Thorvaldsdottir, Bernstein & Martinů @ The Royal Ballet

Untitled, 2023
Anna Thorvaldsdottir
Catamorphosis and Metacosmos

Corybantic Games
Leonard Bernstein
Serenade (after Plato’s ‘Symposium’)

Anastasia Act III
Bohuslav Martinů
Symphony No. 6

Untitled, 2023
Choreography – Wayne McGregor
Set Designer – Carmen Herrera
Costume Designer – Burberry
Lighting Designer – Lucy Carter

Dancers – Denilson Almeida, Harris Bell, Liam Boswell, William Bracewell, Leticia Dias, Leo Dixon, Melissa Hamilton, Fumi Kaneko, Sae Maeda, Marco Masciari, Anna Rose O’Sullivan, Viola Pantuso, Calvin Richardson, Giacomo Rovero, Sumina Sasaki, Francisco Serrano, Joseph Sissens, Charlotte Tonkinson, Marianna Tsembenhoi

Corybantic Games
Choreography – Christopher Wheeldon
Set Designer – Jean-Marc Puissant
Costume Designer – Erdem Moralioglu
Lighting Designer – Peter Mumford

Dancers: Matthew Ball, William Bracewell, Fumi Kaneko, Leticia Dias, Annette Buvoli, Anna Rose O’Sullivan, Luca Acri, Fumi Kaneko, Ryoichi Hirano, Leticia Dias, Annette Buvoli, Matthew Ball, William Bracewell, Mayara Magri, Mica Bradbury, Ashley Dean, Isabel Lubach, Julia Roscoe, Charlotte Tonkinson, Amelia Townsend, Harry Churches, Leo Dixon, Kevin Emerton, Joonhyuk Jun, Harrison Lee, Taisuke Nakao

Anastasia Act III
Choreography – Kenneth MacMillan
Electronic music – The Studio of the Technical University of West Berlin
Designer – Bob Crowley
Lighting Designer – John B. Read

Anna Anderson, the woman who believes she is Anastasia – Laura Morera
Rasputin – Ryoichi Hirano
Her Husband – Bennet Gartside
Matron – Elizabeth McGorian
Soldiers, Nurses, Peasants, Relatives – Artists of The Royal Ballet

Orchestra of The Royal Opera, Covent Garden
Conductor – Koen Kessels


3 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: G.J. Dowler

Reviewed: 9 June, 2023
Venue: Royal Opera House

A final mixed bill from The Royal Ballet to close their dull 2022/23 season which does little to raise the spirits; not only does the company seem allergic to the whole concept of an evening of different works (there have only been two over the course of the whole year), but the art of scheduling seems to have been wholly lost.  This was an evening guaranteed to leave everyone both unsatisfied and tired, as the timings given were for 3 hours, 5 minutes in total, meaning the last ballet began at 9.50, a long time to wait indeed.

That the wait proved to be well worth it does nothing to diminish the fact That the Royal Ballet management hardly gave the best setting in which to appreciate the expressionist masterpiece that is the final act of Kenneth MacMillan’s Anastasia.  The revival, chosen as her last ballet by Laura Morera, retiring company principal and the ensemble’s finest dance-actress, is simply superb, with the incomparable Morera straining every sinew and squeezing last drop of interpretative detail in a role created by the late, great Lynn Seymour.  Anastasia Act III is a difficult watch, as we look into the fractured mind of a woman who thinks she is the only surviving member of the assassinated Russian Imperial family.  Episodes – fantasies? memories? – flash by: Anna/Anastasia examined by medical staff in a sanatorium, or fleeing the Bolsheviks, or being assessed by Russian exile ladies, or duetting with Rasputin or gaily dancing with her sisters.  At its centre, the dual role of a fractured personality, a mammoth challenge for a dancer who must sustain a bewildering number of emotions for 40 gruelling minutes.  Morera is a spectacular interpreter of the part, bringing a lifetime’s stage experience and her own innate theatrical instincts to bear.  it was a challenging, difficult choice of role in which to leave the Covent Garden stage– her bravery paid off fully.  She was surrounded by long-time collaborators – it was very good to see Bennet Gartside take a break from character roles to dance once more as The Husband, while Ryoichi Hirano brought menacing gravitas to the sinister role of Rasputin and Elizabeth McGorian was a frighteningly austere Matron.  Worryingly, the ballet suffered from several audience leavers – was it the late finish or perhaps the fact that the company has largely turned its back in recent on works which challenge and stimulate in favour of the bland and inoffensive.  Anastasia dates from 1967, some 56 years ago, yet it seems that some in the Covent Garden audience now subscribe to the ‘I can’t be offended’ school of thought, so that the admittedly distressing footage dating from the Russian Revolution that Anna and we, the audience, are shown are now unpalatable.

