Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae in 'The Illustrated Farewell'. The Royal Ballet, 2017. © The Royal Opera House. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

‘The Illustrated Farewell’, ‘The Wind’, ‘Untouchable’. The Royal Ballet

6 November 2017, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Two new works and one revival made up the Royal Ballet’s most recent triple bill. The opener, Twyla Tharp’s The Illustrated ‘Farewell’ should perhaps be described as new-ish rather than new, since it also drew on material Tharp had made way back in 1973 in a work called As time goes by. Tharp’s work was by far the most attractive item, in a choreographic sense, on the program.

Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae made spectacular, separate entrances, covering the stage with expansive grands jetés and bringing their trademark joyous approach to their dancing. Such a pleasure to see them. They then proceeded to dance the first two parts of Joseph Haydn’s 45th (so-called  ‘Farewell’) symphony, scarcely stopping throughout the two movements to catch their breath. They were perfectly matched as partners, executing Tharp’s twisting, turning, demanding movements and making the most of her playful approach at times. A swirl of ballroom steps and even a high-five appeared amongst the more classical moves. It was a virtuoso performance.

Lamb and McRae were a hard act to follow but Mayara Magri held the stage In a solo before the music for the third movement began. Hers was a remarkable display of dancing that showed off both Tharp’s expansive yet intricate choreography and Magri’s strong technical skills. Then, as the music began, Magri was joined by a corps of dancers, who seemed to appear from nowhere. Both this third movement and the fourth were filled with intricate groupings of dancers sometimes dancing in unison but mostly working separately from each other so the overall patterning looked scattered.

Mayara Magri in The Illustrated Farewell. The Royal Ballet, 2017. © ROH. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Mayara Magri in The Illustrated ‘Farewell’. © 2017 ROH. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

The work finished beautifully with Lamb and McRae appearing unexpectedly upstage on a raised black platform against a black background. They kneeled in a kind of homage and then disappeared into the black, while below Joseph Sissens, in white trunks and long-sleeved white shirt, melted to the ground in a poignant farewell.

Arthur Pita’s work The Wind, danced to a commissioned score by Frank Moon, followed as the middle piece. Based on a story by Dorothy Scarborough written in 1925, which was subsequently made into a silent movie, the ballet follows events in the life of a young woman from Virginia, Letty Mason, who arrives in Texas in the 1880s and is tormented in mind, body and soul by the wind and the bleakness of the landscape. The story is complex and includes, on an obvious narrative level, marriage, rape, and eventual revenge by Mason. But The Wind suffers from Pita’s condensing of the story and his efforts to include a dimension beyond the obvious. To achieve this latter he introduces two characters, Cynthia (Wild Woman) danced by Elizabeth McGorian, and Mawarra (the Lost) danced by Edward Watson, who appear to represent Mason’s mental state.

In all this Pita leaves little time for including much dancing. In the role of Letty Mason, Natalia Osipova makes a sterling attempt to develop the role but she is given far too little dancing in which to do it. And so it is with the other leading characters—Thiago Soares as the cowpuncher Lige Hightower, who marries Mason; and Thomas Whitehead as Wirt Roddy, a cattle buyer who rapes her.

Thomas Whitehead as Wirt Roddy & Natalia Osipova as Letty Mason in The Wind. © 2017 ROH. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Then there were those three large wind machines that took up a lot of the performance space and blew air across the stage throughout the ballet. I thought they were obtrusive and promoted the idea of the relentless quality of the wind rather too pointedly. Nor am I sure that we needed to see so much wind being generated by the machines. Having Osipova struggling at one stage to keep her wedding veil from either escaping or engulfing her was a little too much.

There was, however, something fascinating about The Wind. Despite the lack of dancing given to some of the Royal Ballet’s strongest artists, there was something powerful about the way Pita had distilled the story. There was a starkness to the work, although perhaps this came more from Jeremy Herbert’s minimal set (apart from the overpowering presence of the wind machines), and a strong lighting design by Adam Silverman, as much as anything else. It reminded me a little of Agnes de Mille’s work, especially her Fall River Legend, and I suspect that The Wind could be revised to have a similar impact as Fall River Legend.

The evening closed with Hofesh Shechter’s Untouchable, a work concerning ‘moving with the herd’ first seen in 2015. There was a lot of militaristic moving around in groups with the occasional breakout by a few dancers to form separate groups. Occasionally I had the feeling that the movement was referencing a folk idiom. The best part was probably the atmospheric lighting by Lee Curran.

