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Christmas season is definitely upon London, with decorative lights on the streets, people rushing to buy presents, chilly mornings and, ballet-wise, the possibility of finishing off the day with The Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker now in its 25th season.

Sir Peter Wright’s staging sticks to the original Hoffmann story where Drosselmeyer’s nephew Hans-Peter has been cursed and turned into a Nutcracker doll by the revengeful Mouse King. The spell can only be broken if he defeats the royal rodent while also capturing a young girl’s heart. Drosselmeyer sees in the Stahlbaum’s daughter Clara the potential to be just that girl. Given the heartwarming plot this Nutcracker could easily slip up into kid-friendly Disney territory but, thanks to the dark German Romantic undertones, it also scores with grown ups.

Clara and Drosselmeyer in The Royal Ballet's Nutcracker. Photo: Dee Conway / ROH ©

Act I takes place at the Stahlbaum home where guests and family are gathered for a Christmas party. Drosselmeyer (a spot-on Will Tuckett) arrives with his deep turquoise cape, gadgets and plenty of magic tricks including giant dancing dolls and the gift of a Nutcracker doll for Clara. Blink and you will miss lovely details such as Gary Avis‘s very funny rheumatic Captain trying to prove “he’s still got it” in the elders dance and the Marzipan cake which will become the sugar-coated stage for the Act II divertissements. The only letdown here is Drosselmeyer’s mending of the Nutcracker doll after it is broken by Clara’s brother as he seems to repair it manually instead of magically as one would expect.

In her debut as Clara, Leanne Cope captures all the freshness of a teenager and her wonder at the supernatural events which unfold before her eyes. Her dancing too was charming despite a couple of early mishaps, presumably due to a slippery floor at the Stahlbaum home. Paul Kay showed beautiful lines and crisp dancing as Hans-Peter, with plenty of energy in the battle with the Mouse King.

In Act II the Stahlbaum home and the Land of Snow give way to the Land of Sweets (Comfiturembourg). Here the often disconnected sequence of divertissements is cleverly linked to the story with the full participation of Clara and Hans-Peter and a mime scene where they explain their battle with the Mouse King to their hosts Prince Coqueluche and The Sugar Plum Fairy (Steven McRae and Roberta Marquez).

Steven McRae as The Prince in The Nutcracker. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Steven has been filled with praise on opening night and deservedly so. Not only does he ace his variation, he also shows regal poise and gentlemanlike manners, taking a step back to let his ballerina shine. Roberta Marquez only keeps getting better (the McRae effect?). Her Sugar Plum Fairy is lovely and even if the tricky gargouillades do not yet fully come through she compensates with phrasing, accentuating gestures such as her delight at meeting her partner, full of rapport with McRae in the pas de deux. Here, both Roberta and Steven give us more than is arguably needed from a short role that calls for no more than solid technique and a beautiful display of line, where all the emotional punch is already contained in Tchaikovsky’s score. Elsewhere, Yuhui Choe was the most beautiful Rose Fairy and her escorts, led by Brian Maloney and Johannes Stepanek were flawless, the Russian dance with Ludovic Ondiviela and Kevin Emerton another highlight.

The closing sequence has Clara back in the real world wondering whether it was all just a dream. Soon a chance meeting with Hans-Peter on the street where she lives suggests quite the contrary. And while the final reunion between Drosselmeyer and Hans-Peter might bring a tear to one’s eye, once the curtain is down over wintry Nuremberg the audience is all smiles. Let Herr Drosselmeyer keep fulfilling his purpose for many years to come.

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King Rat in Birmingham Royal Ballet's The Nutcracker. Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB ©

With its year in, year out clockwork precision, The Nutcracker is a balletic dish to be sampled sparingly. Too many Spanish chocolates, Sugar Plums and Candy Canes and up go your cholesterol levels. Too few and you might be the only one missing out on the best of the season’s treats. For that reason you’d better choose productions wisely. Preferably – and your arteries will thank you for this – you’d try something that delivers the goods while leaving aside the “OTT” sickly sweeties, such as Sir Peter Wright’s staging for The Birmingham Royal Ballet.

If we’ve all seen The Nut so many times why do we keep returning in the first place? Throughout the years the ballet has left its personal imprint on us, just like an old friend. We might think of the days when we would put on our prettiest dresses, like so many little girls still do, and look up to brave Clara. Her courage to turn her nightmare into dreams, defeating the mouse king (or, in this version, King Rat) to save her Nutcracker prince with bonus reward of a journey to a magical sugary land has given us much to consider about girl power.

