The Royal Ballet – Wayne McGregor’s Raven Girl & Balanchine’s Symphony in C

Raven Girl – ballet in one act to choreography by Wayne McGregor after the book by Audrey Niffenegger [World premiere]
Symphony in C – ballet in four movements to choreography by George Balanchine to Bizet’s music

Raven Girl

Postman – Edward Watson
Raven Child – Mirabelle Seymour
Raven – Olivia Cowley
Raven Girl – Sarah Lamb
19th-Century Couple – Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Tristan Dyer
Boy – Paul Kay
Doctor – Thiago Soares
Chimeras – Camille Bracher, Fernando Montapio, Dawid Trzensimiech
Raven Prince – Eric Underwood
Ravens/City People – Artists Of The Royal Ballet

Audrey Niffenegger – Author
Wayne Mcgregor – Adaptation, Direction & Choreography
Gabriel Yared – Music
Vicki Mortimer – Designs
Lucy Carter – Lighting design
Avi Deepres – Film design
Simon Bennison – Associate lighting design
Gary Avis – Ballet master
Amanda Eyles – Dance notator

Symphony in C

First Movement: Allegro vivo – Zenaida Yanowsky, Ryoichi Hirano, Claire Calvert, Fumi Kaneko, Fernando Montaño, Johannes Stepanek
Second Movement: Adagio – Marianela Nuñez, Thiago Soares, Tara-Brigitte Bhavnani, Nicol Edmonds, Olivia Cowley, Tomas Mock
Third Movement: Allegro vivace – Yuhui Choe, Steven McRae, Akane Takada, Brian Maloney, Elizabeth Harrod, Kenta Kura
Fourth Movement: Allegro vivace – Laura Morera, Ricardo Cervera, Yasmine Naghdi, Tristan Dyer, Emma Maguire, Valentino Zucchetti

George Balanchine – Choreography
Georges Bizet – Music [Symphony in C]
Anthony Dowell – Designs
John B. Read – Lighting design
Patricia Neary – Staging
Christopher Saunders – Ballet master
Samantha Raine – Ballet mistress

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Koen Kessels

Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler

Reviewed: 24 May, 2013
Venue: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Sarah Lamb as Raven Girl & Eric Underwood as Prince (Raven Girl, The Royal Ballet, May 2013). Photograph: Johan PerssonWayne McGregor has been gleefully épater-ing the bourgeois of the Royal Opera House since Dame Monica Mason controversially brought this non-classically trained creator into the company as Resident Choreographer, but now even he has been sucked into the world of narrative work. He brings his undeniable intelligence to the project but the flaws in this new ballet are so myriad as to create a black hole of negatives which ultimately sucks the energy out of Raven Girl. First and foremost must be Audrey Niffenegger’s dull narrative, an attempt at a new fairy tale that leaves the viewer unconcerned about the protagonists and unsure about the story-line, but nothing that a few evenings curled up with the Brothers Grimm, Perrault, Christian Andersen or even Oscar Wilde could not sort out. The premise is that a postman falls in love with a raven with whom he has a chick who grows up to be a woman who can only squawk. She, however, dreams of having wings instead of arms, has an operation, but is finally whisked off her talons by the Raven Prince. End of story.

McGregor is no narrative choreographer. Raven Girl looks at times stunning, thanks especially to Vicki Mortimer’s sets, and there are clever video projections by Ravi Duprees, but the impossibly talented Lucy Carter’s lighting is simply too dark much of the time, and the front scrim, which is down for the entirety of the performance, serves merely to blur the stage further. The palette of movement is severely limited, more in the style of Matthew Bourne’s dance-theatre than of a ballet performed by this country’s premier classical troupe on its most prestigious lyric stage. It begins dully with several short scenes which attempt to establish the story, although McGregor intends Raven Girl to be seen as ‘visual theatre’ rather than a narrative. It is a pity, then, that the work is billed as ‘a modern fairy tale’, that genre being noted for clear, strong storylines, cleanly told.

Edward Watson as Postman (Raven Girl, The Royal Ballet, May 2013). Photograph: Johan PerssonGabriel Yared’s commissioned score, powerfully played by the Covent Garden orchestra under Koen Kessels’s careful guidance, certainly betrays the fact that he is most noted as a composer for film. There are effective moments, especially when the live music is combined with electronics, but all too often the sound becomes decidedly ‘sub fusc atmospheric’ which, allied to a dark stage, narrative stasis and precious little movement of interest, drags the work downwards.