Artists of the Royal Ballet in 'Untouchable'. 2017 © Photo: Tristram Kenton

Artists of the Royal Ballet in Untouchable. © 2017 ROH Photo: Tristram Kenton

Michelle Potter, 10 November 2017

Featured image: Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae in The Illustrated ‘Farewell’. The Royal Ballet, 2017. © The Royal Opera House. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae in 'The Illustrated Farewell'. The Royal Ballet, 2017. © The Royal Opera House. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward in 'I am, I was' from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

‘Woolf Works.’ The Royal Ballet

11 February 2017, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The printed program for Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works gives the piece a subtitle: A Triptych. It is a perfect subtitle since Woolf Works consists of three separate pieces but, like a religious triptych, each separate part tells us something about an overall subject. In the case of Woolf Works this overall subject concerns the innovative, poetic writing of the early twentieth century novelist Virginia Woolf. And the work begins with the voice of Virginia Woolf talking about language in a recording made for the BBC in 1937. Her talk was called ‘On craftsmanship’ and, as she speaks, writing (hers presumably) appears in white on a black front screen. As her voice continues, the writing transforms itself into various white shapes. The lighting changes and the screen lifts. The first section begins.

Although the informative program, innovative in concept and design, never seeks to say what Woolf Works is ‘about’, for me McGregor brilliantly distills each of the Woolf novels he has chosen to work with into certain intrinsic elements. The first movement, I now, I then, inspired by the novel Mrs Dalloway, shows us the changing nature of relationships across a lifetime, even though the novel takes place in just one day. The second section, based on Orlando and called Becomings, examines the trajectory of the universe across time, just as Orlando takes place over several centuries. It might be called a study in time travel and has something approaching science fiction as an intrinsic element. The third section, Tuesday, is inspired by The Waves and seeks to show us the concept of inevitability.

Of the three sections I now, I then seems to me to be the strongest. If you know the novel, you will recognise the main characters of Clarissa Dalloway; Jenny Seton, the close friend whom Clarissa famously kisses; Peter Walsh, the man Clarissa didn’t marry, perhaps to her ongoing regret; and Septimus Warren Smith, the shell-shocked former soldier who eventually commits suicide, never being able to overcome his thoughts about the death of a soldier friend in World War I. But such knowledge isn’t entirely necessary as I now, I then stands on its own as a work about relationships of many and varied kinds.

In I now, I then, Alessandra Ferri plays a meditative, slightly distant Clarissa, lost in her thoughts. It was a pleasure to see her back onstage. In another cast, however, I saw Mara Galeazzi in the role and I preferred her performance. She seemed more emotionally involved in the role and, without wishing to detract from Ferri’s strong technical performance, I admired the way Galeazzi was able to embody the choreography, giving it quite beautiful shape and fluidity. The various pas de deux between Clarissa and the two men in her life (played by Federico Bonelli and Gary Avis in one cast and Ryoichi Hirano and Tomas Mock in the other) were highlights in both casts.

Alessandra Ferri and Gary Avis in 'I am, I was' from 'Woolf Works'. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Alessandra Ferri and Gary Avis in I now, I then from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Clarissa as a younger woman and Jenny her friend, played by Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Francesca Hayward (and in the other cast Yasmine Naghdi and Mayara Magri), had some gorgeous choreography, sometimes performed in unison, often fast and joyous, and always full of the pleasures of youth and friendship. They engaged too with Peter, Clarissa’s early love interest, while the older Clarissa stood thoughtfully in the background. Again pleasure in relating to others was at the heart of the choreography.

Federico Bonelli and Beatriz Stix-Brunell in 'I am, I was' from 'Woolf Works'. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristram Kenton

Federico Bonelli and Beatriz Stix-Brunell in I now, I then from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristram Kenton

Another exceptionally powerful performance came from Edward Watson as Septimus, whose problematic mental state was made clear as he executed the writhing, twisted choreography.

Strong visual elements in the form of film footage (film designer Ravi Deepres) washed across the performing space and over the set, which consisted of the perimeters of three large, wooden, movable square structures. The footage showed London scenes from the 1920s and, sometimes, the garden of Virginia Woolf’s home and, with Max Richter’s score occasionally interrupted by the sound of Big Ben chiming, the setting was an evocative one.

Becomings was distinguished by some astonishing lighting effects from Lucy Carter. Although her work is an important and quite beautiful element in all three sections, in Becomings it is nothing short of sensational—as innovative as anything Woolf wrote. It sometimes divides the stage space, other times it beams out into the space of the auditorium. It colours the space, and darkens it too, and laser beams occasionally shoot across the stage.

