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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.

©BC20091102221

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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The Royal Ballet's Resident Choreographer Wayne McGregor. Photo: Nick Mead / ROH ©

The Royal Ballet's Resident Choreographer Wayne McGregor. Photo: Nick Mead / ROH ©

Concepts such as coding, decoding, generative systems, algorithms, computer programming, neuroscience and cognitive mapping seem more akin to geek lingo than ballet choreography and yet all these notions inform Wayne McGregor’s dance making.

Having trained in modern dance, McGregor is the first resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet to come from outside the company. Literally and figuratively breaking the line of succession, he said at the time of his appointment that he would not try to be like Ashton or MacMillan. Indeed, while his predecessor MacMillan  looked for inspiration in the human soul, McGregor seems intent on examining the human body and the sensorial experiences and responses derived from it.

Wayne McGregor in a Nutshell

Born in Stockport in 1970, McGregor studied dance at University College, Bretton Hall (Leeds University) and at the José Limon School in New York. In 1992 he started his own company Wayne McGregor | Random Dance and in the same year was appointed choreographer-in-residence at The Place, London.

He was appointed the Resident Choreographer of The Royal Ballet in 2006 following successful productions such as Qualia, Engram and the much lauded Chroma. In addition to regularly creating works for Random Dance, he has also choreographed for several ballet and opera companies around the world, including San Francisco Ballet, The Australian Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, English National Opera and La Scala.

His interests outside dance have resulted in several other associations which include curating a festival for the Royal Opera House (Deloitte Ignite, 2008) and choreographing movement for movies, plays (“Fram” at The National Theatre and the recent “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”), musicals and art galleries (the Hayward Gallery, Canary Wharf and the Pompidou Centre).

McGregor was involved earlier this year in a collaboration between the Royal Ballet and Royal Opera companies – directing and choreographing the Baroque double bill of Acis and Galatea and Dido and Aeneas, which have been recorded for DVD release. His new production for The Royal Ballet, Limen, premieres this week.

McGregor’s dance vocabulary is full of contrasts. It combines speed with clarity of movement, fluidity with angular moves and sharp edges. Sometimes his choreography may also incorporate elements of classical ballet and the majority of his pieces for the Royal Ballet have featured female dancers en pointe. Although he says he has not completely discarded the possibility of narrative works, this vocabulary is generally used to create and structure abstract pieces with a contemporary relevance inspired mainly by visual arts, architecture and, last but not least, by science.

Using science to understand art and creative processes is a topic that fascinates McGregor. Since 2002 he has been involved in a research project with a group of neuroscientists (from the Department of Cognitive Science, University of California, San Diego) and psychologists to explore questions around how choreographic ideas are transmitted to dancers. Via this project he also hopes to learn more about how he and his colleagues actually do what they do. His appointment as the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer extends beyond creating ballets for the company and  involves nurturing, inspiring and transmitting all this creativity and knowledge to future generations of choreographers.

Often in my own choreographies I have actively conspired to disrupt the spaces in which the body performs. Each intervention, usually some kind of addition, is an attempt to see the context of the body in a new or alien way. Wayne McGregor

The Royal Ballet 2006, Chroma

Sarah Lamb and Federico Bonelli in McGregor's Chroma. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Works for the Royal Ballet

Symbiont(s) – The Clore Studio (2000)

Definition: An organism in a symbiotic relationship

Conceived for the intimate space of the Clore Studio (ROH) in close collaboration with the dancers, Symbiont(s) was McGregor’s first piece for The Royal Ballet at a time when Anthony Dowell was still the company’s Artistic Director. It also marked the first time McGregor choreographed a role for dancer Edward Watson, now a leading presence in most of McGregor’s works. It featured seven dancers in a series of duets, solos or trios en pointe and off pointe. Its central duet danced by Watson and Deborah Bull was later used on tour. Symbiont(s) won a Time Out award for Outstanding Achievement in dance.

Brainstate – Linbury Studio (2001)

Brainstate was a collaboration between dancers from The Royal Ballet and from Wayne Mcgregor’s own company Random Dance (18 male and female dancers in total). It was done as a closing piece for an “all McGregor” evening alongside other work by Random Dance and a re-staging of Symbiont(s).

