‘Ballo della regina’, ‘Live fire exercise’, ‘DGV’. The Royal Ballet

Every time I visit London and am lucky enough to see a performance by the Royal Ballet I am bowled over. The recent mixed bill of Balanchine’s Ballo della regina, Wayne McGregor’s brand-new Live fire exercise and Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV (Danse à grande vitesse) simply reinforced my view that the Royal is at a high point in its career—so many dancers of star quality or star potential, a coaching team that appears to work on developing a clear understanding of what lies behind each work and great programming.

Balanchine’s Ballo della regina opened this program. On the night I went, leading roles were danced by Lauren Cuthbertson and Sergei Polunin. It was especially rewarding to see Cuthbertson take command of a role so closely associated with that great American ballerina Merrill Ashley, who created the leading female role in 1978. On stage Ashley always looked as American as apple pie, you might say, with her glowingly healthy face, her forthright (and fabulous) technique, and a kind of no holds barred, no nonsense approach. Cuthbertson, however, had a different approach. Ashley showed the steps, and how she showed them. Cuthbertson, with a lighter frame than Ashley, seemed to emphasis not so much individual moments but an overall fluidity. This is not to say that her dancing lacked highlights. Her ability alter direction suddenly and to move with unexpected changes of speed was a real delight. And there was not a moment when she faltered. It was a great performance.

As for Polunin he had nothing to live up to as Robert Weiss, who partnered Ashley in 1978, never in my opinion really made the role his own. Polunin knocked me for six with his ability to cover space—the extension of the front leg in movements like grands jetés en avant was like an arrow speeding forward on a perfect course. And then there was the clarity of his beats and the perfection of his turns.

Four soloists—Melissa Hamilton stood out in particular—and a beautifully rehearsed corps de ballet made this Ballo a special treat.

Wayne McGregor’s Live fire exercise, made in collaboration with artist John Gerrard, on the surface could hardly have been more different. The starting point was a US army exercise in the Djibouti desert, a detonation designed to prepare troops for the physical effects of the mortar rounds or road side bombings they may encounter. A screen occupied a large part of the upstage area. On it was a projection of a desert scene and over time we saw the arrival of trucks and other machinery, a blast and the subsequent plume of fire and its smoky aftermath. In front of this video installation three men and three women performed McGregor’s demanding, highly physical choreography. In the background Michael Tippet’s Fantasia concertante on a theme of Corelli provided, almost as a juxtaposition, a kind of pastoral accompaniment.

McGregor’s choreography in Live fire exercise, showed his signature extensions with the dancers’ legs pushed high into positions that destroy the usual line of classical ballet, along with his approach to partnering with its emphasis on curved, twisted and folded bodies, and with his use of extreme falls. At one point Sarah Lamb performed a promenade in attitude on a bent supporting leg. She was supported in this by Eric Underwood who, once the circle of the promenade had been completed, swiftly lifted her and with a swirl threw her through the air. She travelled through the air, looking light as a feather with a perfectly held body, into the arms of another dancer. For me this moment put McGregor in a new light and his ability to use the classical vocabulary, and then to manipulate it became clear.

Overall, and almost unbelievably, the choreography seemed quite calm and considered. Throughout the piece single dancers occasionally stood quietly beside the video installation. They were lit so as to appear shadowy, isolated human beings figures against the plume of fire or smoke. They drew our attention from the choreography back to the footage and also served to remind us of the content of this footage and its underlying political message. Live fire exercise is the most personal of the works of McGregor that I have seen to date

In addition to Lamb and Underwood the cast comprised Cuthbertson, Polunin, Akane Takada, Federico Bonelli and Ricardo Cervera.

Closing the evening, Wheeldon’s DGV was something of a letdown. DGV is set to a score by Michael Nyman, MGV (Musique à grande vitesse), and draws inspiration from the idea of a journey with the French very fast train (TGV) the source of both Nyman’s and Wheeldon’s title. The work is essentially a series of four pas de deux with a corps to ballet of another eighteen dancers who often also work in pairs. It shows Wheeldon’s exceptional ability to create mesmerisng duets and his capacity to move large groups of people around the stage to create strong visual imagery. It was beautifully danced, especially by the corps and without a perfect corps the patterns falls apart, which they certainly didn’t on this occasion.

But I found the work a little repetitive and somewhat soporific. Maybe it was simply that it came after the McGregor with its underlying message of the politics of war? McGregor pushes his audience, Wheeldon doesn’t, or didn’t with DGV. Nevertheless DGV completed a wonderfully diverse and fabulously performed evening of dance.

Michelle Potter, 27 May 2011