Opening this overlong evening was a deeply disappointing new work from company Resident Choreographer Wayne McGregor.  Pretentiously titled Untitled, 2023, as if the choreographer could not be bothered by such trivialities as to name his work properly, it is an under-baked effort with movement seemingly recycled from his corpus of existing work. There is nothing new in this expensive production, which may be exactly what pleases the MacGregor groupies out in force on first night, but one cannot help wondering what exactly it brings to the company repertoire.  McGregor is an extremely fluent creator of movement, so much so that one senses that Untitled, 2023 could have been twice, three or even four times as long without him breaking a sweat; it simply starts and goes on until it ends.  Irritating programme notes about McGregor favouring a “voyage of discovery” for the audience rather than opting for “narrative, meaning and message” cannot disguise the core emptiness of his totally abstract work, a cold, arid world of hyper-extensions, flicks, lunges and, here, some decidedly worrisome violent jerks of the neck, which lead one to fear for long-term effects on the dancers’ physical well-being.

McGregor, as is his wont, has surrounded himself with ‘big names’ from other art forms – the late artist Carmen Herrera whose simple painting of a squashed green triangle on a white background forms the backdrop and whose inverted white ‘V’ structure stands off-centre, the House of Burberry, whose Creative Director has provided body-hugging costumes which echo it in terms of geometry and colours used (and remind one very strongly Marsha Skinner’s concept for Merce Cunningham’s 1991 Beach Birds), and hot-name composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, whose two pieces used here employ large orchestral forces and powerfully evoke (to this reviewer, at least) the desolate landscapes and majesty of wild nature of her native Iceland.  The Covent Garden orchestra played magnificently under Koen Kessel’s energising baton.  As is often the case, McGregor’s predictable and repetitive choreography is overwhelmed by the other contributors, most notably by Thorvaldsdottir’s sound world, with which the movement appears to have no relationship – indeed, on at least two occasions, the dancers continue their course in extreme calisthenics well after the orchestra falls silent.  Again, the programme makes much of McGregor’s “boundary-pushing choreographic practice” which boils down to “collaboration”, however, the disjunct between music and movement in Untitled, 2023, as between movement and design in The Dante Project, would seem to indicate that whatever collaboration has taken place has been at a distance.

The dancers, professionals to the last, hurl themselves into it all, but to little effect.  The movement they receive is extremely variable, from an underdone, and seemingly under-rehearsed section for two women (Melissa Hamilton and Anna Rose O’Sullivan), to one between William Bracewell and Calvin Richardson which appeared properly finished.  Untitled, 2023 is a dull, boring even, affair as it churns its meaningless way until its end, a moment so arbitrary that one wishes it had come rather earlier.

Sandwiched between the meaningless and the magnificent, Christopher Wheeldon’s elliptically titled Corybantic Games to a generally unlovable helping of Bernstein with an equally esoteric label.  In another example of artistic disjunct, Wheeldon inexplicably ignored the composer’s inspiration of Plato’s Symposium, a dialogue of related statements in praise of love, each statement made by a distinguished speaker.  Instead, he opted for the wild frenzy of uncontrolled corybantic movement, except that he doesn’t; this is an example of Wheeldon at his most polished, with careful stage placements, sophisticated duets and intriguing groupings.  Alas, Bernstein’s overlong philosophical musical musings are in themselves unsatisfactory, despite a solo violin part created by Isaac Stern (and here played magnificently by Concert Master Sergey Levitin), some sections reminiscent of but not equal to Stravinsky.  The sense of déjà vu extends to the choreography with strong evocations of George Balanchine’s Serenade, ‘Rubies’ from Jewels and The Four Temperaments.  However, Wheeldon is certainly an accomplished ballet choreographer and when he allows himself to explore his own, clear forte: adagio duets.  The work’s slow fourth section is quite simply mesmerising, an interweaving of three couples (one male, one female, one mixed) which subtly alters movements according to body shape and musculature while maintaining a deeply pleasing cohesiveness.  The six dancers excelled in it, none more so than the superb pairing of Matthew Ball and William Bracewell, who took Wheeldon’s brilliant use of balance and counterbalance to thrilling extremes and had previously shone in the work’s dynamic first section.

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