Jenna Roberts as The Snow Fairy in The Birmingham Royal Ballet's The Nutcracker. Photo: Roy Smiljanic / BRB ©

With a firm focus on our Clara and her coming-of-age tale, Birmingham Royal Ballet’s  production had the children around us enthralled, gasping, applauding and rooting for our heroine and her Nutcracker prince. In this staging Clara is a ballet student and her mother an elegant former ballerina whose exquisite red dress is a dead giveaway for designer John Macfarlane’s source of inspiration: très chic Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. Before her godfather Drosselmeyer shows up with the Nutcracker, Clara’s first Christmas gift is a ballerina doll which will later become the Sugar Plum Fairy and dance the Grand pas de deux with the Nutcracker Prince. In this way the Sugar Plum is a sort of dreamlike projection of what the grown-up Clara might one day become.

On Saturday matinée the role of Clara was danced by soloist Momoko Hirata, with young whiz kid Joseph Caley as her Nutcracker Prince. Both Momoko and Joseph have the advantage of looking very young which, on top of their dramatic skills, help make their characterisations all the more convincing. Momoko’s soft arms and graceful steps shape a young girl with her ballerina  dreams who blushes when close to her young suitor.  From his first dance with Clara Joseph displays his clean technique and princely lines foreshadowing his later appearance as Cavalier to the Sugar Plum Fairy – the very charming Ambra Vallo. He is a most attentive partner with a smile that could melt many a young maiden’s heart. Mothers beware.

Anniek Soobroy with Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet in The Nutcracker. Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB ©

Elsewhere in the ballet both of Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous waltzes, for Snowflakes and Flowers, showcase the company’s great energy and style, making this Nutcracker come alive in a way that the Spanish, Arabian and Chinese divertissements cannot quite match up to. Besides the lovely duo of Caley and Vallo, these are my own favorite moments, but I suspect that for kids the deal clincher might be entirely different: between the giant Christmas tree, the mice that scurry from a glowing fireplace to thunderous applause and Clara’s flight on the back of a snow goose, the youngsters are spoiled with three Christmas miracles wrapped in one beautiful Victorian package.

The Nutcracker is in repertoire at the Birmingham Hippodrome from November 27 to December 13. For booking details visit The Birmingham Hippodrome’s website.

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For a while we have been meaning to write something here about “ballet myth busters”, to address certain preconceptions about this art form often seen as inaccessible, stuffy and niche. David Bintley’s Cyrano might be just what we needed to illustrate how ballet can be demystified. Created two years ago for Birmingham Royal Ballet, it shows that story-based ballets can be fresh, funny and accessible and that classical dancing need not always be centered around tutu-clad ballerinas.

Taking Edmond Rostand’s well-known play and staying close to its text, Bintley’s ballet narrows down the gap between theatre and dance. For starters the costumes are not what you would expect: plenty of ruffles, French breeches and big boots for the men and Romantic, Toile-de-Jouy-chic, for the heroine Roxane. Unlike the formality of classics Swan Lake or The Sleeping Beauty, there’s something unceremonious and inviting about the way the audience can see various characters strolling onstage and preparing to watch the “performance within the performance” as they take their seats, it’s almost like a levelling of the playing field.

Cyrano (Roxane and Cyrano)

Elisha Willis as Roxane and Robert Parker as Cyrano Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB ©

Robert Parker’s Cyrano is sympathetically played, with equal measures of tragedy and comedy. As in the play, the sad story of continued stoicism in the face of unrequited love is counterbalanced with plenty of humour. In a scene at Ragueneau’s Bakery, the bakers spoof the Sleeping Beauty’s Rose Adagio with baguettes and tartelettes in lieu of Aurora’s roses. In another moment our antihero Cyrano uses hilarious diversion tactics to cover up the secret wedding between Roxane and Christian, keeping rival De Guiche away.

Cyrano pretends to be a stranger with fantastic tales about the moon. I read afterwards that this episode of Rostand’s play is inspired by the real Cyrano de Bergerac who had written a work entitled The Other World: Society and Government of the Moon, considered one of the earliest science fiction compositions. This peculiar scene could easily fall into camp but Bintley manages to make Cyrano’s dancing while wearing a glass light globe over his head both wacky and dignified.

