mon 17/06/2024

Serenade/Sweet Violets/DGV, Royal Ballet | reviews, news & interviews

Serenade/Sweet Violets/DGV, Royal Ballet

Serenade/Sweet Violets/DGV, Royal Ballet

Wildly varied triple bill lurches from the sublime to the nasty

Eric Underwood and Zenaida Yanowsky in Christopher Wheeldon's high-speed DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse.© ROH/Bill Cooper

Some artists acquire (or create) cults of personality because – Byron, Wagner or Van Gogh – they are just so obviously fruity. Some others, though less fruity, are venerated because their work is so tear-prickingly astonishing that we are desperate to get closer to its source. Shakespeare is one such; George Balanchine, the twentieth-century Russian-American choreographer, is another. Serenade (1934), the first piece he made in America, is a thing of wonder.

Ever argued with a music-lover who thought most scores would be better without dance’s cheap, distracting visuals? Show ‘em this, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C so perfectly rendered in movement (music refracted into dance, as Martha Graham put it) that I'd argue for a video as a desert island disc.

Last night the Royal Ballet put the serene into Serenade with a very smooth performance - too smooth. This is a full-out dance, especially for the corps de ballet: it’s exciting because the dancers should be right on the edge and letting it show – everything almost too big, almost too high, almost too long. But except for Lauren Cuthbertson, who did her Russian Girl jétés with abandon, and one or two girls in the corps (Claire Calvert and Romany Pajdak struck my eye), what we saw was a gliding swan with no hint of paddling feet. Yes, the stately pace allows Balanchine’s lovely tableaux to breathe, but when Matthew Golding of the zero stage presence starts to look dashing, either he’s finally acquiring some fire, or everyone else is on ice.

Marianela Nunez and Matthew Golding in George Balanchine's Serenade It’s a bit of both here, actually, to be fair to Golding – he had good chemistry with Marianela Nuñez's sweet Waltz Girl (both pictured left), while Melissa Hamilton was a touch cool for the Dark Angel, though gorgeous in line. I suspect the orchestra, under Pavel Sorokin, might have preferred to do Tchaikovsky with a little less serenity, too.  Don’t get me wrong: these small criticisms proceed from love of both Serenade and the Royal Ballet; I’d still have happily watched them do it twice more in the same evening. Actually, that’s a thought! A triple bill of Serenades would solve the problem of what to put after such perfection, and would certainly have been better than Liam Scarlett’s Sweet Violets.

Almost anything would look cheap coming after Serenade, but Sweet Violets, here revived for the first time since its 2012 première, is worse than cheap: it’s nasty. Two years ago I gave this convoluted Victoriana slasher-ballet some credit for problematising the distinction between art and voyeurism. By consciously imitating, with his lurid dance-drama, the repulsive-yet-compulsive power of Walter Sickert’s Camden Town murder paintings, Scarlett makes the ballet audience, like Sickert’s Edwardian fans, complicit in a dangerous glamourisation of the violated female body, a complicity underlined and undermined by a clever coup de théâtre with a doubled proscenium and a mirror-image audience of leering men.

Meaghan Grace Hinkis and Robert Wood in Liam Scarlett's Sweet VioletsBut you can only read Sweet Violets as perched cleverly between art and voyeurism if you find its female characters and their violent demises in some way beautiful, or titillating. That’s just about possible for the few minutes of the opening pas de deux between an artist (Robert Wood) and a prostitute (Meaghan Grace Hinkis) – Scarlett’s best ideas are in this tight bedroom vignette (pictured left), whose murderous end is chilling because unexpected. But as every subsequent woman who appears in the 50-minute ballet is also hit, flung around and degraded, in choreography of ever-decreasing inventiveness, any aesthetic or voyeuristic pleasure is quickly deadened by disgust.

Why are these indistinguishable men so vile? Where do these victims (madwomen, servants and whores; the lowly trinity) come from? If Scarlett wants to highlight a self-perpetuating violent, misogynistic dynamic in late Victorian culture, or the radical ugliness of social and economic inequality, why have Steven McRae’s creepy ‘Jack’ character lurking around, apparently inspiring the murders? Making evil an external force is a cop-out, removing agency – and blame – from both the men and the society they live in.

Dancers and musicians do their best to wrest some shreds of profundity from this schlocker. Lauren Cuthbertson is luminously self-possessed as servant-turned-prostitute Mary-Jane Kelly, the only decent (or complex) character, while Laura Morera still wrenches in the role she created, Annie E. Crook, the woman abused to the point of madness. And thank heavens for Robert Clark (piano), Vasko Vassilev (violin) and Christopher Vanderspar (cello), who give us Rachmaninoff’s Trio élégiaque as a reservoir of emotion that is deep, complicated, and human. With eyes closed - blessed respite! - I heard grief, anguish, prayer: with them open, I just saw women being hit in dingy rooms.

Marianela Nunez and Thiago Soares in Christopher Wheeldon's DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse2006’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse brings us back towards Balanchine ground. Its vaguely lunar landscape and minimalist ray-patterned fawn/turquoise leotards (think The Clangers meets early 1960s pottery) are miles from Serenade’s milky blue tulle, but there are echoes of Mr B in the structure - four differently-tempered couples with a hard-working corps - and even in the intricate patterns Wheeldon devises – a human chain of interweaving arches comes from one of the master’s favourite devices. Of the soloists, Zenaida Yanowsky (main picture) stands out for her intelligent sense of purpose, Marianela Nuñez and Thiago Soares (pictured above right) for their lovely chemistry, and Laura Morera for her attack. Michael Nyman’s pulsing score drives it all along, an inevitable, mostly harmonious progress towards a thrumming finale. I was wiped out by the end, but the audience roared its pleasure.

This triple bill covers a heck of a range, and gives you a heck of a lot of dancing for your money (and very decent music). Bold programming – it might provoke arguments, but no-one should find it dull.


I, for one, find Balanchine's iconic status somewhat overblown. However 'great' the choreography of Serenade may or not be he has destroyed Tchaikovsky's perfectly crafted masterpiece by changing the order of movements thus proving, to me, the irony of his much lauded musicality. Interfering with the key structure and thus changing the meaning of the music and, in fact, showing up the composer as 'incompetent' I find very sad - and I've never read of a ballet critic ever questioning this fact.

I agree- . I was pretty disturbed by the representation of women in this piece to say the least. Sad and depressed that we sat passively absorbing it. Alas that young women are asked to perform this stuff and what was the point of it beyond titillating the audience? Shame on the RB. Scarlett is very talented and should have been told to look elsewhere for some ideas.

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