Most of us send passive-aggressive messages in the form of emails signed ‘best’ or pointed Whatsapp silences, perhaps the odd post-it note for an early noughties throwback. It’s hard to imagine writing a symphony (in an unusual and tricky key) as a managerial means of telling your boss that the workforce is pissed off and wants to go home. Anyway, that’s what Haydn did in 1772. When first performed, his Symphony No. 45 in F-sharp minor, nicknamed the ‘Farewell’, delivered a coded but clear message to Haydn’s patron Prince Esterhazy that the house musicians had been away for long enough at the royal summer residence and wanted to go back to their families. In the final movement, the orchestral parts dwindle – each musician originally snuffed out the candle on his music stand and left, so that by the symphony’s close only two violins remained. Papa Haydn’s plan paid off.
American choreographer Twyla Tharp’s eagerly-awaited new piece for the Royal Ballet responds to Haydn’s music with a persuasive quality of its own. The Illustrated ‘Farewell’ comprises a reworking of Tharp’s 1973 As Time Goes By, created for the Joffrey Ballet to the final two movements of the symphony. To the opening allegro and subsequent adagio, Tharp has set an extended pas de deux for powerhouse principals Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb.
It’s full of surprises – an homage to its dancers’ classical virtuosity that also challenges and questions that classicism. They’re not bound to the beat – we see McRae fly across the stage just before we hear the roiling Sturm und Drang opening; after a stunning high-velocity entrance of skittering runs on pointe, Lamb simply stands with an expression of wry amusement as the symphony builds around her, defying any sort of cheap Mickey Mousing impulse to match movement to music.
Sometimes Tharp’s signature jazzy inflections – shoulder shimmies, hip wiggles, even a perky high-five – tread a fine line between demotic charm and cheesy naffness. But other passages are almost sublime, a finely-tuned marriage of musical understanding and feeling. There are irresistible sets of contrapuntal jetes, and while the strings sustain and shape a phrase, it sometimes seems to ring through McRae and Lamb’s limbs as they stretch through flex-footed extensions into finessed arabesques. In the latter half, Joseph Sissens and Anna Rose O’Sullivan dance with rippling fluency and poignant restraint.
The second premiere of the evening is Arthur Pita’s The Wind. Despite Pita’s proven gift for darkly inventive dance, this is unfortunately a bit of a tumbleweed moment. An adaptation of Dorothy Scarborough’s 1925 supernatural novel, which was turned into a silent movie in 1928 starring Lillian Gish, it tells the story of Letty Mason, an impoverished young woman who leaves Virginia for a bleak Texan frontier town in the 1880s. There is no surrey-with-a-fringe-on-top here. Ambivalently married to a kindly sort of cowboy (Thiago Soares), Natalia Osipova’s Letty is driven to madness and murder by the incessant wind and rape.
The elemental forces that haunt the heroine arrive on stage via three gigantic wind machines meant to resemble old threshing equipment. Instead they seem like over- zealous air con units that could be put to good use on the Tube. It’s odd and distracting to watch. An earthy ensemble of frontier folk battle with the gusts in weathered frocks, furry chaps and duster coats, while Natalia Osipova skilfully negotiates a billowing 15-foot wedding veil without calamity. Edward Watson makes several appearances as a crouching, contorted Comanche ghost with a fluttering long white wig.
The Wind has successful, engaging elements. Frank Moon’s score is cinematic, featuring evocative slide-guitar twangs, while Adam Silverman’s lighting artfully suggests vast sunsets and lonely horizons. Its fundamental problem is dramaturgical. So much of the original story has been filleted to fit into the 40-minute timeframe – what we’re left with is simply a hackneyed trio of vulnerable heroine, good bloke and bad man engaged in a scene of sexual violence. Despite the cast’s best efforts – Osipova especially, dancing out her character’s emotional abjection with fierce conviction – there’s no time for narrative nuance or development. It feels like a wasted opportunity.
Following the restless Comanche spirits, burly cowpunchers and attendant priests, some related ideas around the colonisation of a promised land emerge in Hofesh Shechter’s Untouchable, which premiered in 2015. Abandoning plumb-lined balletic poise in favour of curved spines, simian sloping and splayed fingers, the ensemble form and re-form martial packs with folky inflections. Clad in a mish-mash of khaki, this tribal band modulate between goading chest-thumps, hip-swaying swagger, hints of davening and convulsive shocks to the port de bras. Besides bringing to mind the IDF, the piece has much to say about Israel and otherness – the sense of bodies occupying a space, the use of (choreographed) folk idioms to establish an optimistic societal connection to the land.
The Illustrated ‘Farewell’ / The Wind / Untouchable is on until 17 November 2017 at the Royal Opera House. Click here for more details.