Royal Ballet Mixed Bill: The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude/ Tarantella/ Strapless/ Symphonic Dances, ROH, Covent Garden, May 2017

The main focus of this mixed bill is its final item, Liam Scarlett’s new work to Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. The abundant melody of this 1940 composition allows ideas to emerge in and around each other, skilfully expressed in Scarlett’s choreography.

Zenaida Yanowsky, all images ROH/ Bill Cooper

Yanowsky and Reece Clarke

For the forces of nature in this music, brilliantly conducted by Koen Kessels, Scarlett and designer Jon Morrell have used the colours red and black, expressing ritual interactions within the ensemble and towards the principal maiden, the superb Zenaida Yanowsky around whom this work was created. Resonances then of Macmillan’s Rite of Spring, and following a dramatic start, the choreography to the first of three parts explodes with energy, while Yanowsky remains an enigmatic figure, attracting the adoration of one notable male figure, danced by James Hay. In the second part we move from sinister brass and a solo violin to richly-scored waltz themes, with male dancers in long skirts moving as if in some primitive rite. For the third part the vertical screen of part one has now become horizontal, shedding cold light on the dancers from overhead, an assertive beginning that develops into a middle section featuring a marvellous pas-de-deux between Yanowsky and Reece Clark.

As Rachmaninov’s music draws to a close its dies irae theme accompanies the lowering of the screen, crushing from existence all movement, to great hammer blows from the orchestra. The audience roared their approval at this tremendous ending to an evening that began with the precision and charm of two shorter abstract pieces by William Forsythe and George Balanchine.

Nuñez and Muntagirov in Vertiginous Thrill

Forsythe’s Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude to music from the fourth movement of Schubert’s great C Major symphony was taken up by the Royal Ballet in 1999 after its 1996 premiere in Frankfurt, and in this revival the five dancers (Marianela Nuñez, Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Akane Takada, Steven McRae and Vadim Muntagirov) exuded charm and … yes, huge exactitude. The precision of the dancing and bold colours of the costumes made a stylish start to the evening, continued and contrasted by the energy of Balanchine’s Tarantella that followed it.

Hayward and Sambé in Tarantella

The huge exuberance of this extended pas-de-deux, with its extraordinary range of allegro steps, provided a vehicle for Marcelino Sambé and Francesca Hayward to imbue the choreography with enormous joy, his almost feral energy complementing her feminine vivacity and charm. Balanchine could not have wished for better.

Osipova, Watson and Ball in Strapless

Sandwiched between these abstract ballets, the revival of Christopher Wheeldon’s Strapless, first shown in February 2016 did not really fit. Telling the story behind a painting unveiled in the Paris of 1884, it contrasts the conservative expectations of society against the somewhat louche representation of a lady called Amélie. Despite the same excellent cast as the premiere (Natalia Osipova as Amélie, Federico Bonelli as her lover, Edward Watson as the painter, and Matthew Ball as his lover), along with choreography well suited to the complexity of Mark Anthony Turnage’s music, the somewhat disjointed story lacks a compelling narrative. Minor cuts to the original still leave static moments where the music seems to lose itself, and this revival sat rather awkwardly between the abstract dance works surrounding it.

Performances of this excellent mixed bill continue on various dates until May 31, with three different casts for the first part and two for the other two parts — for details click here.

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