sat 18/11/2017

Chroma/ Tryst/ Symphony in C, Royal Ballet | reviews, news & interviews

Chroma/ Tryst/ Symphony in C, Royal Ballet

Chroma/ Tryst/ Symphony in C, Royal Ballet

The secret of great choreography is to surprise - can the young ones learn that?

Wheeldon's Tryst: joined-up ballet of beautiful modern calligraphic scriptBill Cooper/ROH

A Balanchine on a mixed bill is a reminder of what a choreographer should desire to offer his audience: a specific new experience of art each time,  not a repeated thumbprint in every ballet. Balanchine grew up in a borderless theatre country - jazz, music hall, Broadway, Cubism, Russian imperialism, folklore, classical piano studies, all soaked his personality and fed his imagination. It is a range of experience that both Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon have grown up without and it made the last of the Royal Ballet’s triple bills a faintly poignant affair. If McGregor and Wheeldon really are the future of ballet, are we going to be much surprised again?

Not that there is much wrong with either McGregor’s Chroma - in its way - or Wheeldon’s Tryst. They are both young men’s works, but I still think that McGregor left his most idiosyncratic and stimulating invention behind when he moved from contemporary dance into the Royal Ballet, where his super-flexible alertness was transmogrified into the repetitious head-ducking and extreme extensions that make up almost all his ballets in the past few years. Chroma is the one with the celestial white light-box by John Pawson, and the unappealing little grey and beige vests and skimpy pants that must look sexy to somebody, I guess. (Right, Chroma photographed by Javier Galeano)

chromaWhy do I feel disappointed about where McGregor, 40 this year, has gone? What I remember from his early stuff in the 90s was the shock effect of apparently seeing bones searching out new spaces to move into under the skin, a sense of being ordered to look at a fresh, unused world of movement, and an insistent readjustment of senses and muscular destinations. This was very palpable in McGregor’s own strange, gangly and wholly compelling dancing. It was magnetic, I think because he was instinctually exploring his feeling of being different from his world.

An ironing-out and intellectual acceptance process seems to have gone on with the Royal Ballet dancers, the crumples, creases and snags no longer look like intriguing accidents of experimental discovery, but permanently ironed in, like Issey Miyake pleats - a trademark. Chroma, made in 2006, has much the same feel to me as Infra and Limen, his Covent Garden pieces since it - in that, try as I might, I can’t sense any real difference in their movement qualities. If you took away their different sets and different musics (here it’s TV-score slush from Joby Talbot), you would still have McGregorist sort-of ballet, itchy, twiggy, leg-obsessed, jutting bums, nuzzling heads, a constant tease that reveals nothing at all about whether he is in a good or bad mood, or he feels this or that way about the music, or the occasion, or the time in his life. The personality that was so clarion in his early pieces is now subsumed in a sort of corporate brand, to my eyes.

In the performance I saw that might have been because Melissa Hamilton, with her rangy, bold body, made the movement look almost routine, so easily does she do it; and because both Brian Maloney and Rupert Pennefather looked contrastingly ill-at-ease. Olivia Cowley was interesting though, a black-haired junior who attacked her chances with a vivid scowl. There’s a glimpse of thrilling interpretation of McGregor in the recent Fred Wiseman documentary La Danse, where Paris Opera Ballet’s haughty, sophisticated ballerina Marie-Agnès Gillot steps down from her classical Parnassus with a surprisingly earthy appetite for his uninhibited, genderless athletic emphases. That kind of dramatic motivation of an interpreter's personal discovery is urgently needed to lift McGregor’s predictabilities back to the experimentalism they are supposed to represent, and Cowley showed flashes of it.

Wheeldon, 37, is a very different cause, very clearly a man who writes joined-up ballet of beautiful modern calligraphic script inspired closely by his music. His Tryst, made in 2002, ambitiously attempted to ride James MacMillan’s great bucking 1989 piece (composed for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra) and the integrity of the attempt carries it through the mountains. The costumes are nicer than the McGregor ones, dip-dyed dark bodysuits in blurry stripes of indigo, blue and red, against a foggy-grey sort of back drop that, in a very distant way, evokes Scottish highland air (Jean-Marc Puissant and Natasha Katz are responsible).

The dancers begin and end in synchronised skeins of serpentine wriggles that may bear some sort of birthing metaphor, and there are peremptory arm signals that might beckon to imaginary aliens but essentially mean only mystification to the watcher. These are modish tics that let the rest down, because Wheeldon’s real talent is the flexible marshalling of line and grouping on stage, the three-against-fours, the sense of architectural contrast between pillars (the ensemble) and featured ornaments (ballerina and partner). Sometimes he has the judgment to hold the dancers back to almost nothing in places where the music demands so much of the ear that the eye couldn’t cope with further decoration.

Tryst_bussell_cope_AsyaVSarah Lamb, bourreeing on like a streak of mist in the slow movement, didn’t let us down. Her delicate, pale aloofness is very different to the original Darcey Bussell’s self-possessed grandeur (left: Bussell and Cope in 2002 pictured by Asya Verzhbinsky), but this pas de deux is a proper dialogue with the eerie music and between a woman acquiescing out of interest to the stretchy challenges suggested to her by the man (Rupert Pennefather, looking much happier in this smooth neo-classicism). Light-bars slowly process electronically across the back, bringing scanners and radar to mind, but they remain two humans alert to a world that we are part of.

MacMillan conducted his own music, a gripping centre to an evening of three conductors, in which Daniel Capps led the Talbot for Chroma and Dominic Grier the sweet plangency and bubble of the Symphony in C composed by Bizet when he was just 17. I didn’t understand why Grier’s sweet and soaring tempo for the great Adagio evoked from Alina Cojocaru such over-emphatic leg swings and disturbance of the flow of these wonderfully large and sweeping arcs of Balanchine's, but Leanne Benjamin and Roberta Marquez both scintillated with confident allure in the ebullient first and third movements either side, abetted by the finesse of Johan Kobborg and Steven McRae.

And over and over you marvelled at the prolific imagination of Balanchine, the way he conjures up dreams, or crystals, or ballet classes, or networks of flutes and violins just by moving dancers around. The way he couldn't find one impulse the same as the last. Simple, really.

Watch Wayne McGregor explain the genesis of 'Chroma'


Comments

Sounds like we were both there last Friday and my reaction to 'Chroma', noted elsewhere, was not unlike yours - though I think we may approach this from two different directions. I did not care for it at all back in 2006 and thought it plain ugly - on Friday, I was wondering what the fuss had been about, with a distinct feeling that that the RB's dancers have smoothed the edges of McGregor's choreography with the passage of time. You may also have a point about the essential similarity of the movement beneath/around the expensive-looking sets for his other RB work. What I recall from "La Danse" suggests that POB had him concentrate on dance on a largely unadorned stage - and with some of it on pointe, if I was not mistaken.

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