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Symphonic Dances Mixed Bill 2016-17 season

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 I assume that this mixed bill was intended to show the range of work and styles which ballet is capable of encompassing, The inclusion of Wheeldon's Strapless revealed what it can't do  and certainly showed the difficulties which choreographers face when they choose a story which is unsuitable for ballet or one for which the choreography's vocabulary and style is unsuited.

 

The programme opened with Forsythe's "Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude" which the company danced for a couple of seasons at the turn of the century but then disappeared from its repertory. It was danced with extraordinary speed and energy by the first cast of Nunez, Muntagirov, Takada, Stix-Brunell and McRae but even here Muntagirov managed to display the effortless elegance and beauty of movement for which he is admired by the London audience.The first cast was exhilarating the second cast, Mendizabal, Sambe, Hayward Stix-Brunell and Hay, was a bit more relaxed about the whole thing and brought out the wit in the choreography which was not really obvious in the more driven burn the stage account given by the first cast. Mendizabal is never going to be Nunez but she gave a fine account of the choreography. Sambe gave a bouncy account of the lead male role while Hay gave an ultra elegant and effortless account of the choreography which McRae had danced. Hayward and Stix-Brunell who had the benefit of working together from the beginning of the rehearsal process rather than being a last minute pairing due to injury danced as if they were a single performer.Both casts were well worth seeing. 

 

Tarantella, new to the company, followed before the interval. Here we were given three casts and the order in which they danced had more to so with what else they were dancing and learning than the quality of their performances. The first cast of Sambe, a ball of energy, and Hayward full of effortless technical skill, character, charm and wit brought the house down on the first night.The second cast was a bit of a disappointment largely because Hinkis held back preferring to give a safety first account of her choreography rather than a the sort of performance it demands.Perhaps Hinkis' overly careful approach to the piece had a dampening effect on Campbell and his account of the choreography.He danced as if he wanted everyone to forget that physically he is too stocky to be danseur material and the result was that while it was accurate it was anaemic,dull and characterless. How much his performance was influenced by his partner's rather subdued overcareful account of her role and how much it reflected a desire on his part to distance himself from the character nature of the role is difficult to say.  The third cast of Naghdi and Zucchetti was the most intriguing as Naghdi has said of herself that she is by nature an allegro dancer. This cast  sailed through the choreography with consummate ease their account was witty, fun and more musically astute than the first cast had been, Sambe is not as musically perceptive as Hayward is. The third cast had wonderful stage presence and made the whole thing look like a tongue in cheek homage to Bournonville and not simply a piece created on dancers with abundant stage presence,personality and technical skill..

 

Unfortunately Tarantella sent the audience out on a high and raised expectations which Strapless was never going to be able to fulfill. The audience left the auditorium feeling that all is well with the company and its repertory only to return to it to watch a ballet which should have been given a decent burial after its initial run. In fact there are some who would argue that it really should not have got as far as the main stage in 2016 when it was premiered. It appears to be a co-production with the Bolshoi and was clearly intended as a vehicle for Osipova.

 

I can't imagine what possessed Wheeldon to think that the story of the creation of Sargent's portrait of Madame X and the scandal it caused would be a suitable subject for a ballet. Perhaps it was the  exhibition  of Sargent portraits at the National Portrait Gallery or the book about the portrait's creation but a choreographer of Wheeldon's experience should have been able to see that it presented insurmountable problems for anyone who wanted to turn it into a ballet. How do you create a ballet about an enthusiastic social climber who wants her portrait painted by an eminent portraitist and who suffers social ostracism because in its original form the portrait suggested that she was a woman of loose morals ? It is not just a case of the past being a foreign country where things are done differently somehow the choreographer has to make the audience 

interested in that foreign country and his social climbing "heroine" and her fate at the hands of a society which required everyone to maintain a veneer of respectability by conducting affairs discretely. How do you persuade an audience to be interested and involved in such a story?

