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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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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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The 2008/2009 Royal Ballet season was filled with golden tickets, but which acts made the Bag Ladies tick the most? As we gear up to restock for the new season (tickets go on public sale in 2 weeks), see our top dancers & top dances below and feel free to use the comment form to opine on who was just the ticket for you!

Melissa Hamilton in Infra. Photo:Laurie Lewis - Royal Ballet ©. Source: The Independent.

Melissa Hamilton and Eric Underwood in Infra. Photo:Laurie Lewis - Royal Ballet ©. Source: The Independent.

Best “New Kid On The Block”: Melissa Hamilton

She was a golden vision in her first big role, stepping in for (and looking remarkably like) Sarah Lamb on L’Invitation au Voyage, but Melissa soon made a mark of her own in a selection of modern pieces like McGregor’s Infra, Acis & Galatea, Wheeldon’s DGV and Marriott’s Sensorium, making the most of her edgy line and incredible extensions.

Comeback Guy: Steven McRae

Injury may have robbed him of touring last summer & of some chunky debuts (including Lescaut in Manon) but McRae returned to the stage just in time to sparkle in The Nutcracker, shine as the Golden Idol, create principal roles in McGregor’s sleek productions of Dido & Aeneas/Acis & Galatea and bag a promotion to Principal, no mean feat! (For a full feature on Steven, see our previous post).

Comeback Girl: Alina Cojocaru

Alina was sorely missed at Covent Garden for over a year, which was more or less the time it took her to undergo & recover from neck surgery. But in April she returned triumphantly in one of her signature roles, Giselle, amongst a shower of daffodils for the ages. She also managed to play her quirky side in the sweet & short Les Lutins, glow like the most brilliant jewel in Diamonds and join the RB summer tour for the first time since 2006.

Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg in Giselle. Photo: Tristram Kenton ©. Source: The Guardian

Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg in Giselle. Photo: Tristram Kenton ©. Source: The Guardian.

Drama Guy: Johan Kobborg

From his intense and deep reading of Des Grieux and the teacher in The Lesson to his display of virtuosity in classical roles such as Solor, Siegfried and Albrecht, Johan keeps showing us he still has it at 37. We may have missed his partnership with Alina, but at least there was that one Giselle. His future as a choreographer looks promising, given that he got stellar reviews on his short work for the Linbury, Les Lutins.

Drama Girl: Tamara Rojo

Intensely beautiful in Ondine, beautifully intense in Isadora, lush in Manon, luxe in Emeralds, Tamara squeezed dramatic juice in every role she was cast and brought home two DVDs (soon to be released “La Bayadère” and “Manon”, both with Carlos Acosta) to add to her Romeo and Juliet which is rumoured to be “on its way”.

Whiz Guy: Sergei Polunin

We knew we could expect great things from Polunin, after that taste of his Golden Idol last season. With outstanding debuts in Tetley’s Voluntaries, as Solor and in the Nutcracker, he spent all season stealing the thunder from more established colleagues. The reward was a deserved promotion to First Soloist, and a main feature in the ROH media campaign for the upcoming season. All of this at 19!

Marianela Nuñez. Source: Opusarte ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners

Marianela Nuñez. Source: Opusarte ©. Copyright belongs to its owners

Whiz Girl: Marianela Nuñez

A great season for Marianela, with lots of opportunitities to display her pristine technique and to bag big roles such as Giselle. Her “4 great Swan Lakes in 7 days” deserves a wizardry award of  its own, but on top of that, she gave stellar performances in abstract pieces, from which we definitely remember Voluntaries, Serenade and that Pas de Deux in Infra.

All-rounder Guy: Ed Watson

Yes, we know that this category seems lifted from the 2008 Dancing Times Award where both Ed and Yuhui (see below) won accolades but Watson was truly a “man for all seasons”, dancing in 13 out of 24 ballets (the busiest principal of all) and leaving a mark of diversity both in the quality of his dancing & repertoire, which spanned from old classics (Giselle, Firebird, Ondine) to the 20th century classics (Manon, Dances at a Gathering) and the contemporary (Infra, Acis & Galatea, DGV).

