Royal Ballet: Triple Bill of works by Wheeldon, Scarlett & McGregor

Posted: April 14th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Royal Ballet: Triple Bill of works by Wheeldon, Scarlett & McGregor

The Royal Ballet: Triple Bill (Wheeldon, Scarlett & McGregor)


I wrote part of this review before I had seen the performance. It is an interesting exercise. We all have our preconceptions, however hard we try to hide them. Leo Stein, the keenly perceptive art critic who was eclipsed by his younger sister, Gertrude, said ‘Criticism makes, explains and justifies discriminations.’ But I am relieved to say that the Royal Ballet Triple Bill produced reactions that I had not contemplated and forced me to ditch most of what I had written and start again.

By now you all know who presented what at the #ROHTriple, and for those who still don’t, it’s possibly too late to remember. Much has already been said about the performances, but for this tortoise of a writer, analyzing the evening kept serving up new perceptions that made me return to the printed program, to my notes, to the book I was reading at the time, and back to this page. One of the premises of quantum theory is that by the very act of watching, the observer affects the observed reality. Here, then, are my final thoughts. For now.

Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia opens the evening. This is a revival, first performed by the Royal Ballet in 2003, and originally created for New York City Ballet. The acknowledgement to Balanchine is clear as soon as the curtain rises. Everything is stripped down, and it is a question of watching the music, which is also stripped down to solo piano works by György Ligeti. Wheeldon saw in these a ‘complex, twisted, layered world’ that he presents brilliantly in a series of dances for four couples that rely for their effect on musical and spatial timings. This particular performance is not helped, however, by a less than rigorous execution with the notable exception of Itziar Mendizabal and Dawid Trzensimiech who finish the 8th variation together with a glorious flourish. Overall, however, there is something missing. I happen to be sitting next to the former headmistress of a prestigious boarding school for girls who had seen Polyphonia in its original production for the Royal Ballet and had loved it. With that skillful eye and practiced tone of a wise pedagogue, she articulates the problem precisely. “Yes, it’s a little rough around the edges.”

Next up is Sweet Violets, the new work of soloist Liam Scarlett. For those who saw his Asphodel Meadows last year, this is a departure into narrative with a decidedly emotional palette. I don’t think it is particularly successful in itself, for the reasons outlined below, but it is an important step for a young choreographer developing the range of his art.

Sweet Violets, I learned, was the Irish song the prostitute Mary Kelly was heard singing in the early hours of the morning she was murdered. Tackling Jack the Ripper’s psychopathic killing of prostitutes in the late 19th century’s grimy London poses a particular challenge to a company with beautiful dancers who are all good looking, fit, refined, and graceful. Their costumes are bright and neatly laundered, Health and Safety have washed and starched the sheets, and the artist’s studio is beautifully lit and clean. No trace here of the grubby, stifling atmosphere of Sickert’s paintings. Most remarkably, in the aftermath of the two grizzly murders, there is not a drop of blood on the sheets (Health and Safety again, no doubt).  If this wasn’t enough of a challenge, the score, Rachmaninoff’s beautifully played Trio élégaique, is just too elegantly passionate to support the story of a psychopathic killer and his coterie of low-life friends and prostitutes. What comes out at best was sweet violence.

But there is a much more fundamental problem with the work, and it concerns the plot itself. A reprinted article in the program by the eminent art critic, Martin Gayford, ridicules Patricia Cornwell’s book (which I was reading at the time) accusing Walter Sickert himself of being the Ripper, and Scarlett insists in his Performance Note that the various claims of Sickert’s involvement in the crimes have all now been ‘widely discredited’. So why is one of the most convoluted of the discredited theories – the so-called royal conspiracy involving Queen Victoria’s grandson, Eddy – woven into the plot of Sweet Violets even though Eddy, at the time of the murder of Emily Dimmock, had been dead some fifteen years and the aristocratic, face-slapping prime minister, Lord Salisbury, had died four years before? This is important because by adopting this conflation of a plot, and by avoiding any suggestion that Sickert was the Ripper, Scarlett is now burdened with an implausible cast of characters who do not form a cohesive narrative.

What a shame that in a company of such apparent resources as the Royal Ballet, no dramaturg, no outside eye, seems to have worked with the choreographer during the creation of Sweet Violets to flag these potential problems, for it is the plot’s flaw that undermines all other aspects of the production. John Macfarlane’s sets and David Finn‘s lighting are strikingly beautiful (even if the studio is too clean and bright), but the numerous set changes just sap the energy of the work. The real tragedy is that Scarlett’s choreography is lost in the fray, victim of too many ill-defined characters (and wonderful dancers) in search of something to do.

Who comes off best of the evening? It is without a doubt Wayne McGregor’s Carbon Life, the work that closes the evening to applause from a young (you could tell by the cheers) and enthusiastic audience. Not that I like the choreography particularly, but it delivers where the other two pieces, for different reasons, do not. It is the one work that is slick, well produced (brilliantly inventive lighting by Lucy Carter), well danced, well rehearsed and seems to achieve what it sets out to do. Whatever that is.

It will soon be in the hands of Kevin O’Hare to plot the future artistic course of the Royal Ballet. Having Wayne McGregor as resident choreographer brings to the company elements that other choreographers of a more classical stripe could use: dynamism, brilliant production values, and raw energy wrapped in a contemporary idiom. But McGregor can by no means claim the high ground in choreographic language and is evidently not interested in narrative work, in which the Royal Ballet has traditionally excelled. Seeing this program is to see three creators who offer excellent and complementary qualities. Bringing them together might be just the kind of legacy Dame Monica Mason is proud to leave, and finding a judicious path that can embrace their diverse talents and nurture their development will keep Kevin O’Hare occupied for a good while.