 

The ballet was strongly cast throughout but neither the cast led by Osipova nor that led by Cuthbertson managed to breathe life into this balletic corpse although they did everything that was humanly possible to do so. I saw both casts and to my mind Cuthbertson managed to make a bit more of it than Osipova had done. Even in its shortened form the ballet felt far longer than the forty minutes which the cast sheet suggested it would take to perform. By the time we got to the cafe scene which is full of local Parisian colour with its dancing waiters and its demure can can dancers my mind had begun to wander. I began to wonder what de Valois' Bar aux Folies Bergere had been like and I came to the conclusion on the basis of what I had read about it that I would far rather be watching "Bar" than the ballet which I was watching. At later performances I stayed outside and talked to people who were doing the same thing. 

 

The final piece on the bill was Liam Scarlett's new ballet Symphonic Dances made for a leading female dancer and a mixed cops de ballet.I think that some people, not knowing the music, may have expected a gentle valedictory piece because it was created on Yanowsky who is about to retire from the company. It's not what we got. What we got was a substantial slice of interesting choreography which made no technical concessions to anyone appearing in it. Not only did it underline the important part that both Yanowsky and Morera play in the artistic life of the company it shone a spotlight on the dance talent in the junior ranks. I managed to get a ticket for the Insight evening held the day after the ballet's premiere at which Scarlett was interviewed by Mason. He did not throw any light on the ballet itself but he did explain the prominence he had given to the men in the corps. He said that he had wanted to give the male members of the corps some challenging choreography because of the great technical strength of the company's current male dancers.

 

The ballet is opened by the leading female dancer, Yanowsky on the opening night, Morera a few nights later, who then leaves the stage. Later she returns and one of the men dances with her. Yanowsky danced with James Hay while  Morera danced with Giacomo Roverro, one of the company's apprentices. The man's dance is one that suggests that the lead woman is an object of adoration , with Hay and Yanowsky, the height difference almost suggests a mother and child relationship. With the Morera, Roverro pairing the height difference is lacking and so a mother and child relationship did not immediately spring to mind. The result is that the choreography looks markedly different with the two casts but it does not reduce its effectiveness.

 

The middle section brings the male corps to the fore they dance together for some time before the female lead joins them. She dances with the corps as part of it and at some points they lift and present her to the audience. In the third section she dances with one of the men in a conventional pas de deux. Yanowsky's partner was Reece Clarke while Morera was partnered by Matthew Ball.I don't think that the final pas de deux was intended to say something about the place of the female dancer. I think that everyone in the audience would have felt cheated if they had not had the  opportunity to see Yanowsky dance with Clarke for the last time or to see Ball dance with Morera as both men are such promising dancers. At the very end of the ballet the lead woman flings herself to the floor and the screen which has been part of the decor descends and obliterates the audiences final view of her. Is the ballet about anything? Scarlett said that the ballet meant whatever we chose to see in it.

 

It is true that there are a few minor sections where Scarlett's imagination seems to flag but those sections seemed to be less obvious as the run progressed, presumably the result of the dancers settling into their choreography. The casting of the ballet meant that both lead dancers had their own male corps dancing with her The female corps were not cast in the same way, some of the female dancers appeared in both casts.The response to this ballet suggests that it will be revived.It will be interesting to see it with new casts. Only time will tell whether it lasts for a few seasons or whether it has real staying power. According to Scarlett his mother's response to his new work was that it was "one of his better efforts".

 

 Juxtaposing these two works in a single mixed bill made me wonder about what we can look forward to in the future from Wheeldon who is in his mid forties and Scarlett who has been making ballets for twenty years but is still only thirty or thirty one. It brought home to me that while Wheeldon has made a couple of full length works for the Royal Ballet which have been successful his dance vocabulary appears limited and he is not that able to create characters who describe their unique qualities and express their emotions through a subtle combination of natural body movement and dance in the way that Ashton, Tudor, Cranko, MacMillan and even de Valois could. It is as if he is blind to the possibilities which expressionist dance presents. His creation of Leontes seems so dependent on Ed Watson that I doubt that he would have thought of Leontes' movements and body language without him. I find that these "Watsonisms" are even more effective on other dancers than they are on Watson himself. Scarlett seems to have access to a wider dance vocabulary than Wheeldon and whatever you think of Frankenstein his pas de deux seem to arise more naturally from the narrative than Wheeldon's do. Wheeldon's pas de deux  occur because there should be one at this point in the ballet not because they are required by the action or the character's emotional state at that point in the narrative. While they may be interesting from a purely technical point of view they seem devoid of any emotion, be it burning passion or good old fashioned lust.  This apparent inability to express a range of emotional states through dance does not matter in the reconciliation pas de deux in Winter's Tale where a certain reticence and reserve may be appropriate at that point in the narrative  nor in Alice which is more entertainment than ballet but it is a weakness in other works. 

