Kevin O’Hare, Director of The Royal Ballet, is a man in the thrall of the new – his stated aim is to create modern classics, to re-forge the repertoire, in other words. In one way he could not be more right, as new creations are the lifeblood of any repertoire dance company, as acknowledged by Ninette de Valois, The Royal’s own founder. But O’Hare has a problem – the passing decades mean that his company is custodian of a growing number of such classics, each more than worthy of revival. How then to balance heritage with the new, the past with the future? O’Hare’s answer, rightly or wrongly, is to go hell-for-leather for the latter, but, as evidenced by this latest triple bill at Covent Garden, some quality control is desperately needed.
For anyone coming to ‘see’ The Royal Ballet, the company of Ashton and Fonteyn, MacMillan and Bussell, this would have been a pretty perplexing experience, a ragbag of works which falls far short of complementing each other and that share only one thing – their newness. Not even that is strictly true with The Illustrated ‘Farewell’, which marks the welcome return to the company after a generation’s absence for Twyla Tharp, the now veteran American dance-creator. She has revived one of her early works – As Time Goes By, created in 1973 for Joffrey Ballet – onto which she has grafted what is, in essence, an extended pas de deux for the luminous pairing of Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae. Certainly, the star duo do not disappoint, reveling in Tharp’s roughed-up classicism, which easily fuses classical steps with both modern inflection and Broadway shimmy. Her choice of the first two movements of Haydn’s ‘Farewell’ Symphony is judicious – it underpins firmly the choreography and confirms the sophistication of her creativity.
The second half of the symphony was Tharp’s choice back in 1973, so the sense of completion, over 40 years on, establishes an interplay between her artistic past and present. Indeed, today’s Tharp, perhaps encouraged by the technical accomplishment of the two dancers, is more expansive, more knowingly playful and, crucially, more aware of the audience who are brought into Lamb and McRae’s playtime with knowing looks and glances. The earlier section is more introspective, an ultimately large ensemble going about its dance business almost unaware of the audience. It is delicate stuff, small gestures and steps counting for much, a premium laid on precision and speed, even if the groupings are not always clear and the stage picture is a tad messy. It is pleasant fare and a neat showcase for a young company possessed of fine dancers (both Mayara Magri and Joseph Sissens make their mark), even if it makes for a polite, muted opener to the evening. Costumes are in a selection of chocolate hues, from white, through milk to 80 per cent cocoa, and it is neat to echo this in Lamb and McRae’s new outfits, given a more contemporary cut.
Performed against a black backdrop, The Illustrated ‘Farewell’ is all about the dance; after the interval, the Royal Opera House’s main stage is opened up and filled with anything but choreography in The Wind. Arthur Pita, ex-dancer in Matthew Bourne’s company, has made his name in recent years as a maker of distinctly theatrical dance and has worked generally on a small scale. Here, in his first commission from a large ballet company, he benefits from the immense technical and logistical support afforded here and, judging by the ambition of the undertaking, considerable financial support. On paper, it might have seemed an admirable idea to wish to bring ‘The Wind’, a 1925 novel by Dorothy Scarborough and 1928 film starring Lillian Gish, to life, but in practice it translates into an empty hulk of a dance work, featuring large-scale design and music and small-scale choreography.
Three ugly purpose-built wind machines dominate, whirring away to create suitable air flow, but in reality taking up huge amounts of space and looking for all the world like three gargantuan shoe polishers. It must also be said that the wisdom of asking dancers to perform in a gale has to be questioned – human muscles are delicate and dancers are notoriously keen to keep themselves warm at all times; ‘The Wind’ cannot have done its hard-working cast any favours. The premise, a schlocky, supernatural tale of the Texan wind driving a young newcomer mad and her rape by a local man, is not necessarily alien to the dance world – think the horrors of Agnes de Mille’s Fall River Legend, the gruesome tale of Lizzie Borden), but where the older American choreographer created a sparse, lean telling of her chosen story, Pita espouses the ‘more is more’ approach: he peoples his stage with sundry cowpunchers, rancheros and pioneer women along with a wild old woman called Cynthia and Mawarra, one of Pita’s own improvements on the original, the lost spirit of a Comanche warrior.
Into this decidedly rum set-up comes Natalia Osipova’s hapless Letty Mason, a good Virginia girl who arrives down south; we instantly know she is essentially plant food as she wears a pretty lilac frock while the others are in mud browns. Cue the playing out of a frankly preposterous dance narrative with a palette of movement so limited that precious little is conveyed; we care not for Lizzie or for the sundry weirdos that surround her – even her rape while her husband is away is a muted affair (for a harrowing ballet rape, Pita should reference Kenneth MacMillan’s 57-year-old The Invitation). Nevertheless, it all looks rather wonderful with superb lighting from Adam Silverman and Jeremy Herbert’s sparse settings, even if the Frank Moon’s noisy, garbled score is unsatisfying. However, it is the wind machines which ultimately spoil it; they simply dwarf the dancers, and it seems they have cost so much that they must always be in evidence, so cue much standing in billowing clothing, or the faintly ridiculous wedding pas de deux for Osipova and the put-upon Thiago Soares in which her bridal veil flutters at least twelve feet horizontally at all times, reducing the ballerina to the status of a moving flag-pole.
The Wind is at its most effective when huge swathes of dark silk billow and flutter, as when Edward Watson’s white-clad and made-up Mawarra gyrates beneath, but ultimately, one feel that stage pictures and even choreography have been formulated to show off these miracles of engineering. One cannot imagine this bizarre enterprise having a life beyond its initial run of performances – with such huge technical forces required and the paucity of actual choreography, it is difficult to see the dancers being made to dance in a draught again.
O’Hare’s policy of commissioning new works has yielded decidedly mixed results, with the odd five star hit (Crystal Pite’s Flight Pattern) outnumbered by the mediocre and the downright bad. Hofesh Shechter, a niche choreographer by any measure, created his Untouchable to less than enthusiastic reaction back in 2015, but here it is again, to close what is a long evening. One can see how his particular weighty, emphatic and earth-bound movement style and vocabulary would appeal to a score of young classical dancers – it would contrast wholly with their training and experience and thus be of interest to them. For the audience, however, it is all pretty heavy-going, a 30-minute chunk of pure Shechter, who did not feel it appropriate to alter his own aesthetic one iota when working with a classical ensemble for the first time. The movements of suppressed anger, violence and frustration, of supplication, the heavy rhythmical accents, the self-composed score, the combat/urban outfits for a phalanx of unidentifiable dancers are all Shechter tropes, familiar to those who have seen the choreographer’s eponymously-named company, and imported lock, stock and barrel to Covent Garden. It makes for pretty dull fare, wholly lacking in the flashes of brilliance which Shechter can display, and a leaden half hour, feeling much longer, devoid of interest, an exercise in movement but little else.
- Star ratings:
- The illustrated ‘Farewell’ ***
The Wind **
- Further performances at 7.30 p.m. on 9, 10, 13 & 17 November