George Balanchine’s Ballo Della Regina, a premiere for the company, opens the Royal Ballet’s penultimate mixed programme of this season. While essentially a plotless ballet, the very fact that the music – Verdi’s composition for Don Carlos – is originally intended for opera means that it is impossible not to create a sense of narrative in your head as you watch. Early on, it looks as if Sergei Polunin is searching for Marianela Nuñez – a nod to the story for which Verdi had originally composed the music, about a fisherman seeking a perfect ‘pearl’. The aquamarine backdrop, and a corps that moves together like a delicate ripple, are in fact the only other visual nods to the original story.
The female lead dominates Ballo Della Regina – and Nuñez is appropraitely dazzling in the part. As the music picks up in pace, so her movements gather speed, but the clarity of every beat in every jump is never lost – and her footwork is so fast it even provoke giggling at times; rarely off pointe in Balanchine’s virtuoso choreography, and matched with a gorgeous épaulement, Nuñez charmed and captivated the audience.
Polunin, meanwhile, soars into air, seemingly not remotely challenged by the equally meaty jumps Balanchine has assigned to the male lead, and already making an impression as a stunning young performer with immense virtuosity. Yuhui Choe and Akane Takada also deserve praise for their elegant, effortless jumps which they perform while also looking like they are thoroughly enjoying themselves.
This sense of speed also prevails in Christopher Wheeldon’s piece, DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse, albeit in a very different way. If Ballo Della Regina’s spectacle comes from the endurance of high speed, DGV’s advantage lays in its varying use of rhythm and a sense of time that heightens the contrast of the piece’s different sections.
The central couples all bring different qualities to the piece: Zenaida Yanowsky and Eric Underwood contrast speedy kicks with slow-motion runs; Leanne Benjamin and Steven McRae’s cat and mouse chase is full of showiness; Sarah Lamb’s entry onto the stage in super-quick chaînes is accompanied by Federico Bonelli’s powerful tours en’lair. But Melissa Hamilton and Gary Avis draw the most attention, her flexibility on full display as she wraps herself around him. The abrupt pause in Michael Nyman’s music – composed to commemorate the inauguration of the French high-speed rail, TGV – marks a change in dynamics half way through the dance, creating a sense of time standing still.
The glorious percussion of the final chapter bring to mind the hustle and bustle of travel, the excitement of potential destinations. With so many dancers, Wheeldon’s formations always look busy, but never distracting. The corps must have a grand time performing DGV: Wheeldon ensures they are never merely support cast, but gives them their own intricate choreography. Their turns are sharp and their lines clean, adding a sense of military precision to the proceedings. At other times, they are shadowy figures, chugging along like commuters on a train, or they morph into an array of architectural formations.
Sandwiched between these two works is the world premiere of resident choreographer Wayne McGregor’s new offering, Live Fire Exercise. The sense of structure in Ballo Della Regina, with its rippling waves of dancers, and DGV, with clean lines, is continued he as a comparison between the military and ballet.
Perhaps the clear similarities between the two forms – the aggressive training of the body, the rigid discipline in the training itself – can be traced back to the fact that, under the reign of Louis XIV, dance was seen as a means to keep bodies trained and ready for combat during peacetime. In other words, ballet was explicitly tied to the security apparatus of a state and used to maintain power, not as the creative art form we see today.
For Live Fire Exercise, McGregor’s inspiration comes from photographs taken in the Djibouti desert of US military training exercises, where troops were subject to explosions to mentally and physically prepare them for war. These images are made into an eerie 3D backdrop by John Gerrard, which isn’t quite a photograph nor quite a video, but a kind of parallel reality to the action on stage.
The blast of Gerrard’s projection activates the combat of ballet. Suggestive images are littered throughout: a widow in mourning, the kicking-and-screaming denial of a terrible event, the inability to re-integrate into society. But McGregor has never been one to play with overt narratives and Live Fire Exercise, set on a bare stage with six dancers, is his small homage to the movement-for-movement’s-sake idealism of Frederick Ashton’s Symphonic Variations.
Indeed, it is McGregor’s movement vocabulary that distinguishes him from other ballet choreographers. The choreography is challenging: the female dancers, in particular, are almost constantly in some sort of extreme angle – whether in arabesque, in développés, or being lifted by a partner. Forever off-centre and always fluid, McGregor imposes a different language in these classically trained bodies or, in his own words, he ‘unsettles the equilibrium’.
The similarities between ballet and the military provide some interesting undertones to Live Fire Exercise, but the theme is never explored quite deeply enough. With the clear military association of the title, and with this rather provocative imagery as its backdrop, it feels as though McGregor has avoided the more difficult questions posed by the subject matter, taking on only the aesthetics. This seems like a missed opportunity since, as evidenced by ballet’s roots in France, art is intrinsically political.