Review: Royal Ballet Scales The Heights In An All-Contemporary Programme

Christopher Wheeldon Triple Bill, Royal Opera House ★★★★★

By Sam Smith Last edited 45 months ago
Review: Royal Ballet Scales The Heights In An All-Contemporary Programme Christopher Wheeldon Triple Bill, Royal Opera House 5
The pas de trois between Natalia Osipova, Matthew Ball and Edward Watson in Christopher Wheeldon's new ballet, Strapless © ROH / Bill Cooper

Christopher Wheeldon is one of the most pre-eminent choreographers in the world today, having conquered both sides of the Atlantic through work with New York City Ballet and the Royal Ballet. This triple bill consisting entirely of his creations works a treat, as a new piece with a strong narrative thrust is framed by two more abstract offerings.

The new work is Strapless and considers the creation of John Singer Sargent’s iconic painting, Portrait of Madame X. The model was Amélie Gautreau who was one of the most celebrated beauties in Paris in the 1880s. Singer Sargent painted her with pale flesh tones in a black satin dress with jewelled straps, in what would have then been seen as a highly provocative style. The ballet explores Amélie’s excitement at the painting’s pending unveiling, the creation of the picture itself, Gautreau’s subsequent ostracising from society, and finally her rise to immortality as the painting becomes revered over time.

One of the joys of watching this ballet is seeing just how many disparate demands it places on the performers, and Natalia Osipova as Amélie Gautreau rises to every challenge superbly. As the fashionable society lady she brings superlative smoothness and shape to her flashy style, but, as the crowd turn on her, her agitation is made tangible. Then, stripped of all splendour, she instantly becomes the most fragile, vulnerable thing under the sun. The rest of the cast is also superb with Federico Bonelli excelling as the suave, masculine Dr Samuel-Jean Pozzi and Edward Watson utilising his brilliant technique in pursuit of character as John Singer Sargent. A pas de trois between he, Osipova and Matthew Ball (playing Sargent’s lover) is one of the highlights of the evening.

Although many frames adorn the stage none contains a painting until right at the very end. This proves a clever device for literally framing the action, highlighting the notions of imagination and anticipation, and ensuring a refinement to the staging that enables us to concentrate on the movement. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s score, written specifically for this ballet, is effective as it secures a fine relationship between music and emotion. It clearly highlights the moment of revelation when Singer Sargent sees the strap fall on Gautreau’s dress, and brings home the menacing, oppressive nature of the people as they quite literally advance on Amélie.    

The evening’s first piece is After the Rain of 2005 which, although created for two specific dancers (Wendy Whelan and Jack Soto of New York City Ballet), has seen many others make it work precisely by applying their own unique styles to the piece. The movements are unorthodox as limbs rise out at ninety degree angles (or more) from bodies bent over, but the brilliance lies in the balletic beauty that underpins all of these innovations. There are times when the movement looks like the reverse replay of what we might expect to see, and this works superbly. Three couples grace the stage but the primary relationships would appear to rest within the pairings rather than across them, although the ‘duplication’ of movement by different couples is integral to the experience.

The end, however, features a pas de deux that changes the mood entirely as Marianela Nuñez appears to rise out of the lying body of Thiago Soares like The Birth of Venus, or assumes a diagonal shape in mid-air as she perches on his thigh. The real amazement of their performance, however, lies in the fact that although these movements place great physical demands on the body, the dancers appear so fragile and transcendent that one almost believes they could evaporate into nothing at any moment.

The final piece of the evening is Within the Golden Hour of 2008 which, set to music by Ezio Bosso and Antonio Vivaldi, combines ensemble dancing with three innovative and intimate pas de deux. When everyone is together the stage lights up like a machine with its components whirring through various patterns of movement, but in contrast the pas de deux see bodies connect in the most tender way on some higher spiritual level. For example, as Steven McRae holds Sarah Lamb aloft by her waist her body can suddenly flop to nothing before instantly rising once more to assume its pose. Within the Golden Hour is widely acclaimed to be one of Wheeldon's greatest creations, and you will not hear any arguments from Londonist on that point.

Until 11 March (seven 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 saw this ballet on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 15 February 2016

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