Among this spectacular light (and darkness as the stage is often submerged in near blackness), dancers appear, clad in an assortment of black and gold costumes that range from Elizabethan garb—Eric Underwood at times wears an Elizabethan-style dress that would have delighted Queen Elizabeth I—to contemporary attire (costume design Moritz Junge). There is some spectacular dancing. Legs stretch and extend in seemingly impossible ways and partnering sometimes takes the breath away. Natalia Osipova and Steven McRae stand out, especially in an early pas de deux where the gender of Orlando is explored (perhaps?). Both also stand out elsewhere in this second section, as does Sarah Lamb who always looks good executing McGregor’s flashy, super-extended style. 

Steven McRae and Natalia Osipova in 'Becomings' from 'Woolf Works'. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Steven McRae and Natalia Osipova in Becomings from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Despite the dancing and the mesmerising lighting display, Becomings did not have the same attraction for me as I now, I then. It was harder to feel where Woolf fitted in for one thing, even given the emphasis at times on gender issues, which Woolf explores in Orlando. But then perhaps the link is that Woolf was always experimenting, exploring, finding innovative ways to use language, as McGregor and his collaborators are examining how collaboration across the arts can give new insights?

The third and final section, Tuesday, begins with half the stage space being taken up by film footage of very slowly breaking waves. A voice-over reads Woolf’s suicide note left for her husband before she stepped into the river Ouse, her pockets weighed down with stones. After the glitz and glamour of Becomings, Tuesday was quietly reflective and we felt the slow motion of the waves and the inevitability of time passing.

Clarissa appears alone on stage at the beginning of Tuesday. But her memories continue to fill her mind. Children appear from the darkness beneath the images of waves. They run to her. She is joined by Sarah Lamb (as her sister, Vanessa Bell?). Voices are heard over the music and the names of Vanessa’s children are mentioned—Quentin, Angelica, Julian. The corps de ballet dances in wave-like movements. Clarissa stands and watches. Bonelli joins her and they are left alone. Clarissa slips to the floor and the waves retreat.

Scene from 'Tuesday' in ''Woolf Works'. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Scene from Tuesday in Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

I found Woolf Works a hugely moving work. I’m sure I missed many of the nuances. But I love that I could make up an interpretation (my own if not McGregor’s) that sent me out of the theatre fulfilled and wanting to see the work many more times. It is an exceptional collaboration with intelligent minds behind it, including that of a dramaturg (Uzma Hameed). This is how dance should be.

Woolf Works is directed and choreographed by Wayne McGregor and first took the stage in 2015. Its revival in 2017 is part of the Royal Ballet’s celebration of McGregor’s ten years as the Royal’s resident choreographer and the work will be part of the Royal Ballet’s repertoire on its tour to Australia in June/July 2017.

Michelle Potter, 13 February 2017

Featured image: Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward in I now, I then from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward in 'I am, I was' from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Wayne McGregor. Photo: © Nick Mead

‘Chroma’, ‘Multiverse’, ‘Carbon Life’. The Royal Ballet

14 November 2016, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

This triple bill of works by Wayne McGregor, including Multiverse his newest commission, was presented in celebration of McGregor’s ten years as resident choreographer with the Royal Ballet. While all three works clearly had the ‘McGregor touch’ in terms of a choreographic interest in the extent to which the body can be pushed to extreme limits, each was also quite distinctive in its own right.

Chroma, the oldest of the three, was first made in 2006. It was the work that inspired Monica Mason, director of the Royal Ballet at the time, to offer McGregor the position of resident choreographer. Ten years on Chroma retains its minimalist beauty in its design with a set by John Pawson, costumes by Moritz Junge, lighting by Lucy Carter, and a score by Joby Talbot and Jack White III. It is still thrilling to watch choreographically with its extended limbs and emphasis on a fluid torso. But what made a difference in the current production was the presence in the cast of five dancers guesting from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: Jeroboam Bozeman, Jacqueline Green, Yannick Lebrun, Rachael McLaren and Jamal Roberts.

It is tempting to say that these dancers brought a different aesthetic to the choreography, and perhaps they did. Certainly I sensed that they injected a more powerful human quality, something emotional into the steps. It is hard to articulate just why the way they danced was different but it seemed like they had a different kind of focus in their movement. A greater sense of physicality and a different muscularity maybe? Whatever it was, it added a different level of interest, which is not to denigrate in any way the five fabulous Royal Ballet dancers who completed the cast: Federico Bonelli, Lauren Cuthbertson, Sarah Lamb, Steven McRae, and Calvin Richardson. The 2016 production indicates that Chroma lives on and has the power to grow. (Thoughts on my first viewing of the Royal Ballet in Chroma in 2010 are at this link.)

