Royal Ballet Triple: Serenade/ Sweet Violets/ DGV, Covent Garden, May 2014Posted on 15 May 2014
Liam Scarlett’s dark narrative ballet Sweet Violets was beautifully framed here by Balanchine’s Serenade and Wheeldon’s Danse à grande vitesse.
The Balanchine work, his first in America, originated from a series of evening classes he gave in New York, the seventeen girls at the start being the number who attended the first class. Among sixteen of these he weaves marvellous patterns on stage, very well visible from the Amphitheatre. Tchaikovsky’s music — the 1880 Serenade for Strings — was beautifully played by under the baton of Pavel Sorokin, and the waltz in the second movement very gracefully danced by Marianela Nuñez and William Golding. This work reveals greater depth as it progresses and the principal girls let their hair down, helping set the scene for the drama in the central part of the evening, after which we were back in the world of abstract dance.
Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à grande vitesse, an invigorating piece for four principal couples and corps, is a clever mixture of tempi to eminently danceable music by Michael Nyman. Fine dancing from the whole cast, Zenaida Yanowsky particularly notable with Eric Underwood as the first principal couple, Marianela Nuñez in perfect partnership with Thiago Soares as the third, and Laura Morera dancing with wonderful precision in the fourth. The clear stage, rolled up at the rear with metal sheets is not quite what it seems as light shines through them later, and Nyman’s music with its insistent drum beats towards the end was excitingly conducted by Pavel Sorokin.
Between the first and last pieces for orchestra, corps and soloists came a revival of Liam Scarlett’s darkly complex canvas to Rachmaninov’s Trio élégiaque no.2 for piano, violin and cello. Its title Sweet Violets is the name of the song that Jack the Ripper’s final victim was heard singing the night of her death, yet this is not so much about the Ripper as about the late nineteenth century world of Walter Sickert, a London painter obsessed by the urban demi-monde.
Sickert was fascinated by the Ripper, and by the 1907 Camden Town murder of prostitute Emily Dimmock, for which Sickert’s friend Robert Wood was accused but later acquitted at trial. The ballet starts with her death, but then goes back to the 1880s when Queen Victoria’s grandson Prince Eddy, second in line to the throne, was placed under the wing of Sickert. Trouble was that Eddy secretly married a working class girl, Annie E. Crook, who gave birth to an illegitimate heir to the throne and was subsequently committed to an asylum. Her friend Mary-Jane Kelly, who worked for Sickert and knew the secret, was then murdered, and behind this are Steven McRae’s Jack, and Christopher Saunders’ Lord Salisbury the Prime Minister.
In the meantime we see ballet entertainers, headed by Yuhui Choe, performing to an audience obliquely seen behind the main stage, and at the end of this interlude there have been some changes to the staging since last I saw it. Yet this mix of fact and conspiracy theory remains somewhat impenetrable, and despite Scarlett’s dramatic choreography, the various plotlines do not always cohere into a clear narrative.
The darkly lit designs in which the cold world of the streets appears similar to Sickert’s studio contrasts starkly with the bright light from the trio in the orchestra pit, at least for some of us in the Amphitheatre, but the main problem is that the choreography never makes enough use of Sickert as the central character. The interactions between Emily Dimmock (Meaghan Grace Hinkis) Robert Wood (Thomas Whitehead), Eddy (Federico Bonelli), Mary-Jane (Lauren Cuthbertson) and Annie (Laura Morera) were dramatically performed but Sickert seems almost an outsider to the events on stage. As a painter observing the world this is presumably the intention, and though his choice of observations are crucial, Scarlett rather seems to sideline his character, leaving the excellent Thiago Soares to give a carefully understated performance.
Performances of this triple bill continue until May 26 — for details click here.