Royal Opera House has taken a gamble in commissioning Hofesh Shechter to create a new work, and it has largely paid off.
Shechter has stayed true to his style – angry, political – for his first work for the Royal Ballet. For the 20 dancers (mostly corps), it’s a great opportunity to adapt to a different language.
The imagery of a mass of people, hunched over and ready to pounce, that forms the core of Shechter’s style is evident in Untouchable. And what was clearer here than in his previous work is the seemingly chaotic crowds that, on closer inspection, are full of detail. Perhaps due to the dancers’ training, there were balletic nuances too – most notably the arms in open fourth position, but they were aggressive, defiant, deliberately rough. Their bodies reverberated with the thunderous score.
But Untouchable felt too long at 30 minutes. Two-thirds in, when the percussion was replaced with the sound of strings tuning up, I thought the piece was taking a surprising turn. But what followed was much of the same – and repetition is something Shechter relies heavily on. On the other hand, whether a company would be happy to invest the financial and human capital to create something that lasts less than half an hour, and whether that could determine the length of a dance, is up for debate.
One jibe: from the “travelling” costumes to the music (co-created by Shechter) with nods to different cultures, Untouchable is clearly about “the other”. With Shechter being a political choreographer, it’s not a stretch to then think about issues surrounding immigration. So the chants of “Nigel Farage” felt a little spoon-fed.
A lot of ballet traditionalists would not like Untouchable, yet it received a raucous reception from many (younger) viewers. Perhaps that’s Shechter’s message – it may not be to your taste but this place is for everyone.
Untouchable is pitted against two defining choreographers in this mixed programme. Kicking off the evening was Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, which astonishingly was created in 1946.
Balanchine had commissioned Paul Hindemith to compose an original score, which was divided into “temperaments” rather than tempo. All the hallmarks of Balanchine are here: humour, a no-fuss style, a play on themes and variations, and lots of legs. It’s gloriously cheeky – battements en cloche, pelvis thrusts with one leg en pointe, pliés in parallel.
But these parts don’t quite add up for me. Zenaida Yanowsky spiced things up in the latter part (the jazz motif returns in a later, more well-known work, Rubies) and there were glimpses of knowingness, but as a whole the dancers didn’t live the steps. I struggled to “see the music”.
The evening is completed with a seminal British ballet, Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth, set to Mahler’s symphony of the same title – itself inspired by Chinese poems from the Tang Dynasty.
It’s a simple premise, according to MacMillan himself: “A man and a woman; death takes the man; they both return to her and at the end of the ballet, we find that in death there is the promise of renewal.”
But it’s not a fairytale, nor a tragedy. Here, death is not a figure to be feared. Rather, as the Messenger of Death, Ed Watson is an omnipresent friend. MacMillan never let showy technique or overly elaborate choreography get in the way of story and Watson and Laura Morera, as the lead female, were the embodiment of this. Their techniques were undisputed but it is their expressiveness, never melodramatic, that stays with you. Nehemiah Kish, however, was less natural.
The male corps, though, seemed under-rehearsed. Aside from an early careless lift of Watson, the tricky series of lifts with Yuhui Choe in the third song looked like hard work. Choe’s singing lines, however, were a joy as always.
Song of the Earth is generally considered a masterpiece, so many will not agree with me. But I find the music heavy-handed, especially when accompanied by MacMillan’s playful choreography.
That said, the final sequence remains powerful and affecting as ever, from the moment Morera launches into the fiendish running bourrées. As the three principals silently walk alongside each other, there is a comfort and acceptance that go far beyond the story and the simple choreography, showing the depth of emotion ballet can convey.