Sarah Lamb in 'Chroma'. The Royal Ballet 2013. Photo: © Bill Cooper.

Sarah Lamb in Chroma. The Royal Ballet (2013). Photo: © Bill Cooper.

The closing item was Carbon Life, made in 2012. Again it had lighting by Lucy Carter, sometimes as in the opening moments eerily green, other times full on bright white. Design was by English fashion designer Gareth Pugh and music by pop/funk artists Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt.

Artists of the Royal Ballet production of 'Carbon Life', 2012. Photo: © Bill Cooper / Royal Opera House / ArenaPAL

Artists of the Royal Ballet in Carbon Life. Photo: © Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House/ArenaPAL

I especially enjoyed some of the earlier sections where unisex seemed to be the order of the day. Men and women wore similar costumes: short black trunks and, for the women, a skin-coloured midriff top that tightly enclosed the upper body and made them appear topless. Added to this costume both sexes had slicked-back hair (wigs?) that added to the similarity in the look of the sexes. Choreographically this section seemed at times like a ballet class engaged in a kind of temps lié exercise.

A later section was distinguished by some incredible costuming consisting of black, stiffened additions to the head, legs and other parts of the body. They were a little like a cross between KKK headgear and Cambodian dance costume attachments, or perhaps a bit like Ballet mécanique. Certainly the shapes were architectural and the body began to sprout structural additions. The singular attraction of Carbon Life, however, was the presence of live musicians onstage/upstage usually partially hidden by lighting or a screen of some sort. Their playing was loud and engaging and, when they appeared to take a curtain call, they too were dressed to kill. But in the end the choreography seemed like a minor player in all this and Carbon Life took on the guise of a fast-paced video clip rather than an exercise in choreography.

In between Chroma and Carbon Life came the newly commissioned Multiverse, which, incidentally, the Australian Ballet adds to its repertoire in February 2017. I thought it was the least interesting of the three works, although program notes were full of explanations and thoughts about McGregor’s intentions, which centred on the current refugee crisis and other such global perils. Musically (or sound-wise) it was diverse and consisted of two pieces by Steve Reich—a specially commissioned work Runner, and a 1965 piece It’s gonna rain, of which the second part is the voice of a Pentecostal preacher holding forth in Union Square in San Francisco on the biblical story of Noah and the flood. Perhaps because I found William Forsythe’s work, Quintett, so moving—it used Gavin Bryars recording of a homeless man singing over and over Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, which sat emotively beside the choreography—I found the use of the preacher’s words unaffecting. Unlike the Forsythe piece, in Multiverse choreography and recording didn’t seem to reflect each other in a thought-provoking manner. After all this, the second Reich piece, Runner, was simply soporific for me.

Nevertheless, Multiverse began strongly with a male duet—I saw Luca Acri and Marcelino Sambé—full of tension and drama. It was by far the most interesting part of the work choreographically. The section that followed referenced the plight of refugees. This idea came across most strongly via the set by Rashid Rana in which fragmented images appeared. Some were contemporary shots, others were from the well-known painting by Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa. But there were rather too many moments when the dancers simply stood still and, while this might be seen as giving way to the power of the images and what they represented, it was hardly compelling from a movement point of view.

Set from 'Multiverse'.© Rashid Rana. Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Set from Multiverse. © Rashid Rana. Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Perhaps Multiverse needs more than one viewing in order to appreciate its complexities? But then not everyone has such a luxury. The idea of making dance that reflects current society is indeed admirable (and I am a fan of McGregor’s Live fire exercise). But on this occasion it simply didn’t work for me and I began to wonder whether I should not have read the detailed program notes because what was written and what appeared onstage didn’t really match.

Audience reaction was a curious thing too. As the curtain went down, behind me an enthusiastic audience member was cheering long and loudly. Beside me another was boo-ing!

Michelle Potter, 19 November 2016

Featured image: Wayne McGregor. Photo: © Nick Mead

Wayne McGregor. Photo: © Nick Mead

Artists of the Royal Ballet in 'Anastasia', Act I. © ROH, 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

‘Anastasia’. The Royal Ballet

12 November 2016 (matinee), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Having recently reread Different Drummer, Jann Parry’s biography of Kenneth MacMillan, I was full of anticipation at the prospect of seeing MacMillan’s Anastasia, a work that traces the story of Anna Anderson, who believed (wrongly it eventually turned out) that she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia who had survived the murderous attack on her parents and siblings, the Imperial Russian family, by Russian revolutionaries in 1918. Parry’s account of the various problems that surrounded the creation and casting of MacMillan’s ballet, which began as a one act work for Deutsche Oper Ballet in Berlin in 1967, was absorbing reading.

