Following on from perennial favourite Swan Lake and the stunning new production of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Royal Ballet presents their first mixed programme of the season, comprising three works by English choreographers.
The evening begins with Frederick Ashton’s Rhapsody. The lightning speed of it all is what hits you first, thanks to the use Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini; but Ashton’s virtuoso choreography seems to twist back to the original source of the score: Paganini’s immensely wild and difficult 24th Caprice.
While much of the choreography has an appealing simplicity, there are a number of quirkier elements which Ashton has thrown in with tongue firmly in cheek: an upturned palm here, a shake of the hips there. Even in the central pas de deux, which could almost be a conventional classical duet accompanied by sweeping, romantic music, Alina Cojacaru is twisting her wrists and flapping her hands while lifted up high in the air.
While the six supporting pairs are crisp in their jumps and beats, and Cojacaru is elegant and delicate, the show belongs to Steven McRae. He may not have noticed the collective intake of breath that followed a series of very elaborate jumps, but he must have spotted the audience’s slack-jawed delight at the unbelievably quick chaînés that led up to the rather comic finale (all sharp poses cumulating in a tiny, nonchalant shrug).
Contrast this technical tour de force with the simplicity and gentle comedy of David Bintley’s ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café, a 1988 piece based on endangered animals. Bintley’s use of movement and gesture – a twist of ankle for the Texan Kangaroo Rat, the clinginess of the Humboldt’s Hog-Nosed Skunk Flea – manage to evoke the animals he is portraying, but more excitingly, he assigns them different styles to accentuate their personalities, so the Brazilian Woolly Monkey (Steven McRae) is full of carnival spirit, while the Utah Longhorn Ram (Zenaida Yanowsky) becomes a movie diva.
‘Still Life’ is a piece that can at times descend into schmaltz, and that’s when it’s at its weakest, as it becomes more WWF campaign than ballet, but most of the time, the tone is pitched at just the right level. In its most uncomfortable moment, the death of Edward Watson’s Southern Cape Zebra is heart-breaking without being excessively sentimental, his flirtatious movements becoming angled and jerky, while a group of zebra-striped models, half ‘Vogue’, half ‘Addicted to Love’, look on. Bintley’s ‘Still Life’ has a warmth that is not common in ballet.
Alastair Marriott’s Sensorium feels lacklustre in comparison. The two central pas de deux are well performed, with the pairing of Leanne Benjamin and Thomas Whitehead standing out, but the first duet of Marianela Nuñez and Rupert Pennefather, with all its locking and unlocking shapes and endless développés, never quite feels comfortable. Still, new neoclassical works don’t come by often, and Sensorium is without doubt an attractive ballet. Marriott’s best work may still be yet to come.