‘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

‘Entity’. Random Dance

28 January 2011, Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay. Sydney Festival, 2011

Wayne McGregor’s Entity, performed by his company Random Dance as part of the 2011 Sydney Festival, begins and ends with black and white footage of a greyhound in motion. It may be or be based on the work of the nineteenth-century, British-American photographer Eadweard Muybridge, a pioneer of the physics of animal locution. It certainly recalls the work of Muybridge. To me this visual clue is of far greater import and carries much more interest for the viewer than any amount of philosophical discussion of McGregor’s research project ‘Choreography and cognition’ and his work with neuroscientists, as fascinating as those and other aspects of McGregor’s career are.

Entity shows the remarkable ability of the human body to move, bend, twist, flex, soar and travel. Like the greyhound the dancers are sleek. Their limbs extend and reach outwards. Their bodies are stretched long and lean. They use their muscles efficiently. They move with intention. In their black briefs and white T-tops, dispensed with towards the end to reveal black bra tops on the women and for the men a bare upper body, they hover on the edge of classical movement before morphing into strange new shapes. They twist and contort their bodies with one recurring motif being an arched spine with backside pushed out, the antithesis of the classically stretched spine with the head balanced perfectly at the top. Bodies are in constant dialogue with each other and the movement screams out its edginess.

Danced to a score by Joby Talbot followed by another from Jon Hopkins, the work is set in an enclosed space consisting of three light coloured, translucent screens, one at each side and one at the back of the stage area. Designed by Patrick Burnier they can be manipulated by a (viewable) mechanical system and lit when required. When lit (design by Lucy Carter) their internal structure is further revealed. During the second part of the work the screens rise above the dancers and are enhanced by video projections. From my position towards the back of the circle of the Sydney Theatre it was not entirely clear what the projections were other than they seemed to be various formulae. Part of the choreographer’s fascination with mathematical and engineering principles?

But in the end Entity is about McGregor’s choreography and about his attitude to how the body can move in this present day and age. It makes me long to see more of McGregor’s work, especially when danced by intensively trained ballet dancers. There are some great scenes of McGregor rehearsing Genus, his work for the Paris Opera Ballet, along with brief excerpts from the work in performance in the recent film La danse. While Random Dance performed superbly in Sydney, there is something additional in the way the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet perform. There is a certain security in the way they move, an inherent understanding of the body, something deeply intuitive about movement, that allows McGregor’s classical references to be offset in a particular way. The mix of the classical and the restive tension of today becomes heightened and makes us see both and all more clearly.

Although this is a little simplistic, McGregor reminds me of Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine and William Forsythe rolled into one. He’s a formalist. He dispenses with fussy costumes and decorative sets. And he has a remarkable intellectual curiosity. It makes for unusual and ultimately satisfying dance, which in its essence is purely McGregor.

Michelle Potter, 31 January 2011

‘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.

‘Concord’. The Australian Ballet

Por vos muero, Scuola di ballo & Dyad 1929, 21 August to 1 September 2009, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

Tzu-Chao Chou & Lana Jones in Dyad 1929. Photo: Jim McFarlane. Courtesy: The Australian Ballet

Tzu-Chao Chou & Lana Jones in Dyad 1929. Photo: © Jim McFarlane. Courtesy of the Australian Ballet

The Australian Ballet finally hit the jackpot! In the dying months of its four year long celebration of the Ballets Russes, Wayne McGregor arrived in Melbourne and created his Dyad 1929—a work that is truly in the adventurous spirit of the Diaghilev period.

Dyad 1929 is made for a cast of twelve dancers, six women and six men. It is danced against a white backcloth, patterned all over with regular rows of black dots, which extends to a floorcloth. A thin horizontal bar of acid yellow light is raised and lowered in the extreme downstage area during the piece. Occasionally yellow light floods onto the backcloth. This ‘stage concept’ is by McGregor and the work’s lighting designer Lucy Carter. The dancers are costumed by Moritz Junge in close-fitting leotards, or all-overs, or trunks and tops in various combinations and patterns of white, black and fawn. The overall design concept is startling and exhilarating, as is the music—Double Sextet by Steve Reich.

But it is the choreography that lifts Dyad 1929 beyond the startling to the brave and the challenging. There is a matter-of-factness in the way the dancers enter and leave the stage. A la William Forsythe they walk, simply but decisively, on and off. Once on, however, their bodies become an experimental field. They are pushed, pulled and stretched. They crumple, bend and fold. Sometimes the movements look hard-edged. At other times they look more curvaceous. And what seems quite extraordinary is that often movements that are commonplace in a particular situation are put into completely new context. A stretching exercise commonly done at the barre becomes part of a duet, for example. And again extraordinarily, McGregor occasionally follows a twisted movement with a classical, centred one so that the eye can better discern what is central to each.

Standout dancers in two viewings were Lana Jones, cool and poised in a duet with Tzu-Chao Chou, and Danielle Rowe, more softly sinuous in a duet with Adam Bull—Jones a diamond, Rowe a pearl, both using their prodigious technical capacity to dance this audacious and demanding choreography. They dance purposefully, but also with what borders on ecstasy so intently and intensely do they articulate the choreography. This is what dancers crave: to be challenged to use their bodies to do the seemingly impossible, and thus to understand more about their art form.

This triple bill with the overarching name of ‘Concord’ opened with Nacho Duato’s sublime Por vos muero. Por vos remains a compelling work swinging between a stripped back look at human relationships, which we see in the three duets that open the work, to highly theatrical moments as in the scene in which six men in brocade cloaks swirl across the stage swinging censers that fill the air with incense. Daniel Gaudiello gave a particularly strong performance. It highlighted all the remarkable nuances of Duato’s choreography.

The third work on the program, also part of the Ballets Russes project, was a new production of Léonide Massine’s 1933 work, Scuola di ballo, in this case  choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky. Ratmansky adhered to the narrative and choreographic structure of Massine’s work but, in terms of movement, the work looked more like a homage to August Bournonville. Ratmansky emphasised beaten footwork for the men and his pas de deux contained very few lifts, especially big overhead lifts. In typical Bournonville style the man for the most part danced alongside his partner. This was especially noticeable in the pas de deux between the characters Rosina and Carlino, which was prettily danced by Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in one cast and Danielle Rowe and Ty King-Wall in another.

Scuola‘s comic elements were a hit with the audience but I am not convinced that attempting to reproduce what was clearly not Massine’s best ballet was a worthwhile endeavour. What it did was remind me that not all ballets from the Ballets Russes era (whether from the Diaghilev period or from that of his followers) are worth recalling. Restaging or reproducing works as museum or celebratory pieces only works if the original was a piece of major importance in the first place. I don’t believe that Scuola di ballo was. Ballet has moved on. Thankfully.

And thankfully there are choreographers like Wayne McGregor to show that the way ahead can be as adventurous as it was under Diaghilev.

Michelle Potter, 23 August 2009

Footnote: Showing in Melbourne at the same time as ‘Concord’ is an exhibition documenting the career of Salvador Dali. Included in the show, which is at the National Gallery of Victoria, is film footage of Massine’s 1939 collaboration with Dali on the ballet Bacchanale for Sergei Denham’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. It makes an interesting comparison with Scuola di ballo and comments on Bacchanale and its reception by Frederic Franklin, one of the original cast, are  easily found via any search engine and are eminently readable.

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