Qualia – The Royal Opera House main stage (2004)

Definition: A raw & sensory experience

Qualia marked Wayne McGregor’s debut on the big ROH stage, following an invitation from Monica Mason, who had just been appointed as the Royal Ballet’s Artistic Director. It featured four lead dancers (Edward Watson, Ivan Putrov, Jaimie Tapper and Leanne Benjamin). Its highlight was a “sensorial” pas de deux for Watson and Benjamin which would later be used in various galas.

Engram – Linbury Studio (June 2005)

Definition: Patterns of neuro-physiological change thought to relate to storage of memories in the brain.

Part of the “Inspired by Ashton” programme, Wayne McGregor cast two of the Royal Ballet’s most classical dancers, Alina Cojocaru and Federico Bonelli, for a pas de deux set to art rock music (By Canadian group “Godspeed You Black Emperor” or GSBE). Engram showed these dancers under a different light, combining McGregor’s notions of angularity and rhythm with classical steps. 

Chroma –  The Royal Opera House main stage (Nov 2006)

Definition: The purity of a color or its absence from white or grey

For Chroma, McGregor worked with a small group of ten dancers. Some were already familiar with his work, others less so. It was the first time McGregor’s male muses Steven McRae, Eric Underwood and Edward Watson appeared together in one of his works (this trio re-appeared in Acis & Galatea and will be seen again in Limen) alongside ballerinas Alina Cojocaru, Tamara Rojo and Sarah Lamb. Chroma is McGregor’s only piece for the Royal Ballet which is performed completely off pointe.

Featuring a minimalist set designed by architect John Pawson to make the audience focus on the dancers’ very detailed articulations and in the “colour” provided by their own movements, Chroma was made in three weeks. The work is set to music by modern composer Joby Talbot, including several orchestrated tracks from The White Stripes (Aluminun, Blue Orchid and The Hardest Button to Button).  A hit with audiences and critics alike, Chroma won a number of prestigious dance awards, including the 2007 Laurence Olivier Award (Best Dance Production).

Nimbus – The Royal Opera House main stage, as part of “The World Stage Gala” (Nov 2007)

Definition 1: a cloud or atmosphere about a person or thing; 
2: an indication (as a circle) of radiant light or glory about the head of a drawn or sculptured divinity, saint, or sovereign; 
3: a rain cloud

Nimbus was created one year after Chroma, specifically for the “World Stage Gala”. It was McGregor’s first official piece as the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer. Set to Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat A, it is a 10-minute short work performed by Marianela Nuñez, Zenaida Yanowsky, Eric Underwood and Edward Watson.

Infra – The Royal Opera House main stage (Nov 2008)

Definition: Below

Alongside his productions for operas Dido & Aeneas/Acis & Galatea, Infra is perhaps the closest Wayne McGregor has come to narrative work.  Juxtaposing his choreography with Julian Opie‘s LED backdrop of pedestrians, a haunting score by Max Richter and lighting by his longtime collaborator Lucy Carter, it infers relationships, ruptures, actions and reactions against the backdrop of our chaotic modern lives.

Dido & Aeneas – Acis & Galatea – The Royal Opera House main stage (March 2009)

McGregor directed and choreographed the Baroque operas Dido and Aeneas (a production he had originally done for La Scala) and Acis and Galatea bringing a rare collaboration between The Royal Opera and dancers from The Royal Ballet. Both productions have been recorded for DVD release.

Limen – The Royal Opera House main stage (Nov 2009)

Definition: 3. Psychology, Physiology. The threshold of consciousness.

Limen, McGregor’s new 26-minute piece for 15 dancers (eight men and seven women) premieres this Wednesday. According to the choreographer it will be a meditation on ‘thresholds of life and death, darkness and light, reality and fantasy’. As he has done before with Chroma (John Pawson) and Infra (Julian Opie), Limen will feature an artistic collaboration with Japanese contemporary conceptual artist Tatsuo Miyajima.

Miyajima has designed a giant wall of blue LED lights flashing on and off which will reflect the individuality of each dancer and their unique personal movements. Limen will be set to a cello concerto by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho whose distinct sounds combine orchestral music and electronics.

