported that Wheeldon has worked on this revival to address its evident problems. He need not have bothered – it retains its place in the pantheon of The Royal Ballet’s turkeys of recent times, alongside such prize hum-dingers as McGregor’s Raven Girl, Acosta’s Carmen, Scarlett’s Frankenstein and Shechter’s Untouchable (the last of which is, inexplicably, to return in the autumn). The dancers struggle gamely on, trying their best with the material they have, but never bringing an artistic pulse to what is a flat-lining ballet. Lauren Cuthbertson does what she can with the role of Amélie Gautreau, attempting to give her character depth and emotion, but it is to little effect in long stretches of dancing which mean nothing; a long, un-sexy pas de deux of supposed seduction with Ryoichi Hirano’s blank Doctor Pozzi is followed by an interminable pas de trois with Valeri Hristov’s game Sargent and his lover Albert de Belleroche, played with élan by Calvin Richardson. Their efforts are simply in vain.
Liam Scarlett has not always enjoyed the easiest of rides with his ballets at Covent Garden – after the success of his early and largely abstract Asphodel Meadows, he favoured narrative works, which often showed the need for stronger dramaturgy. It is a pleasure to report his return to form with his latest creation, Symphonic Dances to Rachmaninov’s composition of the same name. It was conceived in the first instance as a showcase for retiring Principal Zenaida Yanowsky, but also, in this, the second cast, for long-time Scarlett ‘muse’ Laura Morera who brings her unmatched musicality and artistic intelligence to the central role. Strikingly set with an open stage, wings and backstage disappearing off into the gloom, Symphonic Dances comes across as a direct reaction to the composer’s music, devoid of message or interpretation.
The dancers are clad in crimson and black costumes, which become more skimpy as the work progresses, and a large LED wall descends, rises and rotates to provide images and lighting effects. It looks tremendous. In terms of the choreography, Scarlett has successfully created a modern symphonic ballet, a genre essentially invented by the now near-forgotten Léonid Massine, once considered one of the most important choreographers of the twentieth century. Just as he brought to life Tchaikovky’s Fifth Symphony in Les Présages and Brahms’s Fourth in Choreartium, so Scarlett does to Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, the movements growing organically out of the orchestral sound.
Morera is a central figure, in turns maternal, seductive, passionate and dynamic as she motivates and energises the dancers around her as a sort of ‘Lady of the Dance’. Nowhere is this more brilliantly achieved than in the second movement lento assai – tempo di valse, a mysterious section in which eight men, bare-chested but wearing floor-length overskirts, dance for and around Morera clad in a vaguely masculine jacket, a subtle visual role-reversal which adds intrigue. Here Scarlett moves his dancers with impressive detail and invention, the eight men of the company powerful and intense. Matthew Ball is notable as Morera’s pas de deux partner in the fourth movement, his elegant line and proportions allied to secure partnering, and Giacomo Rovero makes his mark as a boyish counterfoil in the first – Rovero is not yet a member of the company but essentially an apprentice; for this young man to take centre stage at Covent Garden with such confidence and security bodes well for the future. Scarlett’s new work is a notable addition to the repertoire.
High praise to the house orchestra under The Royal Ballet’s Music Director Koen Kessels, who has effected something of a sea-change in its playing for the dance. Kessels brings both rigour and an understanding of the theatre to his performances, eliciting the standard of orchestral playing of which this distinguished ensemble is capable. Their performance of the Rachmaninoff was a highlight – rich and sonorous, generously textured – but both conductor and orchestra gave much pleasure throughout the evening and contributed much to its successes.
- The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude ****
- Tarantella ****
- Strapless *
- Symphonic Dances *****