Royal Ballet Triple Bill – Electric Counterpoint, Asphodel Meadows & Carmen

Electric Counterpoint

Laura Morera, Marianela Nuñez, Ricardo Cervera, Sergei Polunin

Robert Clark (piano)
James Woodrow (guitar)

Christopher Wheeldon – Choreography
J.S Bach & Steve Reich – Music
Jean-Marc Puissant – Design
Natasha Chivers – Lighting
Michael Nunn & William Trevitt – Video Artists

Asphodel Meadows

Sarah Lamb, Johannes Stepanek, Leanne Cope, José Martín, Yuhui Choe, Steven McRae

Artists of The Royal Ballet

Liam Scarlett – Choreography
Francis Poulenc – Music
John McFarlane – Design
Jennifer Tipton – Lighting

Robert Clark, Kate Shipway (piano)


Carmen – Tamara Rojo
José – Thomas Whitehead

Artists of The Royal Ballet

Mats Ek – Choreography
Bizet arr Rodion Shchedrin – Music
Marie-Louise Ekman – DesignJörgen Jansson – Lighting

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Barry Wordsworth (Poulenc)
Pavel Sorokin

Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler

Reviewed: 5 May, 2010
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

A good triple bill of ballets is often likened to the composition of a successful meal – an interesting and palate-stimulating first course, a meaty and satisfying second and a delightful and toothsome pudding. The Royal Ballet in recent times seems to have gone a little Heston Blumenthal in its menu-making, and mixed bills have often taken on a very different taste profile.

Edward Watson and Sarah Lamb in 'Electric Counterpoint' (Royal Ballet, February 2008). ©Dee ConwayIn this current confection, all the works are resolutely modern: one brand new this season, one in its first revival and another import from the ill-fated directorship the late Ross Stretton. Anyone expecting tutus or a look back to the illustrious past of the company was to be sorely disappointed, but that in itself is of no import – Liam Scarlett’s new work Asphodel Meadows is firmly planted in that wonderful choreographic and stylistic tradition and is satisfying in any context.

I purposefully chose second night to sample the ‘second’ casts which indicate the depth of talent in any company and highlight dancers who are rarely in the spotlight of opening performance.

Sarah Lamb in 'Electric Counterpoint' (Royal Ballet, February 2008). ©Dee ConwayElectric Counterpoint is Christopher Wheeldon’s cool, cerebral 2008 ballet involving four dancers. It is an exploration of the dancers themselves, and as such is hugely aided by some truly mesmeric video projections from Nunn and Trevitt, ever now referred to as The Ballet Boyz (even if they are knocking on a bit). The interaction between the live dancer and his/her filmed persona is fascinating, no more so than in the contemplative first section set to solo Bach keyboard pieces.

Each dancer has a section in which we see him/her both live and filmed and also hear them speak in recording. I love this section, and was curious to see four dancers who were not first cast – the recordings have been changed but the choreography was made for others. This quartet were physically and stylistically far more homogenous than the original four and thereby created interestingly different dynamics. Laura Morera, an under-sung dancer in the company albeit now a Principal and Ricardo Cervera (again a company stalwart with bags more style and character than most) were paired together and demonstrated that theirs is perhaps the finest ‘partnership’ in the company at present: they move as one, hear the music as one and both possess that ‘live’ quality which makes one sit up and take notice. It is a source of constant disappointment that they are so rarely scheduled to dance with each other given these qualities which are rarer than hen’s teeth.

Technical marvel Marianela Nuñez was paired with Sergei Polunin, the company’s great white hope as the next, true danseur noble. This was a little less of a perfect fit than with the other pair, Nuñez eagerly wanting to push herself into Wheeldon’s extremes of movement and pose but not always followed by a more reticent Polunin, who gave the impression of wanting to be elsewhere, preferably in a prince’s tights and jerkin; he often looks uncomfortable in modern works.

The second, longer section is to Reich’s Electric Counterpoint but here the effect was destroyed by the inexcusable failure to re-record the video projections of the dancers which appear on the walls of Jean-Marc Puissant’s angled set walls; if the work is about the dancers themselves and their stage personae, the appearance of clearly different dancers behind the live performers nullifies the effect. Wheeldon indulges in his usual tortuous partnering which all four here delivered with aplomb but does not summon the intensity of the first section.

Rupert Pennefather and Marianela Nuñez in Liam Scarlett's Asphodel Meadows. photograph: Johan Persson All eyes are on Liam Scarlett. A 24 year-old First Artist in the company, Asphodel Meadows is his first main stage work, and he has delivered a fluent and confident ballet, expertly using the expanses of the Covent Garden stage and the talents of his fellow dancers. To Poulenc’s adorable Concerto in D minor for two pianos, wonderfully played by the soloists under Barry Wordsworth’s energetic baton, it sets three pairs of soloists (one for each movement) and fourteen corps de ballet. Scarlett has a fresh relationship with the music and responds gleefully to Poulenc’s quirkiness.

Again, second cast threw up some faces little used to the solo follow spot, not Steven McRae, of course, or indeed Yuhui Choe whom he partnered in the third movement – he is one of the brightest stars in the company and she a rising hope; they played confidently with their steps and inflected their movements with charm and vitality. Sarah Lamb in the first movement similarly showed her principal status with a wonderously controlled performance and was most ably partnered by Johannes Stepanek, a hard-working soloist with good line and musical intelligence. I was delighted by Leanne Cope in the second movement – she has long caught the eye in the corps de ballet, and deserves greater focus in her undoubted talents, so her appearance as a soloist in this ballet was most welcome.

In the corps de ballet several very promising young dancers (the men perhaps more exciting than the women) including names to keep an eye on such as artists James Hay and Tristan Dyer as well as the already acknowledged soloist Paul Kay. They represent an exciting future for the company.

Scarlett works firmly in The Royal Ballet tradition and the influences of both Ashton and MacMillan are there to see. That is no criticism – there are no finer teachers of the choreographic art for a young creator. I very much liked the colour palette of John McFarlane’s costumes (burnt cream for the corps and charcoal, rich chocolate and ox blood for the soloists) but was unconvinced about the ballet boots for the men instead of the more flattering ballet slippers (the former can and here do make the ankles look heavy). The set of moving columns of black and rising and falling strips of light was atmospheric. A word about the title: the Asphodel Meadows were where, in Greek mythology, ordinary or indifferent souls passed after death (as opposed to the Elysian Fields for heroes and hellish Tartarus); there are hints of melancholy, memories and lost moments in the choreography but I would have welcomed either a little more, to make the point, or nothing at all from Scarlett. But this is only a minor quibble.

Tamara Rojo & Bennet Gartside in Carmen (Royal Ballet, January 2009). ©Dee ConwayI can give no greater approbation than to state that I would gladly see Asphodel Meadows again; but, alas, dear reader, my delicate constitution did not permit me to revisit Carmen. I have seen it and, indeed, written about it for this site in times past, and feel that it would have been masochistic to force myself to undergo the pain and torment of seeing it again, which I can only liken to invasive surgery without anaesthetic. I cannot understand why this work is scheduled yet again by the company; I loathe it for the vacuity of the choreography and the brash vulgarity of Shchedrin’s arrangement of the innocent Bizet, who couldn’t be consulted and would, I have no doubt, taken exception. I have failed, I know, but sometimes a line must be drawn indicating ‘this far and no further’; I have drawn that line with Ek’s Carmen.

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