A list of McGregor’s choreographies for Random Dance, including current piece Entity as well as past productions Erazor, Amu and AtaXia can be found here

Videos

  • A short feature on Chroma [link]
  • A short feature on Infra [link]
  • Trailer for Infra [link]
  • A short feature on Limen [link]

The Royal Ballet 2006, Chroma

Eric Underwood in McGregor's Chroma. Photo: Dee Conway / ROH ©

Extracts of Reviews and Selected Praise

Of Qualia

At moments the choreography is in danger of seeming like a box of McGregor’s cleverest tricks – shapeshifting moves that flash through the dancers’ bodies, kaleidoscopic patterns of shape and line. But there is a genuine seam of strangeness in the work and, with the help of an eerily atmospheric score by Scanner, McGregor seems to put his dancers in touch with a future the rest of us haven’t really glimpsed. Judith Mackrell at The Guardian [link]

Of Engram

Cojocaru can make almost anything look good, but both McGregor and Brandstrup clearly understand how Ashton’s ballerina-worship can serve a dancer of today. McGregor turned her into a vision of fluidity in Engram, morphing between classical purity and eerie abandon. Dancer Federico Bonelli was her shape-maker, manipulating her to pulsating music by Montreal art-rockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor. A video montage of Ashton and his muses was a reminder of how he delighted in showing off a dancer’s virtuosity. Jann Parry at The Guardian [link]

Of Chroma

Chroma is exceptionally well judged. The 30-minute piece for 10 dancers is sombre and playful in turn, with the flesh-coloured costumes evoking an intense humanity, and the stunning “infinity” set by architect John Pawson both revealing the dancers and immersing the audience. Lucy Carter’s votive candle-like lighting intensifies the effect. Sarah Frater at The Evening Standard [link]

It is osteopathy as choreography, bones and musculature pulled and twisted, the dance fighting to escape from the sinuosities, the flexings and contractions of the body. It is movement introverted, self-obsessed, self-regarding, brilliantly done by its cast (who were deservedly cheered to the echo) and unable to escape from its formulaic, almost dogmatic manner. Clement Crisp at The Financial Times [link]

Of Infra

Beneath the ordered surface of our daily routine, McGregor tells us, complicated forces are at work. We must connect, because all else is terror and the void. Edward Watson, clearly McGregor’s male muse, seems to pulse with angst – all torque, sinew and pale intensity. Eric Underwood burns with almost as cool a flame, and 20-year-old Melissa Hamilton, plucked from the corps de ballet, slashes the choreography to the bone with glittering, scalpel precision. Luke Jennings at The Guardian [link]

It’s a perfect abstract representation of the lines, quoted in the program, from T. S. Eliot’s “Wasteland”: “Under the brown fog of a winter dawn./A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many.” The dancers, who slowly accrue onstage as Max Richter’s haunting melodies for strings begin over random noises (machines, voices), are the flesh-and-blood incarnation of the digital crowd above, and Mr. McGregor imbues them with a touching humanity, even as they move in unimaginable ways. Roslyn Sulcas at The New York Times [link]

Upcoming Performances at the ROH

Agon/Sphinx/Limen – 4-18 Nov 2009, as part of The Royal Ballet’s Autumn Triple Bill.

New Watkins/Rushes – Fragments of a Lost Story/Infra – 19 Feb – 4 March 2010, as part of The Royal Ballet’s Winter Triple Bill.

Chroma/Tryst/Symphony in C – 22 May – 11 June 2010, as part of The Royal Ballet’s Summer Triple Bill.

Sources and Further Information

  1. Wayne McGregor’s Complete List of Works from Random Dance’s website. [link]
  2. Wayne McGregor Official Website [link]
  3. Wayne McGregor, a biography by Judith Mackrell. From the Chroma programme
  4. Wayne McGregor interviewed by David Bain. Ballet Association Report, June 2007. [link]
  5. Discover Limen on the ROH Website [link]
  6. Wayne’s World: When Ballet met Science. Euan Ferguson, The Observer, October 2009. [link]
  7. Wayne McGregor: Zen and the Art of Dance. Interview with Wayne McGregor by Judith Mackrell, The Guardian, October 2009. [link]
  8. Step by Step guide to dance: Wayne McGregor. By Sanjoy Roy, The Guardian [link]
  9. Dido & Aeneas DVD [link]

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