Bintley can get Romantic too. He fully conveys Cyrano’s gift for poetry and love letters through dance and sometimes mime, both beautifully realised by Robert Parker. The various pas de deux between Roxane (Elisha Wilis) and Christian (Iain Mackay, ex-BRB now guesting from Corella Ballet) are full of “head over heels in love” intricate lifts to represent the young lovers’ passion, with full credit here to Mackay’s excellent partnering skills.

Cyrano (Roxane and Christian)

Elisha Willis as Roxane and Iain Mackay as Christian in BRB's Cyrano. Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB ©

In addition to the central characters there are great roles for BRB’s male soloists such as Ragueneau the baker (Christopher Larsen) and Cyrano’s cadet friend Le Bret, danced by the marvellous Chi Cao. Marion Tait‘s character part as Roxane’s jovial duenna is also a class act. If I had one wish, it would be for stronger female choreography as Roxane’s solos are very marked by attitude turns. But just as I start to notice this, Bintley puts Roxane into bravura mode. She bursts into battle camp cross dressed as a “soldier” in the final act and dances a sequence of typical male steps including some lovely pirouettes à la seconde. I should have seen it coming. Cyrano is most definitely a myth busting ballet.

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Triple bills are a great opportunity to discover rarer ballets along with new works, an essential ingredient in preserving the future of this art form. The Royal Ballet’s latest features a modern and sizzling combination well suited to those seeking refuge from an evening of tutus and tiaras.  It opens with Agon, Balanchine’s iconic work in collaboration with Stravinsky and follows with Glen Tetley’s Sphinx, originally created for American Ballet Theatre (ABT) and newly acquired for the company. The bill closes with Wayne McGregor‘s new ballet, Limen, successor to his previous works Chroma and Infra.

Ed and Melissa in Limen

Melissa Hamilton and Edward Watson in The Royal Ballet’s Limen, choreographed by Wayne McGregor. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Even if modern is not your thing, the genius concept behind Agon merits a visit. Balanchine built it from the interplay between 12 dancers and combinations of patterns and shapes. It demands pristine technique and inherent musicality to sustain the choreography. The steps are akin to those every dancer executes in class but here they do so with a twist (e.g. exaggerated arabesques) and at an incredibly fast tempo. It is always interesting to see the Royal Ballet tackle this type of abstract work because of their dramatic tradition and natural bond with the Ashton and MacMillan repertory. In their hands Agon goes beyond the exploration of movement and amalgamation with music (or its realisation in choreographical terms) and you sense at times they are trying to convey a string of short episodes.

The first cast includes up-and-coming soloists (Yuhui Choe, Hikaru Kobayashi and Brian Maloney) alongside established principals Carlos Acosta and Johan Kobborg and rising star Melissa Hamilton,  fresh from her MacMillan debut as Mary Vetsera last week. The leading men (Acosta and Kobborg, plus Valeri Hristov and Brian Maloney) make Agon’s tricky footwork sequences and off-centred positions look easy, though Daniel Capps‘s conducting seemed to be going against them towards the finale. The ladies were led by Mara Galeazzi, a charmer in the Bransle Gay and by Melissa Hamilton, in the pas de deux with Acosta. 21 year-old Melissa seemed entirely at home in the intricacies of the pas de deux, sinking into a penché so deep that her nose touched the knee as if it were no trouble at all. It was inspiring to see her unique blend of suppleness and elegance contrasting the earthy quality of Acosta’s partnering.

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Rupert Pennefather and Marianela Nuñez in Tetley’s Sphinx. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Tetley’s Sphinx fits the company and this particular cast of dancers as snugly as their bodysuits. It must be quite a challenge to balance Tetley’s high-powered choreography with the characterization of each role but Edward Watson‘s acid orange Anubis dazzles and threatens with swirling diagonals while Rupert Pennefather, looking every inch the greek hero, partners solidly. The heart of the ballet comes in the shape of Marianela Nuñez as the Sphinx who risks her life in exchange for a promise of love, and who is ultimately betrayed. She initially appears dominant and powerful, with arms that recalled an elegant bird of prey, but after she whispers the answer to  her own riddle to Pennefather’s Oedipus she changes into a hopeless, defeated creature who now embraces mortality. Sphinx might not be everyone’s cup of tea (its costumes and designs look more Studio 54 than ballet) and those not familiar with Jean Cocteau’s take on Oedipus will be left scratching their heads. We like it, not only for the literary souces, but for its athleticism and this particular cast’s foolhardiness in performing this exhausting piece brilliantly in three consecutive days.