I guess more than anything else, I came away from the performance with renewed admiration for MacMillan’s classical choreography, clearly on view in the first two acts, which were added when MacMillan transformed his one act work into a full-length one in 1971. I loved the way he handled groups, as in the ball scene in Act II where a large corps of swirling dancers wove their way across and around the stage in ever fascinating curving, threading, and criss-crossing patterns. I was also impressed with his use of a kind of canon-style of movement throughout, but especially in Act I where his approach to the choreography for Anastasia’s three sisters stood out.

Artists of the Royal Ballet in 'Anastasia' Act I. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Artists of the Royal Ballet in Anastasia Act I. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

And I admired his pas de deux in Act II which, although it seemed somewhat as though it had been inserted in order to have a grand pas de deux in the ballet, was beautifully lyrical and smoothly integrated within itself—there was no stopping and restarting to separate pas de deux from variations from coda, for example. It also had some breathtaking moments, including that astonishing tilt of the full body by the ballerina as the pas de deux began.

I also admired Bob Crowley’s designs, which in terms of costumes ranged from opulence in the ball scene to stripped back simplicity in Act III, the scene in the hospital/asylum where Anna/Anastasia relives her life. His set designs were also worthy of admiration, with the inherent drama of Anna Anderson’s mental state being foreshadowed with the tilted shapes of the ship on which Act I takes place, and the chandeliers of the palace in Act II, captured forever in mid-swing.

As for the dancing, I saw Lauren Cuthbertson as Anna/Anastasia partnered by Thomas Whitehead as the officer to whom she was attracted in Act II and as her husband in Act III. Cuthbertson was charmingly youthful in Act I and handled Act II nicely as she welcomed and interacted with guests at her coming of age ball.

Lauren Cuthbertson as Anastasia and Reece Clarke as Officer in 'Anastasia', Act II. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Lauren Cuthbertson as Anastasia and Reece Clarke as Officer in Anastasia, Act II. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

But she and Whitehead didn’t really suit each other as partners, largely because their physical attributes are quite different: Cuthbertson is taller and finer in build and more classically proportioned than Whitehead. As a result, the emotional connection that was needed between them was not as powerful as I would have hoped.

Sarah Lamb dancing with Federico Bonelli, as Mathilde Kschessinska and her partner (not given a name in the story’s cast of characters), sailed through the difficult choreography of the pas de deux in Act II making it all look easy. Great to watch. Another Act II highlight was the quartet between Kschessinska and her partner and Tsar Nicholas II, played by Gary Avis, and his wife the Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, danced by Itziar Mendizabal, in which personal relationships within the royal court were brought into question. Anastasia hovered in the background, wondering.

Sarah Lamb as Mathilde Kschessinska and Steven McRae as her partner in 'Anastasia' Act II. -© ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Sarah Lamb as Mathilde Kschessinska and Steven McRae as her partner in Anastasia Act II. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

As Rasputin, Eric Underwood was moodily present throughout, taking part in the dancing at times, hovering darkly at others. Rory Thomas as the Tsarevitch Alexey, the sickly child and brother to Anastasia and her sisters, handled his role with aplomb.

The production itself, however, which was realised by Deborah MacMillan and staged by Gary Harris, wasn’t entirely satisfying. The third act looks back to the first two acts as Anna relives scenes, largely horror scenes from her life as the Grand Duchess Anastasia, and as we see characters from this earlier life move across the stage in front of her eyes.

Lauren Cuthbertson as Anna Anderson and artists of the Royal Ballet in 'Anastasia' Act III. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Lauren Cuthbertson as Anna Anderson and artists of the Royal Ballet in Anastasia Act III. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

But, as there is a such a clear and strong disconnect stylistically between the first two acts and the third when MacMillan draws so strongly on a contemporary, expressionist mode of dancing, albeit with Anna in pointe shoes, it is hard to reconcile the notion that the last act is part of the same ballet as the first two acts. Design-wise the third act is superb with its stark grey walls and its single iron bed, and choreographically it is mostly quite gripping. But as I left the theatre, having felt the power of the work at many points, I nevertheless wondered whether it would not have been better to have left Anastasia as a one-act production.

