Murder And Minimalism From The Royal Ballet

Lust for Life: Zenaida Yanowsky and Eric Underwood in Christopher Wheeldon's DGV: Danse à grande vitesse © Alastair Muir

Lust for Life: Zenaida Yanowsky and Eric Underwood in Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à grande vitesse © Alastair Muir

Three highly acclaimed choreographers feature in this extremely varied triple bill at the Royal Opera House. Two of these are pre-eminent today, while the third was one of the most outstanding of the twentieth century: George Balanchine.

The Russian’s Serenade of 1934 is the first work that he created in America. It can be seen as a ballet about putting together a ballet, with Balanchine demonstrating considerable innovation by choreographing it around the people who appeared for rehearsal each day. This explains the rather odd number of dancers seen at the start (seventeen turned up on the first night), and the ‘orange grove’ formation that he devised to accommodate them all remains highly intriguing and effective.

Occasions such as a dancer turning up late for a rehearsal, or another falling over during a routine, are choreographed into the final product, which over time underwent several revisions. Beautiful and elegant formations result in an exceptionally polished piece, and yet the residue of the construction process remains. As we watch certain movements we can almost picture individual dancers raking over them for hours in rehearsal, and yet when an entire corps de ballet present them together the result is quite stunning. Similarly, the three female principals – the wonderful Marianela Nuñez, Lauren Cuthbertson and Melissa Hamilton – end the piece unusually with their hair down, leaving a final sense of insouciant abandon in the air.

Liam Scarlett’s Sweet Violets, which first appeared in 2012, focuses on Walter Sickert’s painting of the slaughtered prostitute Emily Dimmock of 1907, and combines this with the myth that the artist was associated with such murders. The ambiguity of Sergey Rachmaninoff’s music is well suited to capturing the encounters between the men and prostitutes, as there is a thin dividing line between those gestures that are loveless, but still part of a standard encounter, and those that are downright brutal.

The work is strong on portraying the harsh side of the Edwardian world. When we cut to a scene of dancing girls, the men think nothing of knocking them about, while the piece begins and ends with murders. The hard hitting subject matter, however, proves the perfect forum for portraying a huge variety of feelings such as love, lust, longing, needfulness and madness. In doing so, it is amazing just how often the movements remain elegant and beautiful, and huge shadows serve both to heighten the drama and emphasise the balletic movements by enlarging them. It is advisable to read up on the complicated plot before going in, but ultimately this piece is the perfect antidote to any notion that ballet is purely about daintiness and frivolity.

Christopher Wheedon’s DGV: Danse à grande vitesse of 2006, which rounds the evening off, features a 1993 score by Michael Nyman. Although the music is predominantly minimalist in style, it was the complexities contained within it that attracted Wheeldon to its choreographic potential. In the piece the four main couples each have their own style of dancing, while a corps de ballet adopt movements that hint both at mechanisation, and the type of freedom associated with an atom that breaks free from the mass when it possesses sufficient energy. From among the very strong cast, the partnerships of Zenaida Yanowsky and Eric Underwood, and Natalia Osipova and Edward Watson, stand out in particular.

Until 26 May (six performances) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London WC2E 9DD. Casts vary over the run. For further details and tickets visit the Royal Opera House website

Londonist received a complimentary ticket and programme from the Royal Ballet press team.

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