Dances at a gathering. The Royal Ballet Digital Season 2020

New York-based dance writer, Joan Acocella, whose critical writing I much admire, has spoken of Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a gathering, along with Paul Taylor’s Esplanade and Mark Morris’ Gloria as ‘benchmark works of the sixties/seventies youth cult, with their gangs of fresh-faced young folk skipping and running and falling to the accompaniment of high-art music’ and as being ‘in exaltation of what is plain and openhearted and innocent as opposed to what is fancy and fake.’* The featured image above shows Marianela Nuñez and Alexander Campbell in the Royal Ballet’s production of Dances at a gathering, and it seems to me indicative of the human qualities that Acocella describes. As the work progresses those qualities become more and more obvious.

Dances at a gathering opens and concludes quietly, introspectively perhaps? In the opening sequence, Alexander Campbell enters quietly from the downstage Prompt side and dances a solo in which swinging arm movements and expansive jumps across the stage predominate. He exits on the OP side, but before doing so makes a questioning gesture with one hand. Where is the gathering? At the very end the cast of ten, five women, five men, stand on stage, often in stillness, before they leave arm in arm. The gathering has concluded.

In between there is so much beautifully poetic choreography, sometimes with the flavour of character work, the mazurka in particular. This of course befits the Polish rhythms that permeate much of the selection of piano music by Frederick Chopin (spelled Fryderyk Chopin on Royal Ballet publicity) to which the work is performed. Often the movement seems simple, deceptively so I hasten to add. There are no noticeably ongoing, or clearly defined relationships between the dancers and Robbins is recorded as saying, ‘There are no stories to any of the dances in “DAAG” There are no plots and no roles. The dancers are themselves dancing with each other to that music in that space.’** But there is much scope for us to see personalities. We see it through movement and through facial expressions, and through the recognition the dancers show to their fellow performers throughout. It is indeed a gathering, and the individuality of each dancer is very clear.

If I had to choose a favourite section from the astonishingly good performance by the entire cast, I would go for a section led by Laura Morera. The section begins with a solo by an effervescent Morera. She is playful and sexy, and performs with beautifully timed highlights. The sequence has those overtones of character dancing but is equally strong in classical movement. Morera appears to be playing to an invisible partner. Towards the end of the section two prospective partners appear, but neither shows the interest she hoped to generate within them. With a shrug and a smile she leaves the stage. Transfixing I thought.

The duet between Marianela Nuñez and Federico Bonelli, which led into the finale, was another highlight, full as it was with caring touches, longing glances, and clear admiration for each other. Yasmine Nagdhi also had some wonderful moments of fast and detailed movement. Then from Bonelli there were those fabulous double tours ending in a full plié in first position. What an elegant and exciting performance from the entire cast! They explain why in the video clip below.

Dances at a gathering was made by Jerome Robbins in 1969 for New York City Ballet and entered the repertoire of the Royal Ballet in 1970. The stream we were offered during the Royal’s 2020 digital season was recorded during a performance this year, 2020. It featured ten of the Royal Ballet’s star dancers, Marianela Nuñez, Francesca Hayward, Yasmine Naghdi, Laura Morera, Fumi Kaneko, Alexander Campbell, Federico Bonelli, William Bracewell, Luca Acri and Valentino Zucchetti. The varied selection of Chopin’s piano music was exquisitely played by by Robert Clark.

Dances at a gathering has never been part of the repertoire of the Australian Ballet and, as far as I am aware, has never been shown live in Australia. I paid £3 to have access to this stream, and it was worth every penny and more, especially given that viewing was possible a month (it is available until 25 October)! Perhaps in the future David Hallberg might consider adding it to the Australian Ballet’s repertoire? On the other hand, I can imagine it sitting very nicely on Queensland Ballet.

Michelle Potter, 8 October 2020

Featured image: Marianela Nuñez and Alexander Campbell in a screenshot from Dancers at a gathering. The Royal Ballet, 2020

* Joan Acocella, Mark Morris (New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1993), p. 87.
**Deborah Jowitt. Jerome Robins. His life, his theater, his dance (New York: Simon & Shuster, 2004), p. 387.

Jowitt, in the book mentioned above, gives an excellent account of the development of Dances at a gathering in chapter 16, pp. 381-388.

The Winter’s Tale. The Royal Ballet in Australia

6 July 2017 (matinee and evening), Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

There is much to admire about The Winter’s Tale, Christopher Wheeldon’s balletic translation of William Shakespeare’s play of the same name. For a start, the mood is often absolutely gripping—often in an ‘edge of the seat’ manner. It is also just brilliantly performed by artists of the Royal Ballet in both a technical sense, and in terms of the emotional involvement of everyone on stage. In addition, the visual effects, especially the use of designer Basil Twist’s painted silks that dropped down to indicate the sea or to allow for a change of place, were captivating, as was the use of film footage throughout.