 

I can't help wondering what the future holds for these two choreographers and for the audiences at the Royal Opera House. I have a feeling that people are beginning to think that Scarlett might just be the next really interesting choreographer rather than simply a useful company choreographer. The interview he gave was extremely interesting.. He appears to be very conscious of the company's creative and choreographic heritage without being overwhelmed by it or feeling that everything has to be overturned. When he was asked about the new Swan Lake he said that he was conscious of the responsibility involved in staging it and that he was still doing his research and reading. There is a rumour which may be totally unfounded that there may be more Ashton choreography in it than just the Neapolitan Dance.

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Ashton Fan

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6 hours ago, Ashton Fan said:

 Juxtaposing these two works in a single mixed bill made me wonder about what we can look forward to in the future from Wheeldon who is in his mid forties and Scarlett who has been making ballets for twenty years but is still only thirty or thirty one. It brought home to me that while Wheeldon has made a couple of full length works for the Royal Ballet which have been successful his dance vocabulary appears limited and he is not that able to create characters who describe their unique qualities and express their emotions through a subtle combination of natural body movement and dance in the way that Ashton, Tudor, Cranko, MacMillan and even de Valois could. It is as if he is blind to the possibilities which expressionist dance presents. His creation of Leontes seems so dependent on Ed Watson that I doubt that he would have thought of Leontes' movements and body language without him. I find that these "Watsonisms" are even more effective on other dancers than they are on Watson himself. Scarlett seems to have access to a wider dance vocabulary than Wheeldon and whatever you think of Frankenstein his pas de deux seem to arise more naturally from the narrative than Wheeldon's do. Wheeldon's pas de deux  occur because there should be one at this point in the ballet not because they are required by the action or the character's emotional state at that point in the narrative. While they may be interesting from a purely technical point of view they seem devoid of any emotion, be it burning passion or good old fashioned lust.  This apparent inability to express a range of emotional states through dance does not matter in the reconciliation pas de deux in Winter's Tale where a certain reticence and reserve may be appropriate at that point in the narrative  nor in Alice which is more entertainment than ballet but it is a weakness in other works. 

 

I can't help wondering what the future holds for these two choreographers and for the audiences at the Royal Opera House. I have a feeling that people are beginning to think that Scarlett might just be the next really interesting choreographer rather than simply a useful company choreographer.

 

Since I don't see the company live, I don't have much to offer here that others haven't already thought of, but I wanted to thank you for this part -- Wheeldon, Ratmansky and Peck have been getting a lot of attention recently as a group in the US, but I think it's good to consider Wheeldon's career so far on its own.  The distinction you make in the next paragraph above (about the difference between a useful choreographer and an interesting one) is (no joke intended) both useful and interesting here.  When Balanchine died, we all started talking about what we should do while we waited for "the next Balanchine" -- the deaths of Ashton, Macmillan, Joffrey, and Tudor just extended those conversations.  I think almost every large-ish company has had its share of commissions by useful choreographers, but finding the interesting ones is still the tricky bit.

 

I do think that it's possible to create a compelling ballet from the Madame X story -- a woman with social ambitions whose rise in status is cut off by her own choices and the mores of her time.  Manon has similar themes.  It's not the story, but how it's told. 

 

And as a mother, I thought this made absolute sense. 

 

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 Only time will tell whether it lasts for a few seasons or whether it has real staying power. According to Scarlett his mother's response to his new work was that it was "one of his better efforts".

 

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