All-rounder Girl: Yuhui Choe

Injuries for some, opportunities for others. Added to scheduled debuts as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Nikiya, Yuhui also made the most of whatever chances she got to cover for her seniors, displaying her ethereal dancing, strong musicality, those trademark soft arms (Dances At a Gathering, Les Sylphides), coupled with energy & attack (The Lesson, Rubies).

Carlos Acosta and Alexandra Ansanelli in Rubies. Photo: Johan Persson- Royal Ballet ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Carlos Acosta and Alexandra Ansanelli in Rubies. Photo: Johan Persson- Royal Ballet ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Best Partnership: Alexandra Ansanelli & Carlos Acosta

Fair enough, Alexandra and Carlos were never really a partnership (they had a brief stint in La Bayadère, back in January) but the sizzling chemistry they displayed in Rubies, in roles which were  so in tune with their own abilities, made us wish, first that Alexandra would have been cast to dance with Carlos in Dances at a Gathering back in March and second, for a world in which Alexandra was not retiring, so we could see them paired again. Easily the best couple in Jewels, it  was clear that Carlos found his match in Alexandra’s flirty and bendy ruby.

Best Narrative Production: Giselle

The Royal Ballet has productions of the classics that either go over the top of glittery & sweet or fall short when compared to its counterparts in other big companies, but Giselle truly deserves being nicknamed as “The Jewel in the RB’s Crown”. Sir Peter Wright‘s production brings the story to life with beautiful designs, costumes and most importantly, coherent storytelling through both the mime and choreographic sequences.

Best Abstract Production: Dances at a Gathering

DAAG really is like Mr. B said to Mr. Robbins: like popping peanuts in one’s mouth. The combination of the Chopin piano pieces, the delightful choreography and the RB’s unique imprint is so addictive we could watch it over and over again.

Best International Acts:

It’s not all about the RB all the time! While the dancers below have individually left their marks on us while visiting London throughout 2008/2009, hearsay is that even greater things happen when you pair them with their fellow company members. Mariinsky recent cast changes frustrated our plans to see team Obr/Shk, but we have not yet lost hope. So, which couples would you recommend we travel far to catch? Here is a shortlist that we assembled based on our exchanges with fellow Twitterers:

Tiler Peck & Daniel Ulbricht, NYCB

Yevgenia Obraztsova & Vladimir Shklyarov, Mariinsky

Veronika Part & Marcelo Gomes, ABT

Please cast your vote on our Facebook page (link to the poll), or let us know who you think deserves the accolade. 

And last but not least,

Dancers who will be missed:

RB’s Alexandra Ansanelli , RB’s Isabel McMeekan, PNB’s Louise Nadeau, SFB’s Tina LeBlanc.

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The Royal Ballet’s newest Principal dancer, aussie Steven McRae, charmed the hearts of these Bag Ladies since his first appearances in Covent Garden. At just 23, he has climbed through the ranks and made an impact on every single role he has been cast on. From his debut as one of the side soloists in Ashton’s demanding Symphonic Variations, his first big role and his outstanding Spirit of Fire, in Christopher Wheeldon’s re-reading of Homage to the Queen (Fire) to his unforgettably boyish Romeo opposite Alina Cojocaru’s Juliet, this strawberry blonde dancer has more than justified his fast rise.

His undeniable technical abilities to spin multiple, fast and very centered turns, soar high and “freeze frame” in the air, as well as his inherent musicality and charm are guaranteed to dazzle audiences and it seemed clear from the candid (some would say downright bold, see first video link below) way he spoke about his ambitions that he was never going to be a happy camper in the corps de ballet where he first started. As we look forward to Steven’s first season as a Principal dancer, here are some interesting facts & web notes on him.

