The thing about the Royal Opera House, a bit like an ancient university, is that you go there in pursuit of the mysteries and beauty of Art and end up being swamped by Brora cashmere, furs and bumptious opinions pronounced in cut-glass accents. It can be dispiriting and alienating, try as you might to hang on to the wonders you’ve witnessed onstage.
A case in point: after Friday’s premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s new one act ballet Strapless I was caught in the crush of people trying to leave the auditorium, thinking about what I’d just seen, when a woman to my right with a vastly expensive bag and face declared, resoundingly, that “the choreography was a complete mess and the costumes were awful.” Well, I happen to disagree. This isn’t Wheeldon’s best work by any means, but it packs some of interesting ideas into 45 minutes (along with some crotch-splitting ballet sex). Strapless, based on the book by Deborah Davis, and set to a score by Mark-Anthony Turnage, tells the story of Parisian beauty Amélie Gautreau, who posed for John Singer Sargent in 1884. When unveiled, the Portrait of Madame X caused outrage – Sargent had painted his subject with the strap of her dress falling languorously off her pale shoulder. Predictably, Gautreau went from celebrated socialite to reviled outcast. Sargent, of course, weathered the scandal, repainting the strap on her shoulder and becoming the best-known portraitist of his day. As Wheeldon has mentioned in interviews, it’s a narrative we’re familiar with: that of someone being built up and torn down. (Wheeldon had an unfortunate dose of this himself around ten years ago when he formed a transatlantic company that was then savaged by critics.) But the work also makes us think about the nature of art and artifice, the manipulation of the female image by the male creator that’s so often the case in ballet as well as painting.
As Gautreau, Natalia Osipova is on quintessentially brilliant form. Dreaming of the adoration that could await her, she luxuriates in the gorgeousness of her own movement, sets of rapid-fire turns offset by the plush pliancy of her arms. By the end, she’s torn off the offending black gown and dances alone beneath her portrait, a fragile figure whose imploring outstretched limbs keep folding back in on themselves. It’s a shame that Edward Watson doesn’t get more to do as Sargent, although there’s an arresting section in which, lacking inspiration and frustrated at Gautreau’s fidgeting, he imagines his lover Albert de Belleroche (Matthew Ball). All three figures keep on melding together, limbs entwined. It’s only when Belleroche turns his head to the side and offers his lips to be kissed that Sargent discovers the ideal pose for his female subject. The depiction of a society that’s by turns prurient and puritanical is a similar highlight. We see can-can girls showing their bloomers and bums to languid cafe punters, but by the closing scene a chorus of buttoned-up, black clad Salon-attendees have formed one powerful accusatory entity, jabbing fingers and pointe shoes stabbing the stage.
Strapless might not be a spectacular ballet, but the two abstract works which open and close this triple bill show just what a fantastic choreographer Wheeldon really is. After The Rain, set to music by Arvo Pärt, begins with a sense of muscular propulsion, the dancing couples equal in their athleticism. The second section, a pas de deux to Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel, transfigures the mood, the strapping confidence replaced by tenderness and pathos. Marianela Nunez and Thiago Soares perform it beautifully.
There are quiet, moving moments – their small unshowy jumps together, or one’s hands simply framing the other’s face. But there’s a sense of ambiguity here too, elicited by the occasionally odd contortions and the uncertainty of her gaze as she stretches from him into empty space. Within The Golden Hour, choreographed to Ezio Bosso’s radiant string music plus a bit of Vivaldi, is a breathtaking piece of work. Here Wheeldon presents the pure joy of ever-changing human geometry, with pas de deux that modulate from coolly controlled serenity to Charleston-tinged playfulness. The final image is one of perpetual motion, a mass of swaying, complex movement in concord. To be in the presence of this witty, spellbinding physical poetry is reason enough to set aside the chip on my shoulder and endure the braying of bankers and blue-bloods at the ballet.
After the Rain / Strapless / Within the Golden Hour is on until 11th march 2016 at the Royal Opera House. Click here for more information.