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.

La Valse; Invitus, Invitam; Winter Dreams; Theme and Variations. The Royal Ballet

15-30 October 2010. Royal Opera House, London

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