Triple Bill: Concerto, The Judas Tree, Elite Syncopations, Royal Ballet, March 2010

These three ballets by Kenneth MacMillan are from different stages in his career, and form a nicely eclectic triple bill.

Steven McRae in Concerto, photo by Johan Persson

Concerto was created in 1966 for the Deutsche Oper Ballet in Berlin, one year after his full-length Romeo and Juliet. The music is Shostakovich’s second piano concerto, a lively, witty work, played here by Jonathan Higgins under the baton of Dominic Grier. It starts with a bassoon and two oboes, closely followed by the piano as the dancers step out into the first movement, where the principal couple was Yuhui Choe and Steven McRae. Both danced beautifully and I thought she was particularly graceful. In the adagio of the second movement, Marianela Nuñez and Rupert Pennefather gave a wonderfully smooth performance. They reappear in the third movement, as do Yuhui Choe and Steven McRae, along with Helen Crawford. There are three levels of dancers in this ballet, the principals in orange leotards, the second level in red and the third in yellow. Watching them all from the front of the Amphi one could see very clearly the precision of their placing on stage, and the whole effect, like the music, was ebulliently energetic.

Carlos Acosta in The Judas Tree, photo by Johan Persson

Carlos Acosta in the Judas Tree, photo by Johan Persson

Edward Watson and Leanne Benjamin in the Judas Tree, photo by Johan Persson

This fine start to the evening was followed by MacMillan’s last and perhaps darkest and most brutal work, The Judas Tree, to music of Brian Elias, written relatively freely without a set scenario. I find it a powerful dance work, on the themes of betrayal and guilt, showing MacMillan to be a master craftsman when it comes to using abstract movement to tell a nasty story. The action involves a foreman and thirteen workmen on a building site in a run-down part of town. Leanne Benjamin, as a provocative and skimpily dressed young woman, seems to have a mutually abusive relationship with Carlos Acosta as the foreman. He ignores her and she flirts with one of his friends, portrayed by Edward Watson, the two of them forming a bond together. The action is very physical and aggressive, with fights among the men and an assault on the woman, who finds some protection from Edward Watson and another friend, portrayed by Bennet Gartside. In the end she is gang raped by the other eleven workmen, and when she blames the foreman, he murders her, then beats up and murders the friend represented by Edward Watson. In a final act of guilt the foreman climbs up the scaffolding and hangs himself. There’s a Biblical, or at least gnostic Christian, background to all this, and when the girl reappears at the end as a wraith-like figure it signifies the indestructibility of the purified soul, but . . . it can simply be taken as a story to be interpreted as one wishes. MacMillan’s choreography is done with his usual finesse, and Acosta, Watson and Gartside all performed it very well in their interactions with one another. Watson in particular portrayed his character very sympathetically, and Leanne Benjamin was superb in her physically demanding role, maintaining integrity and stage presence throughout. Both these two had danced their roles before, unlike the others, but there was also a direct link from the original production in 1992 to the present cast as Irek Mukhamedov, who created the role of the foreman, helped in coaching this revival.

The final item of the evening, Elite Syncopations, MacMillan created in 1974 immediately after his full-length ballet Manon. Where Manon deals with seduction, rape, robbery and violent death, albeit in the context of a great eighteenth-century romantic novel, this is a light-hearted, almost flippant work. The dance is performed to rag-time music, mainly by Scott Joplin, played by a jazz band at the rear of the stage. They and the performers are dressed in extremely colourful and elaborately stylized costumes by Ian Spurling, and the whole effect is delightful fun. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, and the dancing was glorious. Mara Galeazzi was the first female soloist, and Sarah Lamb the second. Both were excellent, and Lamb danced very well with Valeri Hristov in the waltz. Laura McCulloch and Paul Kay were hilarious in their deliberately absurd Alaskan rag, and the dancing could hardly have been better, until suddenly Steven McRae came on for his solo and was electrifying, with excellent precision and attack, and superb musicality.

If you need a reason to go to the ballet, the final item alone is worth the price of the ticket, but there are only six performances of this triple bill, with the last one on 15th April.

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