McGregor has tried to produce movement for the birds which escapes the dance idiom of fluttering hands and swan-like arm-flapping, but in this he fails: there are several sequences when the large corps de ballet sweep onto the stage in what can be termed pas de corvides, but their sashaying motions are repetitive and uninteresting, the brooding menace of a gathering unkindness of ravens never explored. Elsewhere there is much ‘mime’, posing and a plethora of props which roll on and off, but very little actual dancing. When the dancers do get the chance to dance, the vocabulary is stilted – the choreographer is not classically-trained and while it is a relief to get few of the twitches, spasms and lunges that characterise his usual style, he seems uncertain what to do instead. The named principals gamely give their all to this project, although poor Edward Watson is reduced to looking bemused as the Postman, and Paul Kay, apart from an impressive small solo which shows some characterisation, seems merely to pace the stage anxiously as the Boy. The costuming for the ravens is ingenious – a sort of black fencer’s mask and plastron, elegantly donned by Olivia Cowley as the postman’s wife (can you marry a raven?), Raven Girl’s mother, who nuzzles her daughter most affectingly, and who succeeds in perching herself artfully on passing bits of furniture.

Thiago Scares as Doctor & Sarah Lamb as Raven Girl (Raven Girl, The Royal Ballet, May 2013). Photograph: Johan PerssonThiago Soares has precious little to do as the doctor at the university Raven Girl attends and who operates on her to allow her to have wings attached to her limbs (this is an unpleasant sequence, as is the lecture which features three ‘chimeras’ or grotesques, dancers whose costumes deform them and who move disturbingly). Eric Underwood suddenly appears for no reason in the last scene as the Raven Prince (he is not dressed as a raven nor has he their movements ) to execute a dull pas de deux with Raven Girl which stands alone stylistically, a variation on the Underwood/Sarah Lamb duos in McGregor works past. It makes for a very low-key ending to the whole affair. Lamb, at times fetchingly kitted out in what seems to be a black Louise Brooks bob, is unstinting in the title role, although what she is called upon to do is, choreographically speaking, distinctly wonky. She does ‘anguished’ well, and I was impressed with her solo of frustration as a young girl who wants to join the ravens in flight but unfortunately McGregor then introduces a suspended ring which has her striking poses in mid-air, for all the world like the be-feathered Josephine Baker descending from the flies at the Casino de Paris for her floor-show. It strikes the wrong note. The ‘wings’ she dons after the operation are impressively constructed, but mean that he is then generally limited to pose.

Raven Girl is a muddle, and a long muddle at that – 72 minutes is a very long time in ballet without a break. McGregor has certainly created something very different from his previous works, and the artistic team that has been assembled is mightily impressive. As a ballet by The Royal Ballet, it disappoints by its failure to tell a story and the paucity of its dance opportunities; as a piece of ‘dance-theatre’ it is too unclear, too long and, frankly, too dull. Raven Girl is a lame duck.

Symphony in C, The Royal Ballet, May 2013. Photograph: Bill CooperAfter the interval the curtain rose to the audience’s audible relief on the brightly-lit bare stage, white tutus and sparkling rhinestones of Balanchine’s Symphony in C. It was not a vintage performance (there were three major cast changes) but the corps de ballet performed enthusiastically with some care to placement and style and the orchestra sounded superb, Kessels again demonstrating why he is one of the finest conductors for dance. The care he and it lavished on this youthful Bizet work was most welcome, the strings particularly silky in the second movement.

Marianela Nuñez was a serene principal in the second (Adagio) movement, working hard to bring the hauteur and seamless quality that mark the greatest performances, and Yuhui Choe and Steven McRae were well matched in the third movement (Allegro), sunny of disposition, accurate of technique. In the fourth movement Laura Morera and Ricardo Cervera demonstrated again how well they complement each other with their sophisticated, shared musicality; their supporting demi-soloists Yasmine Naghdi, Emma Maguire, Tristan Dyer and Valentino Zucchetti were particularly fine.

Pairing Symphony in C with Raven Girl is an odd decision, almost guaranteed not to please anyone as an evening of dance, and while there is a certain contrast between dark narrative and light abstraction, their combination is ultimately unsatisfying.

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