Royal Ballet Triple Bill: Ceremony of Innocence, Age of Anxiety, Aeternum, Royal Ballet, ROH, Covent Garden, October 2014Posted on 9 November 2014
This triple bill takes us from the loss of childhood innocence to the memory of parents passed away, ideas that frame the first and third items, both to music of Benjamin Britten.
Ceremony of Innocence appears in W B Yeats’ poem The Second Coming as ‘The ceremony of innocence is drowned’, a line that Britten put into the mouths of Quint and Miss Jessel in his opera The Turn of the Screw. It also inspires this thought-provoking ballet by Kim Brandstrup, who has used part of Britten’s Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge to explore the sensations and memories of a man coming into maturity among the physical and sexual longings of his age group.
It starts and ends with the sea, represented in an abstract network of wave patterns that appear, vanish and reappear, while the choreography combines static moments with gentle and sometimes highly physical movement performed by seven dancers. Among them is a principal girl, along with the main character and his alter ego, perhaps a younger version of him, very well portrayed in the first cast by Christina Arestis, Edward Watson and Marcelino Sambé. She looks past him in anguished distraction, but the mood is lightened by two couples, the boys exhibiting youthful physical energy in a way reminiscent of Brandstrup’s 1992 choreography for Britten’s Death in Venice.
A fascinating turning point in the action occurs after darkness engulfs the stage, and Jordan Tuinman’s lighting suddenly splits everything in two at an oblique angle with the main character on the light side, his alter ego on the dark. They mirror one another, but as the oblique split moves across the stage, the characters change places, innocence interchanging with something altogether darker. Finally we are back with those abstract waves crashing onto the seashore, and the ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The Company was dancing this Brandstrup ballet for the first time, but the second item, The Age of Anxiety by Liam Scarlett, was entirely new. It is Scarlett’s response to a six-part poem of the same name by W H Auden, written in New York during and after the War, along with music written later by Leonard Bernstein. The poem deals with four previously unacquainted people who meet in a bar: Quant, Malin, Rosetta and a handsome, aggressive naval recruit called Emble, well represented in the first cast by: Bennet Gartside, Tristan Dyer, Laura Morera and Steven McRae. When a young uniformed soldier and his girlfriend, stylishly played by Luca Acri and Leticia Stock, enter the bar, McRae’s assertive Emble showed a very sharp edge in getting rid of them.
Eventually all four are thrown out as the bar closes, and when Rosetta invites them back home expressions of jealousy and alternative sexual preferences emerge, ending with Emble falling asleep on her couch, and Malin alone in the big city, after rejecting Quant’s advances. Although Berstein’s music fits the story well, Scarlett’s choreography lacks the subtlety of his earlier Asphodel Meadows, or the cutting edge of his subsequent Sweet Violets, or Hansel and Gretel, and at first impression felt rather like a light version of Jerome Robbins.
The third item, Christopher Wheeldon’s Aeternum, originally created for the 2013 Britten centenary has a powerful impact in its three movements: Lacrymosa, Dies Irae, and Requiem Aeternum to music Britten wrote as a memorial to his own parents. Why the Japanese, who were already at war with China, commissioned Britten to write this piece to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary in 1940 of Emperor Jimmu is a mystery since the composer was a committed pacifist who expressed his ideas in this music, which they found completely unsuitable. Yet it is truly wonderful and Wheeldon’s choreography makes a superb match, particularly in the third part.
The cast of principals was the same as at the premiere last year with Nuñez and Kish superb together in Part I, and she and Bonelli sublime in Part III. For the Part II solo, James Hay was excellent in the first cast, with Marcelino Sambé making extraordinary turning jumps in the second cast.
The music by Britten and Bernstein draws the items in this triple bill together beautifully, and at such cheap prices the House should be filled for every performance. There are just three left after this weekend, taking place on various dates until November 17 — for details click here.