Steven McRae in a Nutshell

Born in Sydney (Plumpton, in the Western Suburbs). Like many men in the dance world, he started ballet at 7 years old because of his sister. He also did gymnastics, jazz and tap dancing.

He won the gold medal of the Genée Competition in Sydney (performing Danses Concertantes) and scooped the first prize in 2003’s Prix de Lausanne, despite not having started full time ballet much long before the competition.

He joined the Royal Ballet School, where he studied for three years, before finally being offered a contract with the company. His first role was in the triple bill “The Wedding Bouquet/Requiem/Les Noces”.

His first big break was in Symphonic Variations, sharing the stage with Johan Kobborg and Federico Bonelli.

He has had work created on him by Wheeldon, McGregor and Marriott, among others.

Steven works closely with long time principals Johan Kobborg & Alina Cojocaru, having danced important roles in Johan’s productions of La Sylphide (as Gurn) and in Napoli Divertissements and more recently creating a role alongside Sergei Polunin and Cojocaru in Kobborg’s short virtuoso piece Les Lutins. At the time of his debut in Romeo & Juliet the press reported that it was Alina who had asked for him to partner her when Kobborg became injured.

Steven partnered Alina in the pas de deux of Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes at the ROH’s World Stage gala in Nov 2007, having also travelled to Tokyo with her that autumn to stand in for Kobborg in Ashton‘s The Dream (debuting as Oberon). They are due to reprise their partnership in Japan later this year dancing in The Nutcracker.

Steven McRae as Romeo. Photo: Bill Cooper © Source: Dansomanie

Steven McRae as Romeo. Photo: Bill Cooper - Royal Ballet © Source: Dansomanie

Steven is ambitious, competitive and a perfectionist, placing major importance on developing his roles. His most embarrassing moment occurred when his trousers split open during his first Fille Mal Gardée. He is also a grateful student, taking  time to visit his old ballet school whenever he visits Australia (usually once a year) where he teaches and mentors new generations of dancers.

His dream role is Des Grieux in MacMillan’s Manon.

Videos

A quick spin through YouTube & a glimpse at McRae’s superb technique and musicality:

  • In the Swan Lake pas de trois, together with Laura Morera and Yuhui Choe [link].
  • Squirrel Nutkin from The Tales of Beatrix Potter [link]
  • A Tap performance for The Prix de Lausanne 2003 [link]

Extracts of Reviews & Praise

Of his debut in Symphonic Variations

What the future holds for Steven McRae I dare not guess, but if he is not spoiled by too much – or too little – attention, he must surely have a splendid career. His dancing was exceptional in grace and security. Clement Crisp at the Financial Times [link].

Of his debut as Romeo (where he proved he was more than a technical whiz-kid)

Instead, and how sensitive this proved, his Romeo is younger, quieter than most in the early scenes, and then, when the fuse of his passion for Juliet is lit, burning with an inner fire that lights every step. Clement Crisp at the Financial Times [link]

McRae’s dancing is already polished by enthusiasm and an impressive classical technique and it holds nothing back. Debra Craine at The Times

Although only 21, McRae is one of the most technically accomplished dancers in the Royal Ballet and he brought an elegance and lightness of touch to sequences that have undone much more experienced performers. Luke Jennings at The Observer [link].

