The Royal Ballet rises magnificently to the challenge of 21st-Century Choreographers

United KingdomUnited Kingdom 21st-Century Choreographers: Dancers of The Royal Ballet, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Koen Kessels (conductor). Livestreamed (directed by Ross MacGibbon) from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 28.5.2021. (JPr)

Optional Family with Marcelino Sambé, Stanisław Węgrzyn & Natalia Osipova
© Bill Cooper

Within the Golden Hour

Choreography – Christopher Wheeldon
Music – Ezio Bosso and Antonio Vivaldi
Costume designer – Jasper Conran
Lighting designer – Peter Mumford
Dancers – Anna Rose O’Sullivan, Vadim Muntagirov, Francesca Hayward, Valentino Zucchetti, Yasmine Naghdi, Ryoichi Hirano, Ashley Dean, Isabella Garparini, Hannah Grennell, Romany Pajdak, Leo Dixon, David Donnelly, Téo Dubreuil, David Yudes

Optional Family: a divertissement

Choreography – Kyle Abraham
Music – Grischa Lichtenberger and Nidia Borges
Costume designer – Ilaria Martello
Lighting designer – Dan Scully
Dancers – Natalia Osipova, Marcelino Sambé, Stanislaw Wegrzyn

The Statement

Choreography – Crystal Pite
Text – Jonathon Young
Music – Owen Belton
Set designer – Jay Gower Taylor
Costume designer – Crystal Pite and Joke Visser
Lighting designer – Tom Visser
Dancers – Ashley Dean, Joseph Sissens, Kristen McNally, Calvin Richardson
Voice actors – Meg Roe, Andrew Wheeler, Colleen Wheeler, Jonathon Young

Solo Echo

Choreography – Crystal Pite
Music – Johannes Brahms
Solo cello – Christopher Vanderspar
Solo piano – Robert Clark
Scenic design – Jay Gower Taylor
Costume designer – Crystal Pite and Joke Visser
Lighting design – Tom Visser
Dancers – Francesca Hayward, Isabella Gasparini, Hannah Grennell, Marcelino Sambé, Cesar Corrales, Lukas Bjørneboe Brændsrød, Harry Churches

For the first pause in Christopher Wheeldon’s episodic Within the Golden Hour there was the still oddly unexpected sound of applause after so many months of viewing performances online in theatres otherwise empty of a viewing public. (More disturbingly I thought I also heard coughing and wonder whether any person doing that was asked to leave?) The venerable company’s return to the Covent Garden stage at least did not find The Royal Ballet playing it safe but tackling head– and feet-on new choreographies and dancing better than I have seen them in a long time whether in the Royal Opera House, in the cinema or, more recently, online.

Within the Golden Hour was originally conceived for San Francisco Ballet in 2008 and on a repeat viewing I have got more used to Jasper Conran’s Klimt-inspired gauzy glittery costumes, and I reiterate what I wrote before about this and how it celebrates the bravura technique of the fourteen dancers and is something to simply sit back and enjoy. Italian minimalist composer Ezio Bosso (who sadly died last year) provided a beautiful original score for strings which samples Vivaldi and is redolent of sun setting on a summer’s evening. This is mirrored in Peter Mumford’s lighting before twilight finally fades away as the curtain comes down. The swelling music was wonderfully rendered with virtuosic solo contributions from members of the Royal Opera House Orchestra under Koen Kessels.

Anna Rose O’Sullivan (who will debut as a principal dancer in September) is not ideally matched in height to the elegant Vadim Muntagirov, but she is an effortless, natural dancer and their duet was charmingly playful. We also saw a slow and mesmerising one for Francesca Hayward with Valentino Zucchetti whilst Yasmine Naghdi and Ryoichi Hirano explored a deeply loving relationship. Notable for it poses with angular shaped arms and bent legs; elsewhere there is a sense of perpetual motion from Wheeldon particularly in the rather helter-skelter reprise at the end of Within the Golden Hour when, with smiles on their faces, all concerned revelled in spreading the joy of dance.

