The Royal Ballet’s latest mixed programme has been particularly eagerly anticipated as it includes not one but two world premieres, by Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon. But, cleverly, the company has chosen to open the bill with a classic by George Balanchine, without whom neither of the proceeding ballets would be possible.
Carlos Acosta is the hero in Apollo, even if his jumps do look a little more laboured now he is nearing 40. But then, the role has never been an easy one and he still hits every note with perfect timing and remains a compelling presence as the Greek god.
Balanchine liked to tinker with conventional movements for the women: a set of male-supported pirouettes that end with her lifted, legs in attitude wrapped around the male; a promenade that is executed with one leg in grand plié en pointe. The three muses rose to the occasion and were springy in their fleeting footwork.
Their first appearance did not quite achieve the perfect lines the choreography demands – in Apollo, with its bare stage and so few dancers, the legs not being quite aligned in arabesque penchées is painfully obvious. That said, by the final section, it is divine – the series of beautiful shapes Apollo is known for are so symmetrical the dancers looked as one.
Olivia Cowley’s Calliope is well performed if, at times, merely sufficient, while Itziar Mendizabal’s Polyhymnia exudes a quiet charm. Marianela Nuñez’s Terpsichore is effortless as always, and conveys the otherworldliness of this ballet.
Without any drama or theatrics, let alone any surplus steps, Apollo tells a story but somehow feels abstract at the same time. It is almost unbelievable to think it has been 85 years since Balanchine created this piece: set to the music of Stravinsky, it looks and sounds as fresh as ever.
The programme closes with Christopher Wheeldon’s Aeternum, his first for the company since the collaboration with Alastair Marriott in last summer’s Metamorphosis: Titian 2012. Set to Sinfonia da Requiem, the piece marks the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth.
The idea of the afterlife, of the transition between this world and the next, are present in Aeternum (which means eternal or everlasting), but Wheeldon seems particularly preoccupied with darker side of the subject. The opening is one of the most stunning I’ve seen in recent times. As the curtains lifts, in a silence reminiscent of The Rite of Spring, a large group huddles together and draws a collective deep breath, with Nuñez in their middle like a sacrifice.
In the pas de deux between Nuñez and Nehemiah Kish, with all its yearning folding and unfolding, the other dancers are like shadowy figures lurking in the background, moving on their hands and feet as if predators. Nuñez aims her outstretched leg at them like a rifle, and still they remain.
James Hay is given a chance to shine in the middle movement, a kind of death march – the control in his arm stands and his crumbling flexed-foot turns are pleasingly quirky (in fact, he’s part of a whole troupe of young, junior British dancers given key roles in this programme).
After some increasingly frantic formations that dissolve as quickly as they appear, and in an echo of the opening, we find Nuñez stripped of her dress, vulnerable and met by a kind of half-angel, half-death character in Federico Bonelli. And it’s as if he possesses her, manipulating her every move like a doll. When they finally walk into the darkness, hand in hand, it’s unclear whether the ending is a happy or a sinister one.
After Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the Titian “supergroup” project, it’s good to see Wheeldon return to what has made him one of the most sought after choreographers in the world, and Aeternum doesn’t disappoint.
And at the evening’s heart, sitting between these two pieces, is a new work – his first for the Royal Ballet – by Alexei Ratmansky, the former Bolshoi Ballet artistic director. Ratmansky has chosen Chopin’s Preludes as the starting point of his one-act ballet, but has opted for orchestrated versions as opposed to the well-known piano originals. The choice is akin to his own style: building on and developing a classical foundation.
24 Preludes is essentially a series of vignettes, of varying lengths, featuring a cast of eight (all of whom bar one is a principle – but first soloist Valeri Hristov more than holds his own), who are dressed in shiny floaty period blouses – for the men – and dresses – for the women – created by Oscar-winning designer Colleen Atwood.
What surprises me most is how funny 24 Preludes often is. Steven McRae generates a few laughs, especially in a virtuoso solo that’s followed by a dismissive wave of hand as if declaring: “You don’t know how good I am”; then an almost saccharine trio of lifts and hugs sees Ed Watson drag a clingy Leanne Benjamin and Alina Cojocaru off stage.
But there are deeper emotions here too, and more than a few of these “episodes” suggest the masks people put on for others. We see the sparring Zenaida Yanowsky and Rupert Pennefather, who seem to change in intensity depending on who is watching. As the others do their best to ignore the row, an obviously horrified Benjamin launches into an ecstatically bouncy, fairy-like number. Then there’s Watson’s all-guns-blazing solo that cumulates in a big jump that falls flat, but he walks off with his head held high, as if hoping no-one saw.
At 41 minutes, the piece might have bordered on the self-indulgent; but 24 Preludes never feels that way, rarely dipping in energy. The whole thing is a dazzling tour de force of what ballet can be today.