From his first minute on stage, you know his is going to hit the spot…his fizzing solo work cut the fastest, most deliriously buoyant turns I’ve seen in 15 years of balcony scenes. He also offered some uniquely nuanced character observation. Jenny Gilbert at The Independent [link]

If Covent Garden abided by entrenched Russian typecasting rules McRae would never have got beyond jester roles, which is essentially what happened when he played the Spirit of Fire (…). He’s fleet, slight, taut, acrobatically agile, extrovert, red haired and Australian. But McRae had already stretched beyond stereotype via Symphonic Variations and then partnering Tamara Rojo in Wayne McGregor’s monumentally successful Chroma. Yet none of these performances had really prepared audiences for his powerfully assured debut as Romeo. Allen Robertson for Dance Now (vol 16, n.4 Winter 07)

Of his role as the Spirit of Fire, in Wheeldon‘s Homage to the Queen (Fire)

Christopher Wheeldon’s Fire is filled with furious allegro and nervy shifts of emphasis, driven by Steven McRae’s bursting performance as the Spirit of Fire. Debra Craine at the Times [link]

Christopher Wheeldon’s Fire has a demonic flavour, with a superbly athletic, explosive role as the spirit of Fire for the young and hugely talented Steven McRae. David Dougill at the Times [link]

and of his Nutcracker as the Sugar Plum Fairy Prince Cavalier

McRae is bright, brilliant-cut in technique, ardent in shaping a step or a phrase, and the role is his – and handsomely so. Clement Crisp at the Financial Times [link].

Steven McRae’s Upcoming Performances at the ROH

  • New work by Kim Brandstrup 21-26 Sep 2009
  • Agon/Sphinx/New McGregor 5/13/17 Nov 2009
  • Nutcracker (The Prince) 30 Nov/12 Dec

Public Booking opens July 14th. Friends of Covent Garden priority booking period currently open.

Sources and Further Information

  1. Steven McRae interviewed by David Bain. The Ballet Association. From the 2007 reports.  [link]
  2. The 7:30 Report. Ballet’s Star Spectacular Rise by Rebecca Baillie. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. January 2009. [link]
  3. Dance: Steven McRae. An editorial by Clement Crisp. The Financial Times, January 2007. [link]
  4. Rising Star by Emma Love. The Observer, January 2007 [link]

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Now that we know what both the Royal Ballet’s and the Sadler’s Wells’ 2009/2010 dance seasons look like, it’s time to start penciling in dates, drawing cast plans, organizing bookings and, most importantly, cancelling any previous engagements. Because the autumn/winter dance season, after the starvation of summer months, supersedes anything else we may have had in the pipeline (weddings, birthdays, christenings…). Seriously.

Here are some of the treats we will be bagging:

October

Mayerling (Royal Ballet)

MacMillan’s gritty and sleazy classic will be back with solid casts – Ed Watson & Mara Galeazzi, Johan Kobborg & ? (since Alina’s online diary indicates she might not be dancing this, we’d love to see Leanne Benjamin) as well as some interesting debuts for Rupert Pennefather & Melissa Hamilton, Thiago Soares & Lauren Cuthbertson.

In the Spirit of Diaghilev (Sadler’s Wells)

Choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui / Javier De Frutos / Russell Maliphant & Wayne McGregor set about breaking new choreographic ground whilst paying homage to 100 year old Ballets Russes.

Morphoses (Sadler’s Wells)

Christopher Wheeldon joins in the Diaghilev fun with a special Ballets Russes selection of his own. We are thrilled to see Ed Watson (officially the busiest Royal Ballet dancer in the 2008/2009 season and going for another record, lucky we!), Wendy Whelan and young Beatriz Stix-Brunell still with Morphoses for this new season.

November

Agon/Sphinx/New McGregor (Royal Ballet)

The first – and very edgy looking – triple bill of the season provides the opportunity to see the dream team of Cojocaru, McRae and Polunin again in a new production of Glen Tetley‘s Sphinx. Along with a new McGregor. We can’t wait.

December

Carlos Acosta (Sadler’s Wells)

The bravura boss will be back at the Wells to perform Balanchine’s Apollo plus Jerome Robbins’ A Suite of Dances and Afternoon of a Faun. We think Sadler’s has gone a little “Ballets Russes PR happy” in comparing the man (albeit indirectly) to Nijinsky, but we forgive them: seeing Apollo in the programme is more than enough to lure us in.