Ed in Sphinx

Edward Watson as Anubis in Glen Tetley's Sphinx (with Marianela Nuñez and Rupert Pennefather in the back). Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

McGregor’s Limen is centred around the themes of life and death, light and darkness and the thresholds in-between, to align with Kaija Saariaho‘s cello concerto “Notes of Light”. Again McGregor taps strongly into technology, via Tatsuo Miyajima‘s designs and amazing lighting by Lucy Carter, to set the mood for the various movements in the music. Limen features a cast of 15 dancers, including many of his regulars.

The choreography stays true to McGregor’s trademark quick movements, contortions and extensions, although since Chroma he has been progressively softening his edgy dance language. There are also nods to previous ballets Agon and Sphinx (e.g. the iconic Agon attitude wrapping the man and the pirouettes with arms à la Sphinx) and, as such, Limen might be McGregor’s own version of a Balanchine ballet: what we are seeing really is a representation of the music and its subliminal message of light against darkness.

Limen opens with a translucent curtain in which numbers are projected, representing the passage of time. The cello’s voice cues in the orchestra  and behind the curtain we see Edward Watson mirroring the music and slowly moving through extensions while new dancers start to emerge  to match the remaining instruments. The second movement is led by Steven McRae and an ensemble of dancers, who become “alive” as they enter a colourful square of light. The orchestra takes over and energetically fights the cello, serving as a backdrop for McRae’s remarkable solo, which combines McGregor’s language with classical vocabulary.

Sarah and Eric in Limen

Sarah Lamb and Eric Underwood in The Royal Ballet’s Limen, choreographed by Wayne McGregor. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Classical dance fully inhabits the third and fourth movements and their lyrical pas de deux. Marianela Nuñez and Brian Maloney echo the brief harmonious dialogue between the cello and the orchestra, while Sarah Lamb and Eric Underwood represent Saariaho’s cello eclipse. As Underwood embraces and lifts Sarah, she folds her body in every possible way (with the costumes and dark lighting enhancing the effect) to the fading sound of the instrument.

The final movement is a return to the light, symbolised by a panel of blue LED lights which loom over the dancers now dressed in flesh coloured leotards. Watson carries the emotional baggage of the movement, once more showing his wonderful use of extension. The ballet (or is it the music) ends with a question, as the cello sings its last note (a very high F sharp): have we reached the heart of light or are we back into darkness? The dancers face the back of the stage and the lights dim, Watson the only dancer who stands at a threshold between this ensemble and the front of the stage. Once again McGregor has delivered a keeper, perhaps even a natural conclusion to the trilogy that started with Chroma (Chroma is the absence from white, while Limen might be the absence of colour). It has become clear that he is now more comfortable with classical vocabulary and could be interesting to see what choreographic surprises he might throw at us from now on. We can’t wait.

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When the Mariinsky brought their Soviet Beauty to London this summer I left wishing I could have seen their lovely Aurora Evgenia Obraztsova in a more agreeable production. I think the Lilac Fairy must have heard my wishes, for they came true last Saturday: Evgenia was back in London guesting in The Royal Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty. Having originally planned to see only 2 performances of the ballet this time, both featuring these Bag Ladies’ favourite Aurora Alina Cojocaru, I suddenly had to make room for more. After all, when a Mariinsky ballerina (and another notable Princess Aurora) descends upon your local company you drop all prior engagements and spend your emergency ballet cash on whatever seats are left. And there weren’t many.

The Sleeping Beauty, The Royal Ballet, 2009

Emma Maguire as Red Riding Hood and David Pickering as The Wolf in The Sleeping Beauty Act 3. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Evgenia, who had just made an important debut a few days before as the Tsar Maiden in Ratmansky’s version of The Little Humpacked Horse, is an utterly charming Aurora and the Royal Ballet’s very delicate production of this classic fits her like a glove. She did not seem to have any issues with the differences in  the choreography, nor with the slower conducting tempo which actually did her a great service during the Rose Adagio‘s trickier passages.

Obraztsova makes her Act 1 entrance reminding us that none of the qualities bestowed on the 16-year old Princess by the fairy godmothers are wasted on her. During Aurora’s variation she even nods to the often overlooked Fairy of the Song Bird with an exquisite flutter of her hands, showing how important it is to truly have the gift of musicality when you dance a role like this. In the Rose Adagio she responds to her suitors with equal doses of shyness and coquettishness and even though she dared not look at them during the first series of balances, she risked one or two flirty glances as soon as she  had settled into the final promenades. This might be unconsciously done but it fits the character of a teenager still not used to all that male attention so well.

