Strap yourself in for the Royal Ballet’s latest mixed bill, a quadruple collection of contemporary works that show off the company’s towering technical abilities.
First up is William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. Created in 1996, it’s a virtuoso dash through the final movement of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony that marries the mannerliness of 19th century classicism to late 20th century speed, torque and attack.
Steven Macrae and Vadim Muntagirov excel as the male contingent, a winning pair who embody qualities of whirling dervish and lofty princeling respectively. Marianela Nunez, meanwhile, is spectacular. Completely in command of the tempo and its attendant technical demands, she somehow transcends and extends the music, finding space within it for pause and nuance, for luxuriant phrasing of the arms and upper body. It’s an exquisite performance. (Only a necessary cast change slightly snags the vertiginous thrill and exactitude – replacing the injured Sarah Lamb and Lauren Cuthbertson, Akane Takada and Beatriz Stix-Brunell don’t quite pull off the precision and pace that the piece requires.)
At the beginning of the 2016 season, Francesca Hayward and Marcelino Sambe struck up a sparkling partnership in La Fille mal gardee. Back together in Balanchine’s Tarantella, they’re equally extraordinary. An approximation of the titular Italian folk dance souped up with Broadway sass, this ten minute tambourine-touting pas de deux is cheesy in just the right way: a special Balanchine blend, mixing the broad appeal of processed American cheddar with Old World pecorino piquancy.
Besporting himself in a red headscarf and yellow sash, Sambe is like a capering cat, springing into airborne turns with seemingly effortless powers of elevation. Hayward, trussed up in a frilly headdress, fires off fizzing beaten steps and perilous jumps with stunning precision, her quicksilver footwork offset by flirtatious shimmying shoulders and an amused tilt of the head.
Next up we’re in the realm of narrative specificity, transported to Belle Époque Paris for Christopher Wheeldon’s Strapless. This one act work centres on the creation of John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X and the fall from grace of its model, Amelie Gautreau, whose exposed shoulder caused outrage when the painting was first exhibited. It’s been given a structural prune for this revival and Wheeldon manages to pack a lot into 30 minutes, including a long and languorous coupling between Amelie (Natalia Osipova) and another of Sargent’s subjects, the lascivious gynaecologist Dr Pozzi (Federico Bonnelli), who’s intent on much more than a routine check-up. Sometimes the tension sags and it’s not helped by Mark-Anthony Turnage’s slightly dreary score.
What elevates the work is its piercing commentary on a society that’s both prurient and puritanical, ready to heap shame upon a female figure whose image has been artfully manipulated by a male ‘creator’. Inevitably, Singer Sargent re-painted Amelie’s fallen strap and went on to have a celebrated career. Gautreau was roundly shunned and spent the rest of her days in solitude.
Wheeldon starkly conveys the rise and fall of Gautreau’s fashionable currency. She’s admired by onlookers in salon society, the women copying her glossy ribbons of movement as if trying on a daring outfit for size. Portrait unveiled, she’s a pariah – the same spectators now form accusatory blocks, their feet busy with malicious little steps.
The manoeuvres of these taffeta trolls and bustling barracuda serve as a harsh reminder of humanity’s deep-seated, pack-mentality nastiness. We may have evolved to the point of painting incredible portraits, concocting vegan cheese or wearing trainers ironically, but the primal hyena urge lies just beneath the surface. Any quick trip BTL on the Guardian website confirms this.
At the end of the evening comes the premiere of Liam Scarlett’s Symphonic Dances, set to Rachmaninov’s 1940 score. Free from the narrative constraints that mired previous works such as Frankenstein and Sweet Violets, Scarlett presents us with an intricate, ambiguous response to the tonal shifts of Rachmaninov’s music (by turns liturgical, jazzy, lushly melodic) in a palette of deep red and black.
At its heart is striking principal dancer Zenaida Yanowsky, who’ll retire at the end of this season after 23 years with the company. Scarlett uses Yanowsky’s imposing height and dramatic intensity to decent effect: in the opening bars she’s some kind of dance enchantress, creating a ferocious frothing storm of colour and energy with a multi-layered crimson skirt. Later, she’s an aloof icon around which the significantly shorter James Hay scampers like a fascinated faun. A bevy of bare-chested blokes in skirts seem to worship her too, rippling into tributary huddles, as Yanowsky (now in a tuxedo jacket) looks on coolly. There are plenty of gymnastic feats for the ensemble too.
But what does it all add up to? We see beautiful bodies making beautiful shapes, all of it testament to Scarlett’s talent for neoclassical choreography. But there’s a certain sterility to the work. Images of gender fluidity are present and correct in this fragrant world, but Symphonic Dances remains hermetically sealed onstage, referencing nothing beyond itself.
The Royal Ballet’s latest mixed bill is on until 31st May 2017. Click here for more details.