The Nutcracker (Royal Ballet)

These days The Nutcracker is the most regular staple in the RB’s repertoire (I guess it’s trying to play catch with those 940+ Swan Lakes) but who can resist when high flyer Sergei Polunin is one of the princes? Plus, given that I can’t be bothered with yuletide decorations this is my only chance of seeing a proper Christmas tree.

For more information, refer to the official press releases by The Royal Ballet and Sadler’s Wells:

The Royal Ballet 2009/2010 Season

Sadler’s Wells Autumn 2009 Season

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One of the attractions of a triple bill vs. a full-length ballet is the opportunity to discover a mix of different choreographers and dance styles, so that by the end of the evening you should find at least one ballet that is right for you. There is also the chance to discover up-and-coming dancers alongside starrier performers, since the young ones often start tackling bigger roles in shorter pieces before moving up the ladder to the meatier classics.

Take for instance Royal Ballet artist Melissa Hamilton who was absolutely eye popping in last year’s Infra, a thrilling one act ballet by Wayne McGregor. Despite being a recent arrival in the Company, Melissa made a huge impact in a demanding work that displayed some of the Royal Ballet’s most amazing and experienced dancers (Edward Watson and Marianela Nuñez to name but a few). She is now due to appear in her first full length leading role next season (dancing with Rupert Pennefather in Mayerling). Having seen her in Infra and in Christopher Wheeldon‘s DGV – another short work – means we will be buying a ticket with confidence.

The Kostchei and the Firebird. Copyright by its respective owner. (Source: Royal Opera House)

The Kostcheï and the Firebird. Copyright by its respective owner. (Source: Royal Opera House)

But back on the subject of triple bills, earlier this week I caught the latest Royal Ballet mixed programme which commemorates the 100 year anniversary of the Ballets Russes’ first season in Paris. On the bill are two indisputable classics: Les Sylphides and The Firebird (both by Mikhail Fokine), along with Sensorium, a new work by Alastair Marriott.

I was very much looking forward to Les Sylphides. I had never seen it before and Romantic ballets are just the thing for me. I simply adore the slow moving “tableaux” feel of Balanchine’s Emeralds, another “ballet of mood”. But despite a great cast (which included Yuhui Choe, Lauren Cuthbertson, Laura Morera and Johan Kobborg) and the poetic Chopin score, I could not feel the “mood”. Maybe the moonlit setting failed to shine or maybe the dancers need time to adjust to a work that has not been performed for quite some time. I also wondered whether slow was giving way to plain static in places, although the pace of conducting seemed to pick up in the Mazurka and the Pas de Deux. Perhaps I was also too distracted by the ballerinas’ headdresses which looked rather like helmets, but for me the magic that the Royal Ballet usually brings to the Romantic classics did not fully materialise here.

If Les Sylphides lacked mood, Sensorium had too much of it I thought. The choreography and indeed the dancers (Rupert Pennefather, Alexandra Ansanelli, Leanne Benjamin, Thomas Whitehead) are impeccable but the work was too neat and reverential. I longed for something faster, more innovative and colourful. This  thankfully is something that The Firebird provided. Despite being a 100 year old ballet it is one of the liveliest, most colourful pieces in the Royal Ballet’s repertory. Mara Galeazzi, not just a Firebird, but a “Fiery” bird, showed off her beautiful fluid arms, frantically expressing through them her fear and frustration whilst imprisoned by Thiago Soares’s Ivan. The scene at the Immortal Kostcheï’s domains where dozens of enchanted creatures come out to scare Ivan manages to be at same time as scary as a child’s nightmare and greatly amusing, thanks to the superb Gary Avis and his impeccable comic timing. The final tableau which depicts with more colour than dance the Tzarevich’s coronation speaks volumes of the Russian roots of this wonderful classic. Stravinsky’s music is thrilling. So 1 out of 3 for the evening overall, but sometimes that is all one needs.

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