Royal Ballet Triple: Obsidian Tear/ The Invitation/ Within the Golden Hour, ROH, Covent Garden, May 2016Posted on 29 May 2016
Royal Ballet triple bills rarely begin with a new ballet, but this one started with the world premiere of Wayne McGregor’s Obsidian Tear to a half-hour orchestral piece by Finnish composer Esa-Pekka Salonen. Salonen, better known as a conductor, takes up the baton to direct his own music, named Nyx after the Greek goddess of the night. This helps explain the word Obsidian, which McGregor chose to represent utter blackness, the second word Tear hinting at an ambiguity between tears and the tearing apart of a friendship between two men.
It all starts with the two of them, very well performed by Calvin Richardson in a long red skirt and Matthew Ball in black, both with naked torsos. The context looks ancient, possibly a ritual, perhaps Japanese with the long skirts, or maybe ancient Greece or Egypt, the entirely male cast giving the impression of a contest. After a fine violin solo by Vasko Vassilev for the initial two men the music turns aggressive after, and the other contestants eventually drive the man in red over the abyss. His distraught partner is raised up through the intervention of a powerful force (Edward Watson) before succumbing to grief and joining his companion in the abyss. Power, aggression and tragedy, perhaps McGregor’s strongest work for the Royal Ballet up to now.
Kenneth MacMillan’s The Invitation, created in 1960 well before such things as Mayerling, also involves violence, in a sexual encounter that left the 1960 audience pole-axed. A friend who was there at the time recalls the black tie audience in the stalls being struck rigid by the rape at a country house party. Whether from shock or awe matters not, but these were years before the lurid disclosures of the Profumo scandal when societal and sexual mores were very different from today. It might no longer shock, but MacMillan’s powerful choreography for this weekend in the country carries meaning in every step, and the dance masquerade by three people, two dressed as birds, reflects the fact that the cheerful antics of the guests are to be troubled by coldly animal instincts.
The essential characters are a married couple, a girl and her cousin. The husband initially tries to ignore the girl’s naively provocative advances but when he takes what seems an open opportunity, she is out of her depth and he gets carried away. Gary Avis as a Jeremy Irons look-alike husband who later shows remorse for his assault, and Zenaida Yanowsky as his wife exuding elegance and teasing of her own with the young man, both portrayed their roles to perfection. So did Francesca Hayward, showing wonderful youthful simplicity as the girl, and Vadim Muntagirov as her courtly cousin, who finds his sympathies incomprehensibly rejected after the assault, of which he knows nothing. Unable to respond to him, she drives him away. Excellent support from the rest of the cast, with Ursula Hageli as the Governess in a marvellous Ninette de Valois vignette as she conducts a dance class for the young guests. This early MacMillan masterpiece, prefiguring later ballets showing the dark side of reality, makes a welcome return after an absence of some twenty years.
To end an evening fraught with emotional tension and physical assault, Christopher Wheeldon’s 2008 ballet Within the Golden Hour was perfect. Under the baton of Tim Murray, who also conducted the second piece of the evening, the music by Ezio Bosso with a dash of Vivaldi evinced joy and energy fully expressed by the fourteen dancers. Among individual performances the pas-de-deux between Vadim Muntagirov and Beatriz Stix-Brunell exuded youthful joy and musical precision, and the male duet with Luca Acri and Marcelino Sambé was full of visceral energy. Gems in a fine performance that released the pent up energy of this well-thought out triple bill.
Performances with various casts continue until June 11 — for details click here.