Michelle Potter, 14 November 2016

Featured image: Artists of the Royal Ballet in Anastasia, Act I. © ROH, 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Artists of the Royal Ballet in 'Anastasia', Act I. © ROH, 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Another note for my Australian readers: As the image of the pas de deux in this post indicates, Sarah Lamb usually dances as Kschessinska with Steven McRae as her partner. McRae was replaced at the last moment by Bonelli.

‘Giselle’. The Royal Ballet

28 March 2016, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

I have been a fan of Peter Wright’s production of Giselle, which dates back to 1985, ever since I saw it in Australia in 2002 during the Royal Ballet’s tour that year. I like that Wright’s research into the historical background of the ballet has informed the work, especially in relation to character development. The current season by the Royal Ballet confirms my conviction that Wright’s production is an exceptional one.

Sarah Lamb as Giselle and Ryoichi Hirano as Albrecht perhaps don’t reach the emotional heights of others I have seen in these roles, but technically they danced beautifully: their Act II pas de deux in particular was quite breathtaking. Hirano’s partnering skills were remarkable and he made those beautiful high lifts looked effortless—Giselle became the weightless sylph she is meant to be. And the pair’s final parting in Act II, as Giselle disappeared into her grave, was as moving as one could hope for.

In addition, and thankfully, there was no emphasis on the execution of steps for the sake of steps in the course of Albrecht having to dance on and on. The choreography was used to convey the dramatic line, although of course the steps were beautifully performed. In fact I found it mightily impressive that the whole of Albrecht’s ‘dance until you drop’ section flowed on so smoothly and logically from the earlier sequence when Hilarion was sentenced to die, something that I can’t remember ever seeing so clearly before.

Being used to seeing a peasant pas de deux in other productions, the pas de six in Act I was something of a curiosity for me, which I can’t remember from 2002. But it was nicely danced and I especially admired a gentleman with dark curly hair who seemed to be someone other than those mentioned on the cast sheet. Whoever he was, he performed with wonderful attack.

The Royal Ballet’s corps danced strongly throughout. As peasants in Act I they were boisterously beautiful, as Wilis in Act II they were both mysteriously supernatural in their movements and heartlessly cold in their damnation of Hilarion and Albrecht.

John Macfarlane’s design does not pretend to be prettily peasant. The cottages in Act I are rough, the forest in Act II is wild, and it makes for just the right visual effect. And to my surprise and pleasure (I had forgotten it from previous viewings), the village folk in Act I didn’t all wear exactly the same costume.

The one thing that bothered me was that the long Act I mime scene from Berthe (Elizabeth McGorian) focused on explaining the legend of the Wilis without, to my mind, relating it enough to Giselle in particular. Berthe seemed to be talking to everyone except Giselle. On the other hand, it was interesting to see how class distinctions between the village folk and the Duke and his entourage were developed. I have never seen such a Bathilde as that of Sian Murphy who seemed positively dismissive of the peasants. And, as ever, the printed program was full of extra information including an excellent interview with Peter Wright and an explanation of the mime scene mentioned above.

All in all a very satisfying production with so much of interest that I could see it again and again.

Michelle Potter, 29 March 2016

Also as ever, this review is not accompanied by images as no one at the Royal Ballet seems inclined even to acknowledge my requests over the years for images, let alone agree to supply any.

Ashton mixed bill. The Royal Ballet

18 October 2014 (evening), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The prospect of four works by Frederick Ashton on the one program is something that fills those not brought up in an Ashton environment with anticipation. Of the four works on the Royal Ballet’s recent program, Scènes de Ballet, Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan, Symphonic Variations and A Month in the Country, I had never seen Five Brahms Waltzes and had seen the others on only one previous occasion each.

Symphonic Variations, led by Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov supported by Yasmine Naghdi and James Hay and Yuhui Choe and Tristan Dyer, perhaps moved me most. What clarity and fluidity those six dancers brought to the work. It was a breathtaking performance where everyone was a star, although perhaps it was Muntagirov, with his elegant bearing and his exceptional technical accomplishments, who attracted my attention most. But the ballet as a whole was beautifully danced to an elegant rendition by pianist Paul Stobart of Cesar Franck’s Symphonic Variations. And I had forgotten how fresh and entrancing Sophie Fedorovitch’s decor is—a spring green, box-like space with fine black lines weaving a flowing pattern across the backdrop and flats. It was a sensational twenty minutes of unstoppable beauty of movement. No in depth analysis can ever do it justice.