She also had a good rapport with her prince David Makhateli. David,  a dancer who possesses a vintage aura of Romanticism, is perfect for the role of Prince Florimund. He is elegant and very fine in the adagio parts and in his display of classical line. While their first pas de deux in the vision scene conveyed mutual longing, in the wedding pas de deux we have a real sense of two souls united from the way they slowly mirror each other’s steps and then converge into one. A detail I admire about David’s Florimund is that he does the “no hands fish dive” finale looking lovingly at his Aurora whereas most Princes tend to gaze at the audience. But how could he not, with such an exquisite dancer as Evgenia in his hands?

The Sleeping Beauty, The Royal Ballet, 2009

Sergei Polunin as Florestan in The Royal Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty Act 3. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

This being a matinée it was normal to expect certain roles cast at a more junior level.  It was a pleasure to see the elegant Xander Parish as the Lilac cavalier and corps member Akane Takada so confident in soloist roles. She gave a good injection of fluidity to the tricky Fairy of the Enchanted Garden variation and  continued to shine later alongside the always delightful Yuhui Choe in the Florestan Pas de Trois. Kristen McNally was a very wicked Carabosse. But one still laments the fact that, save for Marianela Nuñez, the company seems short of Principal dancers who can tackle the fiendish role of the Lilac Fairy. As lovely as Laura McCulloch is in manner and in mime, the Lilac’s prologue variation, with its Italian fouettés and turns that demand Swiss-watch precision, is too big a challenge to be cast at anything other than Principal level, even in a matinée performance.

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Our Mayerling crusade continues with new casts, some debuts and thus interesting new takes on MacMillan’s iconic characters. There are very few lead roles that challenge a danseur’s technique, stamina and dramatic skills as does Crown Prince Rudolf and for Rupert Pennefather to have been offered the opportunity to dance it at such young age is a testament to the company’s trust in his abilities. It takes time to develop a character such as Rudolf. Interpretations such as the ones given by Edward Watson and Johan Kobborg earlier on were mature and full of subtleties, each of these dancers presenting the choreography under a new light: Watson emphazising his extensions to dramatic advantage, Kobborg fleshing out his innate musicality (our take on these previous performances [here] and [here]). Up until now Rupert has been cast in roles that fit his danseur noble physique, so with only one scheduled performance of his second full-length MacMillan role (the first having been Romeo) this was a much needed chance to extend his range as a Principal dancer.

MAYERLING.RB.7-10-2009

Rupert Pennefather and Melissa Hamilton in the Royal Ballet's Mayerling. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

We were again reminded of MacMillan’s amazing ability to show us characters and feelings that are real, each dancer having to find his own motives in portraying the lead role. Pennefather’s Rudolf is initially presented as a stressed heir. Product of an environment where decisions are made for him, the adult Rudolf has remained a spoiled child who longs to be behind his mother’s skirt. This juvenile angle works well for Rupert, not least because of his own young age. Rudolf seems particularly vulnerable in the Act I scene with his mother Empress Elizabeth, whom he sees as a model against which to measure all other women. He relishes being around the strong types (Larisch and Mary), despising those he perceives as weak (case in point, Princess Stephanie).  Technically Rupert was poised and clean, despite some early struggles with the phrasing in Rudolf’s particularly demanding ballroom solo. His various pas de deux were outstanding, his partners fueling his characterization, the dancing more relaxed and fluid. The remarkable last pas de deux in Act 3 looked as good as any other in the run, in no small part due to Rupert’s chemistry with an amazing Mary Vetsera (Melissa Hamilton).

Even though Mayerling is all about the male lead, Rupert’s debuting leading ladies must also have their share of praise. First Artist Melissa Hamilton was a highly anticipated Mary Vetsera. Her beautiful extensions and her supple body have made her a highlight in modern one-act ballets such as McGregor‘s Infra (where she created a role), Wheeldon‘s DGV and Marriott‘s Sensorium. Regulars were curious to see her bridge the gap between this modern niche and the classical repertory. Cast as Mary ahead of several more experienced dancers, Hamilton’s interpretation was very secure. She sparked Pennefather’s Rudolf in such a way  as to make their scenes together not just the evening’s highlight, but a memorable event at Covent Garden. We hope to see more great things from her soon (on that note, next week we get to see her in Limen opposite Edward Watson).