American choreographer Kyle Abraham’s world premiere Optional Family: a divertissement is simply the prelude to his forthcoming one-act commission for The Royal Ballet. We hear the (slightly robotic) voices of ‘Richard’ and ‘Emily’ venting their spleen (in letters or possibly emails?) about the inadequacies of the other and why their long marriage failed. To an electronic score with an incessant beat, we see Natalia Osipova (in a flouncy ostrich-feathered skirt) and Marcelino Sambé spinning around as if their life is in turmoil without a sense of her ‘saying’ how she wants to be alone. From then on – in Abraham’s trademark fusing of classic with contemporary dance – they move in and out of geometric shapes of light on the stage floor before Stanislaw Wegrzyn – almost literally – insinuates himself between the bickering couple. Osipova gets increasingly agitated possibly because the two men seem to develop a relationship of their own and there is an ambivalent ending suggesting a ménage à trois before an agonised Wegrzyn is left on his own.

The Statement with Joseph Sissens, Ashley Dean, Calvin Richardson
and Kristen McNally © Bill Cooper

Before it just ever so slightly outstays its welcome the dance-drama The Statement is one of the most engrossing modern works I have seen in ages. It was created by Crystal Pite for Nederlands Dance Theater to a pre-recorded spoken Jonathon Young text for four characters and an(other) electronic score; this time throbbing and pulsating intermittently and ominously. The first words we hear are ‘God, Oh God, Oh God, Oh God’ as a pair of underlings (Ashley Dean and Joseph Sissens) are waiting for a couple of suits (Kristen McNally and Calvin Richardson) from upstairs to take a statement from them about how their department ‘was acting independently’ about something we never get to the bottom of. Those in charge are expecting the truth though the put-upon couple say, ‘We don’t know anything about anything’ and ‘We’ll say whatever you need to hear’. As to what we see, there is a remarkable and very amusing exaggeration of gesticulations and normal body language in the staccatoed movement of the head, arms and legs of the four around – and sometimes on – a long conference table and the dancers are truly captivating.

Eventually everything disassembles, the voices increasingly disembodied and the conflict we see distinctly unresolved. Soon the hunter (Richardson) becomes the hunted, and he is told ‘there’s no going back upstairs for you’. Finally, the unnamed jobsworth is shown isolated with head in hands as we hear ‘The situation’s going to resolve itself, it’s going to turn around, it’s going to end’. The four dancers rise to Pite’s challenges magnificently and tell me who didn’t see this piece about lies, cover-ups and spin without thinking about the recent Dominic Cummings controversies and all the goings-on at the heart of the current Boris Johnson government.

Completing this engrossing programme was Pite’s Solo Echo created for NDT in 2012 and being danced – like The Statement – by The Royal Ballet for the first time. The music is typical Romantic Brahms (Allegro non Troppo from Sonata for Cello and Piano in E Minor, Op.38 and Adagio Affettuoso from Sonata for Cello and Piano in F Major, Op.99) superbly played by violinist Christopher Vanderspar and pianist Robert Clark. Even with a second viewing I did not get as much from this piece as the previous other three works though I could see – with its backdrop of gently falling snow – how it was inspired by Mark Strand’s poem ‘Line in Winter’ which begins:

Tell yourself
as it gets cold and grey falls from the air
that you will go on
walking, hearing
the same tune no matter where
you find yourself

The seven dancers are in black on a darkened stage and there are a series of solos, duets and complex ensemble interactions. It opens with Marcelino Sambé gyrating like he did in Abraham’s Optional Family. Throughout, the dancers appear to be striving – in sharp, jerky fashion – for something (to get through Winter perhaps?) especially when the music was at its most impassioned. Their linking arms and intertwining reminded me of some of Akram Khan’s work. At one point with one dancer laying down with the soles of her feet on another dancer’s ankles, they moved back in unison. Soon all appear to scream (silently of course) and eventually the seven will fall lifeless to the floor before they get up again to leave Sambé behind. It was very interesting to see new Royal Ballet principal Cesar Corrales who is often such an exciting and explosive dancer having to reign himself back for what was something of a dance-off between himself and Sambé, two of The Royal Ballet’s most exciting young talents.

Jim Pritchard

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