Royal Ballet Triple: Rhapsody/ Tetractys—The Art of Fugue/ Gloria, Covent Garden, February 2014Posted on 8 February 2014
When Frederick Ashton choreographed Rhapsody to Rachmaninov’s Variations on a theme by Paganini he created the principal male role on Mikhail Baryshnikov, and the quick darting steps were sublimely performed here by Steven McRae. He has the power, he has the leaps, and his fast chainés towards the end were stunning. It was an extraordinary performance, and when Laura Morera joined him in a pas-de-deux the two of them were sheer delight. The whole cast revelled in the joy of this ballet, and I particularly admired the strong leaps of Fernando Montaño, Tristan Dyer and Marcelino Sambé.
Since its creation in 1980 to celebrate the late Queen Mother’s eightieth birthday the ballet has undergone design changes. In 1995 Patrick Caulfield redesigned the costumes, and in 2007 Jessica Curtis created the present backdrop with its changing skies. Rachmaninov’s music, beautifully played here under the direction of Barry Wordsworth, is the essence of the work and Ashton’s choreography is attuned to it in a way that few others can manage. Certainly not Wayne McGregor whose new ballet Tetratkys was the second item on the programme, and the longest of this triple bill.
McGregor is a visual artist who collaborates with others, and the designs for this ballet by Tauba Auerbach use twin-coloured costumes variously split between upper/lower, left/right, and front/back, along with background lighting based on neon zigzags and her trademark rectilinear designs. It was all very clever, and less intrusive than the lighting in some other McGregor ballets, but the choreography reminded me of the Mock Turtle’s story in Alice in Wonderland when he recalled his time at school in the sea, “Reeling and Writhing and Fainting in Coils”. The dancers certainly performed it with marvellous precision, but Bach’s Art of Fugue, arranged for the piano by Michael Berkley, seemed to be a mere background on which McGregor pinned his body movements. Using this to follow an abstract work by Ashton, who combined music and movement in such a miraculous way, may have been a mistake, for there were hearty boos reverberating behind me when the creative team took their bows.
Before the final ballet an announcement requested the audience to avoid applause during the performance, and quite rightly since Kenneth MacMillan’s Gloria is a reflection on the horrors of war. His own father was gassed in the First World War, suffering the effects all his life, and Andy Klunder’s designs, showing men in helmets with uniforms and flesh torn off, are a stark reminder of the appalling effects of chemical weapons, which recently returned briefly to haunt us.
Carlos Acosta was superb in his minor key solo, and he, Thiago Soares, and Sarah Lamb as the woman in mourning, showed a yearningly emotional intensity. When Meaghan Grace Hinkis as the fearless girl, tossed about by Valeri Hristov, Kenta Kura and Johannes Stepanek, is lifted high above the fray it reminded me that this ballet is based on Vera Brittain’s Testament to Youth. Its use of Poulenc’s Gloria in G is deeply moving, as was the lovely solo voice of soprano Dušica Bijelic, who was born in an area recently ravaged by appalling conflict.
There are five further performances, ending on February 15 — for details click here.