wed 26/10/2016

Raven Girl, Royal Ballet/ Witch-Hunt, Bern Ballett/ The Great Gatsby, Northern Ballet | reviews, news & interviews

Raven Girl, Royal Ballet/ Witch-Hunt, Bern Ballett/ The Great Gatsby, Northern Ballet

Raven Girl, Royal Ballet/ Witch-Hunt, Bern Ballett/ The Great Gatsby, Northern Ballet

Story-ballets are back, with witches, raven girls and the all too scrutable Gatsby

Flightless: Sarah Lamb as the Raven Girl in Wayne McGregor's new story-ballet© Johan Persson/ROH

Ballet is telling stories again. Last night Wayne McGregor’s debut as a narrator followed hot on the heels of Cathy Marston’s Witch-Hunt for Bern Ballett, both in the Royal Opera House complex, and Northern Ballet’s visit to London with David Nixon’s new The Great Gatsby. (To say nothing of David Bintley's Aladdin and even less of Peter Schaufuss's Midnight Express.)

Nixon is known as a straight narrative man, Marston a more expressionistic type, McGregor all abstract and kinetic, theory. Seeing the three works during the current orbit of Kenneth MacMillan’s eyepopping Mayerling at Covent Garden (now there’s storytelling) exposed that the priority for success is not “story” per se, but characters that seize you in a step, the exhilaration of expert movement, musical escape, the application of a stylised ensemble language, the suspenseful thrill of stillness. And as Balanchine said anyway, put a man and a woman on stage, and there's a story.

Of the three, Marston won out with her intelligent treatment at the Linbury Studio Theatre, for the visiting Bern Ballett, of a tale of medieval supposed witchcraft (last performance is tonight). It streaks ahead of Nixon’s expert but shallow treatment of Fitzgerald, visiting Sadler’s Wells last week, and McGregor’s lumpy, confused effort at Covent Garden with Audrey Niffenegger, Raven Girl.

McGregor’s is distant, cool, a bit of phoning home dutifully to the Royal Ballet, his heart not seeming in it

Myths are great in ballet, and Raven Girl and Witch-Hunt are both pregnant with superstitions and fairy fancies, the first a fairy-tale, the second a regrettable piece of history. But where you feel Marston urgently digging her claws into her material, McGregor’s is distant, cool, a bit of phoning home dutifully to the Royal Ballet, his heart not seeming in it.

The Raven-Girl in Niffenegger’s story is born from an unlikely marriage between a postman and a (girl) raven. The story treatment by McGregor is simplistic despite the luxury digital visuals and lush movie-score music - it’s no parable about difference, it’s no allegory about knowing yourself.

The raven girl is born to mismatched parents, feels split, asks a plastic surgeon to give her wings, then finds she can’t fly with the wings which are a lot better than her mum’s, and all is confusion after that. She wanders happily up a cliff in the dark with a raven swain, but is she now happy as all bird? And how do her odd-sock parents feel about their own life together?

Like Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland for the Royal Ballet, this is a work reliant on hyperactive designers while the choreographer takes a back seat. Niffenegger's charcoal palette from her book is faithfully deployed by digital whizz Ravi Deepres and designer Vicki Mortimer. There is less choreography in the inordinately long work (72 minutes) than mime and walking about, which conspires to avoid tackling the psychological life of the curious personages. 

sarah lamb raven girlSarah Lamb looks sweet and pliant in a black gamine wig as the Raven-Girl, and gives not a clue whether she feels pain in any part of her life, with or without wings. But she hasn’t much to play with, except for trapezes and chairs (pictured right by Johan Persson/ROH). Only two pieces of dance stand out. There's an unkindness of ravens, a corps de corbeaux, so stylishly underlit by Lucy Carter that what must be time-consumingly intricate choreography is almost invisible.

We get lift-off finally in the culminating pas de deux for the Raven Girl and the Raven Prince, who appears like magic at the end, an unexplained mystery. This makes lovely, heart-lifting attempts at launch, Lamb wafted weightlessly in her dream of flying by the supportive Eric Underwood, helped into her own fantasy through some imaginative and even erotic work by McGregor which at last sets loose something childlike and human in that oppressively cool cerebrum of his.

However, it is more rewarding to see a choreographer who you sense felt an imperative to put her characters on stage and show us their emotional lives. Cathy Marston isn’t an innovative or inventive choreographer of movement, but she has thrown all her might into Witch-Hunt. An intelligent passion for her subject runs through the work, redeeming many of its weaknesses. Her choice of 17th-century music by Vivaldi and his contemporaries offsets music created to rise above baseness against events that expose human beings’ animal fears, particularly about women and sex.

The cast, dressed in white, resemble staff at a psychiatric hospital, where an actress voices her memories of being an ailing child who came under the influence of a new servant to the household, a beautiful, alluring creature whose sexual attractiveness rapidly saw her accused as a witch. The child vomited needles; who put the needles in her milk? The servant, being a witch? The mother, both jealous of the servant and in love with her, attempting to frame her? The child herself, unhinged by her desperate sense of alienation from her mother?


In the book of the Raven Girl, her wings DO work. The final pdd meant to represent the RG and the Prince, flying together (the wings removed at the end of the scene before as a practicality, as I imagine that final pdd would be almost impossible with those rather beautiful wings still attached)

I enjoyed the opening performance very much. The production caught the dark mood of the narrative which was more gothic novel than fairy tale. A strong point of interest was the use of multi-media techniques to put across a more complex plot than ballet can normally accommodate. There are interesting pointers to the future here perhaps. The dancing, the choreography, the score and the staging united to catch the dark mood of the story effectively. It was an occasion when an unhappier ending might have been more appropriate. Overall, a thought provoking evening.

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