21st-Century Choreographers. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

The Royal Ballet – 21st-Century Choreographers – Christopher Wheeldon, Kyle Abraham & Crystal Pite

Within the Golden Hour
Optional Family: A Divertissement
The Statement
Solo Echo

Within the Golden Hour
Dancers – Meaghan Grace Hinkis, James Hay, Fumi Kaneko, Reece Clarke, Yasmine Nagdhi, Ryoichi Hirano, Leticia Dias, Hannah Grennell, Charlotte Tonkinson, Mariko Sasaki, Joshua Junker, Aiden O’Brien, Joseph Sissens, Francisco Serrano
Christopher Wheeldon – Choreography
Ezio Bosso & Antonio Vivaldi – Music
Jasper Conran – Costume Designer
Peter Mumford – Lighting Designer

Optional Family: A Divertissement
Dancers – Claire Calvert, Brayden Gallucci, Joseph Aumeer

Choreography & Text – Kyle Abraham
Nídia Borges & Grischa Lichtenberger – Music
Ilaria Martello – Costume Designer
Dan Scully – Lighting Designer

The Statement
Dancers – Amelia Townsend, Joshua Junker, Kristen Mcnally, Matthew Ball

Crystal Pite – Choreography
Jonathon Young – Text
Owen Belton – Music
Jay Gower Taylor – Set Design
Crystal Pite & Joke Visser – Costume Design
Tom Visser – Lighting Design

Solo Echo
Dancers – Luca Acri, Madison Bailey, Leo Dixon, Benjamin Ella, Nadia Mullova-Barley, Mayara Magri, Francisco Serrano
Christopher Vanderspar (celo) & Robert Clark (piano)

Crystal Pite – Choreography
Music – Johannes Brahms [Sonata for Cello and Piano in E minor, Op.38 – I: Allegro non troppo; Sonata for Cello and Piano in F, Op.99 – II: Adagio affettuoso]
Jay Gower Taylor – Scenic Design
Crystal Pite & Joke Visser – Costume Design
Tom Visser – Lighting Design


Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler

Reviewed: 24 May, 2021
Venue: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

It is hard to imagine a more downbeat, low-key, dispiriting evening with which to mark the return to the stage of a great ballet company.  The underlying concept of the scheduling of these four works is impossible to fathom, their relevance (at least in the case of three out of the four) to this particular ensemble as it marks its 90th-anniversary, non-existent, their tone, again with one exception, anguished or depressing.  In Wayne McGregor The Royal Ballet possesses a Resident Choreographer, but from him nothing, while its Artistic Associate Christopher Wheeldon is represented by a work, Within the Golden Hour, which is neither new (it dates from 2008), nor created on this company (it was made for San Francisco ballet’s 75th anniversary season).  The spectre at this paltry feast is that of the late Liam Scarlett, once the great hope of British choreography and fêted by The Royal Ballet, whose Artistin Residence he once was until his departure by mutual agreement over allegations of misconduct charges which were never formally brought.  It would have been a great gesture of reconciliation and, perhaps, contrition to have scheduled one of his one-act works for this opening programme.  Instead, the company management saw fit to commission a trio from Kyle Abraham, a New York choreographer slated to make a new work next season, and to import two works created by Canadian dance-maker Crystal Pite for Nederlands Dans Theater 1 In 2012 and 2016.  Hardly the blistering heat of new work or, indeed, a celebration in any way whatsoever of a great company and its heritage in its anniversary year.

At least Within the Golden Hour is a well-crafted ballet, excellently structured and evidence of a real understanding of the art of classical dance.  It has the great advantage of Ezio Bosso and Antonio Vivaldi’s music, superbly played by the strings of the Covent Garden orchestra under Music Director Koen Kessels; the score underpins Wheeldon’s neo-classical world of movement to great effect.  Circumstance conspired to make your reviewer miss the first cast but seeing a performance other than press night is instructive in itself.  The entire cast acquitted themselves well, but the overall effect was one of soft-focus dancing, of a loose musicality and a certain fuzziness in the ensemble.  Wheeldon’s sometimes over-busy arm movements need to be crisp and synchronised to achieve their full effect, but here they were often somewhat blurred, a disappointment given how keen the dancers must have been to be back on the stage.  No complaints about the three lead couples, the gold medal narrowly secured by the perfectly matched dancing of Fumi Kaneko (made a principal some six days ago) and Reece Clarke. 

