wed 25/04/2018

Bernstein triple bill, Royal Ballet review - epic ambitions unfulfilled | reviews, news & interviews

Bernstein triple bill, Royal Ballet review - epic ambitions unfulfilled

Bernstein triple bill, Royal Ballet review - epic ambitions unfulfilled

Composer outshines McGregor, Scarlett and Wheeldon in centenary tribute

Artists of the Royal Ballet in Wayne McGregor's 'Yugen', set to Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms© Andrej Uspenski/ROH

The Royal Ballet last night presented an evening of Bernstein-scored ballets, two of them premieres by Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon and the other a revival of Liam Scarlett's 2014 Age of Anxiety. Celebrated and accessible composer; celebrated and accessible choreographers; nice centenary bandwagon to hitch them to – surely a recipe for triple success?

Or triple... not-success. Last night delivered three pieces that didn't do justice to their music, which doesn't exactly spell triumph for a programme focused on a major composer. Neither McGregor nor Wheeldon appears to have been especially inspired by their scores, while Scarlett's piece has more conviction, but not enough depth. All three choreographies are exceeded by the grandeur both of their music and their intellectual material – respectively, the Psalms, Auden's epic poem and Plato's Symposium. These are colossal artistic and philosophical efforts to make sense of the individual's relationships with God, with him- or herself, and with other people. Music and dance are more than capable of tackling these issues – after all many forms of ballet and classical music focus exactly on the interplay between the individual, other performers and the totality of the artwork – but in the case of this triple bill, the composer was rather more up to the job than the choreographers.

Joseph Sissens and Calvin Richardson in Wayne McGregor's 'Yugen' at the Royal Ballet. Photo by Andrej Uspenski.McGregor's title, Yugen, the internet informs me, is a concept in Japanese aesthetics that indicates that which is at the limits of the sayable, but still points to this world rather than another. This is a fair nailing of colours to the mast for McGregor's secular take on Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, though not presumably the intention of either its Jewish composer or the Christian cathedral that commissioned this exultant paean to spiritual peace. Focusing on shifting partnerships between a central trio (Calvin Richardson, Federico Bonelli and Sarah Lamb), McGregor evokes a troubled romantic relationship, with Richardson eventually finding comfort in dancing with other men. Even if this is meant to be a reference to Bernstein's own homosexuality, romantic love makes too small a plot for the score's universalising grandeur.

Richardson (pictured above right, with Joseph Sissens) is a tremendous executor of McGregor's choreography, flowing through those fast, fiendish twists and bends with astonishingly controlled energy, as if he’s moving against the pressure of water. The other dancers are no slouches either, and I felt a momentary flash of understanding for Monica Mason, whom a friend once overheard at a McGregor premiere murmuring "Thank God for Wayne", apparently in tribute to McGregor's box-office revivifying collaboration with the company. But McGregor's appeal is the one-note one of seeing startling moves performed by exquisite dancers and after 90 seconds or so of that, one begins to wish for more discipline of choreography and more depth of feeling. Neither is forthcoming.

Neither the yoga-outfit costumes in 10 shades of red nor the elongated white display boxes that constitute the set look like they could possibly have required the talents of fashion designer Shirin Guild or acclaimed ceramicist Edmund de Waal to invent them. Only Koen Kessels and the musicians in the pit lived up to the score's promise, delivering a performance that might as well – or better – have been appreciated with eyes closed.

Sarah Lamb and Alexander Campbell in Liam Scarlett's 'Age of Anxiety' for the Royal Ballet. Photo by Bill Cooper.The problem with Scarlett’s Age of Anxiety is that dance is less able than music to delve into Auden’s complexities; the choreographer is stuck with the attempt to represent literally the narrative arc of the poem and its four protagonists and struggles to evoke the larger spiritual and emotional resonances of the simple events. The disconnect leads to a certain cheapness, as when, after a trembling, thoughtful flute dialogue, the curtain rises on a sub-Edward Hopper bar set (pictured left). Tristan Dyer’s valedictory dancing into the New York dawn is likewise too small to wrap up the piece’s emotional journey, though John Macfarlane’s Turner-esque sky backcloth is trying hard.

For all that, the piece has moments that catch at the heart. Many come courtesy of Bennet Gartside, the only one of the central quartet (the others are Sarah Lamb, Tristan Dyer and Alexander Campbell) who is capable of uniting the universal and the particular in his acting; he is both the specific lonely businessman called Quant and all lonely people everywhere. When Gartside turns away from the group towards the dark emptiness at the side of the stage and briefly opens both hands at his sides in silent question, this muted gesture overshadows all the despairing gyrations of the solo that follows. Likewise the subtly shifting points of contact between the four characters as they pause in mutual awe of the sunrise seem to have more than transient significance.

Lauren Cuthbertson and Yasmine Naghdi in Christopher Wheeldon's 'Corybantic Games' at the Royal Ballet. Photo by Andrej Uspenski.The title of Wheeldon’s piece, Corybantic Games, refers to the noisy and extravagant dances of the priests in a certain ancient Greek cult, while its substance may have something to do with Plato (the score being Bernstein’s Serenade after Plato’s Symposium). I can’t comment on its philosophic merits, but so far from being noisy and extravagant, the choreography looks like low-budget Balanchine that Wheeldon hasn’t put his heart into.

Like most of Wheeldon’s oeuvre it is pretty enough (special mention to the fourth-movement sextet) and employs gimmicks (Marcelino Sambé hurling Mayara Magri into the wings raises an audience laugh and a critical grimace). The black and white costumes by fashion designer Erdem take the Balanchine basics of monochrome practice clothes and tart them up with ribbons, gauzy pleats and bare midriffs to no great advantage (pictured right). Koen Kessels and Sergey Levitin made their way through the Bernstein, I think; to tell you the truth I was so numbed by the choreography that I wasn’t really listening.

McGregor, Scarlett and Wheeldon are not in the league of Bernstein, Auden, Plato or the Psalmist. That need not devalue their creative responses, but it does make for an evening in which one feels like a great and exalted experience is hovering somewhere out of reach – and these pieces can’t quite pin it down.

@hweibye

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Clarinets not flutes at the opening of Age of Anxiety!

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