Five Brahms Waltzes was danced by Helen Crawford, replacing an injured Lauren Cuthbertson. The sense of gravity and weight in her dancing in the first and second waltzes contrasted nicely with her performance of the third waltz in which she manipulated a soaring rectangle of silk. Equally impressive was the contrast between a somewhat fierce fourth waltz and the gentle fifth with its rose petals falling liberally from her arms. I loved too the contrast between those light skips à la Isadora and the lower, almost crouching poses with fists clenched that appeared every so often. It was a finely thought through performance.

Scènes de ballet, which opened the program, was distinguished by the presence of Sarah Lamb as the ballerina. The quality of her dancing was especially noticeable in her main solo with its loosely swinging wrists and arms and lyrical movement of the whole body. But this ballet really needs to have every performer dancing with exactness. I missed straight lines, equal spacing and sameness in height of legs. The geometry of the work falls apart without such precision. And it was a disappointment to see Steven McRae, who partnered Lamb, begin with such promise—those sharp turns of the head and the pride with which he held his upper body were mesmerising—only to falter often as the work progressed.

The program closed with A Month in the Country and I found myself swept along by a strong performance from Zenaida Yanowsky as Natalia Petrovna and by Ashton’s ability to define characters through movement. The young, the old, different levels of society, everything was there in the choreography.

It was a real pleasure to see four quite different Ashton works brought together in one program but it was curious to see how those little runs on pointe kept appearing over and over. I was almost waiting for the next one by the time we reached A Month in the Country.

Michelle Potter, 22 October 2014

‘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

‘La Valse’, ‘Invitus, Invitam’, ‘Winter Dreams’, ‘Theme and Variations’: The Royal Ballet

Frederick Ashton’s La Valse—what a swirlingly beautiful opening to the Royal Ballet’s recent mixed bill program. Ashton’s choreography seemed slightly idiosyncratic with its unexpected shifts in épaulement, swift lifts of the arms, quick bends of the body and a range of nuanced movement. Yet it was perfectly attuned to the changes of colour and rhythm in the Ravel score. In addition, the Royal Ballet dancers performed with such aplomb and brilliant attack not to mention a beautiful classical technique based, as it should be, on turned-out, centred movement.

The two works that followed were both exceptional distillations of involved narratives. Kim Brandstrup’s new work, Invitus, Invitam (Against his will, against her will) essentially compressed Racine’s play Bérénice into three pas de deux, while Kenneth MacMillan’s Winter Dreams distilled Chekov’s work The Three Sisters into one dramatic act.

In Racine’s version of part of Suetonius’ history of the Roman emperors, Titus is forced by the senate to send Bérénice, his mistress, away, against her will and against his will. In Brandstrup’s work we see three encounters between Titus and Bérénice: in the first Bérénice is aware that Titus has a concern that he is not speaking openly about; in the second Bérénice knows what is to happen and is devastated, as is Titus; and in the third they part in mutual sorrow. Leanne Benjamin is perfectly cast as Bérénice. All her maturity as an artist comes to the fore as the inevitable parting approaches. Edward Watson is her partner and he too captures the sense of impending drama.

Choreographically Brandstrup’s three pas de deux draw the two protagonists together and at the same time separate them from each other. Both Benjamin and Watson gave exceptional performances, strong yet tremulous with emotion. Benjamin’s dancing was faultless and her portrayal of the role was vulnerable in the extreme. Richard Hudson was responsible for the costumes and minimal setting, so in empathy with the distillation of the story. His screens and scrims and his use of computerised writing and sketches, which appeared sporadically on the screens, added just the right sense of location. The contemporary score by Thomas Adès was based on the work of Couperin and again was empathetic to Brandstrup’s overall conception. Invitus, Invitam was intensely moving and certainly deserves further performances.

Winter Dreams was led by Sarah Lamb as Masha and Thiago Soares as Vershinin with minor principal roles being taken by Mara Galeazzi as Olga and Roberta Marquez as Irina. Together they provided a strong performance of this bleak story.

The closing work on this generous program, the pièce de resistance in my mind, was Balanchine’s Theme and Variations. I was not at the opening night’s performance when, I am told, Tamara Rojo and Sergei Polunin took the leading roles and when Alicia Alonso, creator of the ballerina role for Ballet Theater in 1947, was in the audience. But I was more than happy to see a radiant Marianela Nuñez partnered by a dashing Nehemiah Kish dancing with all stops out in this ferociously demanding work. From the opening moments when the ballerina and her partner present themselves to us, to that wonderful moment as the work comes to a close when grands battements merge into high-kicks, this is a work to be savoured for the remarkable display of the classical technique that it is. And again the entire complement of dancers showed what an outstanding company the Royal is at the moment.