Within the Golden Hour is a gentle, at times elegiac ballet and can work as an opening piece if followed by something of greater substance.  That it proved to the highlight of this programme indicates the extent of the muddle that followed.  Kyle Abraham is making his name as a New York dance-maker but Optional Family: A Divertissement will not raise collective hopes for his scheduled one-act commission from The Royal Ballet next season.  It is ostensibly about the mutual dislike of a couple after thirty-five years of marriage (we know this because of a stilted recording of two voices before the dancing begins) but Abraham’s movement palette does nothing to communicate this.  Clever lighting (triangular pools of light) make this confused piece seem better than it is – if it were presented on a plainly-lit stage in practice clothes, no-one would have the foggiest.  The choreography for Claire Calvert was made for Natalia Osipova and features her multiple trademark turns and spins while Brayden Gallucci executed Marcelino Sambé’s movements with long-limbed elegance, even if his youth (he joined the company in the 2019/20 season) communicated nothing of the irritable world-weariness of the ostensibly middle-aged voice we had heard initially.  At one point, Calvert and Gallucci engage in a semaphore argument at the back of the stage, the dance equivalent of theatrical rhubarb, which was frankly ridiculous.  Quite who the third dancer is meant to be (son? husband’s lover?) is anybody’s guess but, whoever he was and whatever he was meant to be doing, Joseph Aumeer acquitted himself honourably.  The piece is, however, a turkey.

The impression of a dance school show did not dissipate after the single interval with a double helping of Crystal Pite.  The Canadian is well-known to London audiences whom she has surprised, delighted and challenged with works presented by numerous companies and indeed Flight Pattern for The Royal Ballet in 2017 was a notable company debut.  However, that was a work conceived for the Royal Opera House stage and which filled it; these two pieces were conceived for Nederlands Dans Theater’s 1000-seat home auditorium in The Hague, and it showed.

The Statement is a four-hander dealing with an unspecified crisis in a government department or NGO, the quartet of dancers moving around a central office table for most of its duration to recorded voices.  Choreography to the voice is something Pite has used frequently, and in this piece, it works well; the artists are keen and precise, synchronising their movements to the ebb and flow of sometimes heated conversation.  As she has done elsewhere, Pite then moves them into something of a deconstruction of what we have seen and heard previously in what can be loosely termed a ‘dream sequence’.  This makes the work too long, an impression intensified by the fact that this is simply the wrong auditorium for it.  The Royal Opera House is frankly too big for The Statement to pack its full punch, despite the considerable efforts of the dancers who, however good they were, still felt as if they were performing in an alien idiom.  NDT1 is a contemporary dance ensemble and The Royal Ballet is a classical ballet company which no amount of puff about the blurring of boundaries and the breaking down of artistic barriers can alter.

Following works about marital hatred and governmental cover-ups, The Royal Ballet scored a hat-trick in the despondency game with the final work, another Pite piece entitled Solo Echo.  With a black backdrop (admittedly enlivened by falling snow) and black costumes, the stage picture could not have been more sombre, an impression underlined by two movements from Brahms’s oeuvre for cello and piano.  The music – beautifully played in the pit by Christopher Vanderspar and Robert Clark – dominated, and Pite’s choreography simply could not compete.  The first movement featured often frantic movement, runnings-on and off, falls to the floor and a general muddle; the second saw some order restored aa Pite employed one of her favourite choreographic tropes, a brilliant use of the full ensemble who flow and pulsate as one.  Being Pite, there are certainly impressive moments in Solo Echo, but overall, this is not one of her works one would rush back to see again.  As the end to an evening at The Royal Ballet, it was low-key, depressing even; as the end to the first programme after half a year of enforced absence, it indicated that artistic scheduling at The Royal Ballet has yet to awake from its covid-induced slumbers.  At a time when an audience, starved of dance for at least half a year and keen as mustard to see something joyous, uplifting, comic even, to present such a downbeat evening is simply not on.

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