Sunday, March 9, 2008

Ballet at The Royal Opera House


by Sarah Pasetto

The Royal Opera House has a reputation for putting on very traditional, if excellent, performances. Yet, the first piece was a new production by Christopher Wheeldon, a 33-year old choreographer and was widely critically acclaimed.

The stage greets spectators with bareness and neutrality of colour, presenting only a large prism of a projector screen; the opening sounds were not the polyphony of the orchestra, but rather voices - the dancers’ own monologues, each interpellated by Wheeldon for their thoughts on the nature of professional ballet. And thus reflections on ballet as a calling, on the divorce between stage and natural persona, between beauty portrayed and the quasi-self-annihilation necessary to convey such beauty, lyrically accompanied piano compositions by JS Bach and Steve Reich. Although an interesting excursion into the minds of the dancers, one cannot help feeling that these reflections, a tad predictable, were the (only) weak point of the production. The opening performances themselves were solos by each of the four dancers, and characterised by interaction between the live dancers and their recorded projections shone onto the prism, thus heightening the interior/exterior dichotomy underlying the production. Eric Underwood’s performance shone particularly as an elegant harnessing of raw power. Yourcenar’s Hadrian springs to mind, as a combination within a single soul of a uniquely refined aesthetic and intellectual sensitivity on the one hand, and primal lust for hunting on the other. In the second part of the piece, Underwood’s partner Zenaida Yanukowsky was perfectly suited to him for fluidity and strength. The ensembles featured fascinating plays on traditional ballet figures, for example exasperating the moves into slow motion or innovatively angular shapes; your reviewer ventures to note a few movements of vaguely animalesque inspiration. The spareness of the stage and costumes, resembling rehearsal wear, left centre stage to the sinuous convolutions of the human body - passion and force tempered by craft - in what was a truly impressive and captivating performance.

Afternoon of a Faun was the second piece in line. This spoke of the first visitations of love, in the unearthly form of Sarah Lamb, which catch the young Faun (Carlos Acosta) completely unawares. The curtain opens to another simple stage, this time a white, brightly-lit dance rehearsal studio, in which the olive body of the Faun lazily dozes, his back to the audience. Soon he awakens to begin his cheeky antics, but soon he is overcome again by slumber. Only to be chanced upon, perhaps in dream or in reality (the truth is ambiguous, but so can be the truth of love, blurred by thought and time), by a slender, classically ethereal figure with long golden hair, pale skin and doe eyes. The emotions come alive through both facial and bodily expressions - a pensive look, a concupiscent tilt of the head. Both are new to love, both are intrigued, attracted to each other and to the interaction. They yield, only for Lamb to suddenly restrain herself and flee, sorry but determined, leaving the Faun to his disappointment.

Tzigane was possibly the least interesting of the pieces. The exoticism and fire in the solo moves of the female lead (Marianela Nuñez) gradually dispelled as the ballet unraveled. Nevertheless, especially noteworthy was the virtuoso solo violin performance of Sergey Levitin. In addition, the piece remains an interesting exploration of the forms typical of folk dance within a ballet context.

A Month in the Country adapted Turgenev’s homonymous play. This, in terms of context, was possibly the most classically-set piece. The scene opens to a lively afternoon in a wealthy Russian household, with dancing, outdoor games and other amusements for the parents, their child, their ward and the tutor. Particularly delightful was Victoria Hewitt cast as Katia, the brisk but boisterous and coquettish maid. The familial bliss is disrupted - and the musical score does not fail, perhaps even a little too obviously, to anticipate that this is indeed a turn for the worse - by the arrival of a dark stranger: Rakitin, the maverick, passionate alternative to the wife Natalia’s content but placid existence, played by a superb, imperious David Pickering. Unfortunately she does not play her cards well enough for either of them to be appeased, and is ultimately left on her own. Alexandra Ansanelli, in the role of the wife, is supple, swift and elegant. However, it is felt that she still has some scope for disambiguation and depth of emotion.

Reined in as I was to traditional notions of ballet as a means of expressing a two-hour long story, I was initially vaguely sceptical on the appeal of an assemblage of four brief pieces. But rarely has curiosity ever been more rewarding - the evening was a true revelation.

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