It is a complex story about the relations between the Kings of Sicilia and Bohemia, the breakdown of their friendship and the final reconciliation, along with all the intrigue and jealousy, the sea journeys, and the chance occurrences that attend the breakdown. But the clarity with which the story unfolded was outstanding. That the story was so easily understood was partly as a result of the choreography and partly as a result of how Wheeldon had selected events from the play and added links between them. It was exhilarating to see, for example, how Wheeldon handled the passage of time before the events he had chosen to focus on had taken place. In the opening prologue we watched as two young princes, initially playing together, were replaced by two grown men. It was a simple ploy but so effective in showing, in addition to the passage of time, that the friendship between the two kings had developed since childhood, which is why we encounter them together in Act I in the palace of Leontes, King of Sicilia, initially enjoying each other’s company.

Act I was the strongest of the three acts and a clear highlight was the choreography for Leontes (Bennet Gartside, matinee and evening). When he began to suspect that the baby being carried by his pregnant wife, Hermione (Marianela Nuñez, matinee and evening), was not his but that of Polixenes, his friend and King of Bohemia, his rage and jealousy were expressed through angular movements, clenched hands, slinking movements, and depraved twists of the body.

Laura Morera (evening) gave a strong performance as Paulina, head of Hermione’s household, especially in her attack on Leontes as he banished Hermione, and when he could not bear to look at the newly born child, Perdita. Nuñez as Hermione danced with refinement and accepted her banishment with the grace and strength of a queen. I admired, too, the motherly affection she showed to her son Mamillius in the early stages of Act I.

But for me the standout performance in Act I came from Ryoichi Hirano (evening) as Polixenes. He held my attention from the moment he came on stage and I loved the way he executed the choreography, highlighting as he did the rather more eccentric choreography he was given as the King of Bohemia. In fact, his emphasis on those choreographic elements that seemed more folkloric than those given to the residents of Sicilia foreshadowed what was to take place in Act II, which was set in Bohemia. In addition, his duet with Hermione, as Leontes lurked in the background or peered from behind statues, was passionately danced and had sexual overtones to the extent that it made Leontes’ jealousy seem to have some basis in truth. Such movement by Hirano highlighted Gartside’s unsavoury loiterings and suggested what was going through Leontes’ mind.

In Act II the dancing didn’t falter. Beatriz Stix-Brunell (evening) as Perdita and Vadim Muntagirov (evening) as Florizel danced sumptuously, with Muntagirov soaring across the stage and sweeping Stix-Brunell off her feet (literally as well as figuratively). But again my attention was drawn to Hirano who made me smile as he attempted to disguise himself in shepherd’s clothing to spy on his son Florizel who was courting Perdita. That hat didn’t seem to fit his kingly head and he seemed a little bamboozled by it all.

Wheeldon’s choreography for the groups of shepherds and shepherdesses in this act was pleasant enough and certainly was in folkloric mode. But after such a powerful Act I, it seemed all too much like a traditional three-act ballet where at some stage everyone has to have a jolly good time.

Back in Sicilia in Act III, conflicts and concerns are resolved and there is eventually a marriage (I think—everyone was dressed in white) between Perdita and Florizel. But the most interesting part of this act concerned the return of Hermione, disguised at first as a statue. It made for an engaging re-connection between Hermione and Leontes, gently manouevered by Paulina. In fact there was a curious connection between Paulina and Leontes who seemed to lean on her (in fact choreographically he did lean on her) for support at the beginning of the act. But his contrition was made clear and he danced with Hermione in a final pas de deux.

Marianela Nuñez as Hermione and Bennet Gartside as Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, Act III. The Royal Ballet. Photo: © ROH/Tristram Kenton

As in Act II, the dancing in Act III was pretty much faultless and a pleasure to watch. But again it was Hirado as Polixenes who attracted my attention. I admired the way he stormed in looking for Florizel in order to drag him back to Bohemia and declined at first Leontes’ attempts at reconciliation, but then mellowed when he realised that Perdita had royal blood. It was a powerful performance from him from start to finish.

The Royal Ballet’s touring program presented audiences with an interesting juxtaposition of ballets. Both Woolf Works and The Winter’s Tale are contemporary (that is of today) productions but The Winter’s Tale remains within a certain traditional mode—a three-act narrative, moving along logically, and having some balletic predictability about its structure. On the other hand Woolf Works pushes boundaries and makes demands of us. We have to suspend many preconceived ideas about how to see and think about ballet. Both modes of presentation have a place but, while I sat transfixed by The Winter’s Tale, twice, what Wayne McGregor presented in Woolf Works is how I want dance to move ahead.

Michelle Potter, 9 July 2017

Featured image: Set for Act II, The Winter’s Tale. The Royal Ballet. Photo: © ROH/Johan Persson

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.