MAYERLING.RB.7-10-2009

Rupert Pennefather as Crown Prince Rudolf and Melissa Hamilton as Mary Vetsera in Mayerling Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

The always sharp Marianela Nuñez as the sultry Countess Larisch proves how broad her range is, shifting gears from the sunny Lilac Fairy of last Friday into manipulative vixen here.  It is redundant to praise Marianela for her flawless technique, therefore we can focus on the strength of her characterization as the passionate mistress who has a boy to keep her entertained while scheming and plotting to amuse herself in the Austro-Hungarian court. She was particulary insidious when feeding Mary’s fantasies about Crown Prince Rudolf.

Among the youngsters, the graceful Elizabeth Harrod was an effective Princess Stephanie and Brian Maloney looked poised and charming as Bratfisch. As  for the Hungarian Officers, it was good to see Ludovic Ondiviela as one, while Sergei Polunin has become pure sharpness punctuated by technical wizardry (e.g. an impressive series of three double tours en l’air) as their lead. This was a Mayerling in which to admire the company’s deep pool of talent in fresh new opportunities. Hopefully it won’t be long till we get to see Pennefather’s Rudolf and Hamilton’s Mary Vetsera again.

The Royal Ballet’s Mayerling is in repertoire until November 10. Book via the ROH website, by telephone or by visiting the Box Office.

For more on Mayerling, Kenneth MacMillan’s Choreographic Imagination and Psychological Insight Symposium will be held on November 8, 2009 at Imperial College London, as part of Kenneth MacMillan’s 80th Anniversary Celebrations. For more information visit www.kennethmacmillan80thanniversary.com

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Morphoses dancers performing Commedia (via Sadler’s Wells YouTube channel)

Morphoses’ third London season has just come to a close. This year they came almost entirely depleted of their NYCB roster, something we lament since we cannot easily cross over the Atlantic to see that fabulous team at home. Nevertheless Morphoses remains a vibrant company providing the opportunity for an eclectic public to discover a mix of interesting dancers matched to new choreography.

The programme I saw, a tribute to the Ballets Russes and their collaborative spirit, opened and closed with captivating works. Wheeldon’s Commedia is a charming take on the carefree and playful world of the Commedia dell’arte to match Stravinsky’s Pulcinella suite, a spoof on early eighteenth-century music. The simplicity of the set and costumes, the absence of a corps de ballet reminds us that Morphoses works on a tight budget,  but Wheeldon compensates by displaying his gift for fluid choreography added to what is essentially classical dance vocabulary. Although one wishes certain sections of the ballet were expanded on, particularly the solo sections for razor sharp Rory Hohenstein and sparkly Leanne Benjamin, on the whole this is a piece that makes a long trip to Sadler’s Wells on a wintry evening well worth it.

So does Ratmansky’s Bolero, a fine translation into steps of Ravel’s music, also originally composed for The Ballets Russes. Three men (Juan Pablo Ledo, Edwaard Liang and Lucas Segovia) and three women (the always amazing Wendy Whelan, Melissa Barak and Danielle Rowe) dressed as athletes, gradually move from individuality to unison in response to the rising demands of the score. There are no set designs and, unlike the evening’s less strong middle section works, “Leaving Songs” and “Softly as I leave you”, no use of props to maximize dramatic impact. All the better to let the choreography speak.

Tim Harbour’s Leaving Songs was supposed to be about endings and beginnings but stayed in the middle, mixing classical phrases with usual modern moves. It did have one good thing going for it, in the shape and extensions of Rubinald Pronk. Pronk’s chemistry with his regular dance partner Drew Jacoby could also be seen in the next piece “Softly as I Leave You” (by husband and wife team Paul Lightfoot and Sol Leon). Despite the recorded music and the overreliance on a wooden box for drama, there were luscious extensions and lifts as well as a sense of true intimacy between these amazing dancers.

At the start of the performance Wheeldon greeted us with his trademark introduction to the evening’s pieces. But before each section there were also short video extracts on the dancers and/or choreographers. Those videos are a great idea but would perhaps grab us more if screened at the start of the performance or as part of DVD extras. With their third season done and dusted, what is next for Wheeldon’s company? It seems that Wheeldon’s initial plans for a permanent company of 20 dancers are still faraway and the fact that the second circle had plenty of empty seats is worrisome. Is Morphoses going to continue focusing on abstract pieces à la Balanchine because of lack of funding? That would be a shame given Wheeldon’s strength in narrative pieces. I left the theatre thinking that Commedia would also have worked as a narrative one-act ballet and hoping that seasons to come will be able to deliver that sort of thing.

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