I could, however, have done without Peter Farmer’s set for Theme, which to my mind suffers from a surfeit of draperies. Simplicity is all that is needed as a foil to Balanchine’s intricate weaving of bodies across the stage. But what a pleasure it was to see such beautifully trained bodies dancing with such a secure sense of classicism.

Michelle Potter, 27 October 2010
This mixed bill played at the Royal Opera House, London, between 15-30 October 2010.

‘Chroma’, ‘Tryst’, ‘Symphony in C’. The Royal Ballet

If the Royal Ballet’s recent triple bill of Chroma, Tryst and Symphony in C did anything, it showed quite clearly that ballet is not dead, dying or even momentarily dormant as has occasionally been debated on this site. It is in full swing, vibrant, growing gloriously and proudly relishing both its heritage and its future—at least in London.

Although I was looking forward most to Wayne McGregor’s Chroma after seeing his Dyad 1929 in Australia in 2009, it was George Balanchine’s Symphony in C, which closed the Royal Ballet’s program, that was the standout work for me. The array of principals was simply dazzling and their dancing was equally dazzling.

Leanne Benjamin, partnered by Johan Kobborg, led the first movement. She was beautifully self assured, a ballerina always aware of her audience with a technique that shone from the moment she stepped onto the stage. Alina Cojocaru, partnered by Valeri Hristov, was grace and poetry epitomised in the second, andante movement. In particular, Cojocaru’s exquisite arabesques traced a long, expressive arc through space as the leg lifted and once the high point had been reached the line seemed to extend forever. Roberta Marquez and Steven McRae in the third section performed in almost perfect unison, fulfilling the challenging requirement of the choreography for this scherzo movement. It was a thrilling display with Marquez performing the almost unimaginable by not only keeping up with McRae’s stunning jumps and turns but doing it with an expression of joy coursing through her whole body. In the fourth movement, before all the principals joined them for the final section, Laura Morera and Richard Cervera made a strong impression.

In each movement, the corps de ballet and soloists provided a beautifully executed backdrop of dancing for the principals. Symphony in C was staged for the Royal by Patricia Neary and a huge bouquet must go to her for giving such clarity to a work that can too often have a look of sameness across its movements.

The program opened with Chroma, Wayne McGregor’s 2006 commission for the Royal. As in his Dyad 1929 McGregor explored the extreme possibilities of the human body in motion. However, with Chroma being performed without the women wearing pointe shoes, the choreography had a quite different feel, more fluid perhaps, or more complex in its exploration of how the torso and upper limbs can bend, fold and extend.

The outstanding feature of Chroma to my mind though was its collaborative aesthetic and what emerged as a result. The set by architect John Pawson was extreme in its minimalism and reflected Pawson’s interest in Cistercian architecture with its emphasis on simplicity and the stripping back of non-essential elements of colour and embellishment. At first the set seemed to consist of a large screen or wall stretching across the stage space. It was positioned about one third of the way down the stage and appeared to have a white rectangle set slightly above the stage floor at its centre. But as the set was lit (by Lucy Carter) in different shades of white, grey and black, it became clear that the rectangle was actually a void. In it we occasionally saw dancers appear and disappear and we watched as the rectangle/void advanced and receded with changes in lighting.

Against the simplicity of the set, with its clean shapes, limited colour palette and play with volume and void, McGregor’s choreography looked on the one hand even more complex and exploratory, yet on the other it was tempered by the lack of overt scenic embellishment. It was an intellectual exercise in contrast to the Balanchine ‘don’t think, just do’ principle.

The third work on the program, Christopher Wheeldon’s Tryst looked a little contrived eight years after its premiere, especially during the first movement when its upturned feet and awkward contractions of the arms from the elbow looked awkward and without purpose. The high point of this work has always been the central pas de deux and on this occasion Sarah Lamb, with her beautifully proportioned body, danced eloquently.

Symphony in C was danced to the Bizet work of the same name, Chroma was danced to an amalgam of music by Joby Talbot and Jack White III and Tryst was danced to an orchestral work by James MacMillan. Each was conducted by a different conductor with Tryst being conducted the composer.

Michelle Potter, 30 May 2010

Postscript: on a musical note it was refreshing to see that the dancers acknowledged the orchestral players with due deference by bowing when the conductor asked that the musicians be acknowledged. The Australian Ballet habit of having the dancers lean into the orchestra pit and clap for what seems like an inordinate amount of time seems to me undancerly and to be taking acknowledgment too far.