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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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Is this ballet for you?

Go If: You like intensely physical dancing molded from contemporary choreography. Tetley’s work is as a balanced mixture of classical ballet and modern dance. You like greek mythology and/or ballets drawn from literary sources, in this case, a Jean Cocteau play.

Skip If: You are allergic to colourful 70’s style bodysuits or you are a Petipa purist who doesn’t fancy ballet crossed over with Martha Graham.

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

Dream Cast

Sphinx: Gillian Murphy (ABT), Marianela Nuñez (RB) or any strong-but-alluring technician (NYCB’s Ashley Bouder would be great in this role)

Oedipus: Ethan Stiefel (ABT), Rupert Pennefather (RB) or any Greek hero-looking dancer

Anubis: Edward Watson (RB) or any edgy/virtuoso dancer (NYCB’s Daniel Ulbricht would be a perfect complement for a Bouder Sphinx)

Background

TETLEY_Glen

Glen Tetley. Photo: ROH © Martha Swope

To understand Glen Tetley‘s unique style, one needs to go back to his roots. Few choreographers have been able to so harmoniously mix influences from so many different schools of dance. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Tetley started training as a dancer at the late age of 16 after seeing Nora Kaye and Hugh Laing in American Ballet Theatre‘s production of Romeo & Juliet. A move to New York and a random visit to a friend lead him to become the understudy in a Broadway production ran by none other than Jerome Robbins, who immediately recognised Glen’s talent and potential.

While performing on Broadway, Tetley continued to train intensively in dance. He studied modern dance with Martha Graham and Hanya Holm, classical ballet at the School of American Ballet (SAB) and with Anthony Tudor. He became very interested in the stylistical impact Asian movement could make on modern dance. Given the frictions between modern and classical dance at the time, he shut himself in his studies and carried on with a paralell degree in Chemistry (NYU), which allowed him to explore opportunities in theatre and literature at the University. With this foundation he built not only his own dance vocabulary, but enough ideas to develop as a choreographer.

Tetley’s style is a blend of notions from all these various dance schools. His choreography has the fluidity and lyricism of classical ballet but also the impact, athleticism and breadth of movement that comes from modern dance, which is very open and fills the stage. Classical dancers often say that dancing Tetley’s works have helped them become better dancers.

Context & Storyline

Tetley’s inspiration for Sphinx came from his passion for literature. The ballet is his personal take on Act II of The Infernal Machine, a play by Jean Cocteau. It was originally created for ABT on ballerina Martine van Hamel to the music of Martinů‘s Double Concerto for two String Orchestras.

The Myth of Oedipus:

In Ancient Greece the myth of Oedipus was passed down from one generation to the next. First references to it date back to 7th century BC with Homer and Hesiod and, a few centuries later, via Aeschylus and Sophocles who wrote their own accounts of Oedipus’s tragedy from a combination of several different sources.

Oedipus was the son of Laius, king of Thebes, and Jocasta. He was abandoned at birth owing to a prophecy by the Oracle of Delphi who foretold Laius and Jocasta that he would kill his father and marry his own mother. To avoid this fate, his father binds his ankles together with a pin and instructs a shepherd to take the boy away and kill him. The shepherd, full of pity, leaves the baby in the hands of another shepherd from Corinth who takes him to king Polybus and queen Merope. They  adopt him and name him Oedipus (swollen feet).

One of the key incidents in the story is Oedipus’s encounter with the Sphinx. The adult Oedipus hears a rumour that he is not the biological son of Polybus and Merope. Suspicious, he asks the Delphic Oracle who his parents really are. Instead of answering this question the Oracle tells him that he is destined to kill his own father and wed his mother. Desperate to avoid this fate and still believing Polybus and Merope to be his true parents, Oedipus sets on a journey to faraway Thebes. On his way he encounters a Sphinx which serves as a gatekeeper. In order to pass and to avoid being eaten by the creature all travelers must correctly answer a riddle. The sphinx serves Oedipus the following riddle:

What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three legs in the evening?

Oedipus is the first traveler to answer correctly. He responds:

Man: as infant he crawls on all fours, as an adult he walks on two legs and in old age he relies on a walking stick.

The Sphinx, defeated, throws herself from a cliff onto her death.

Cocteau’s play:

Oedipus and the Sphinx by Gustave Moreau, 1864. Source: Wikipedia

Jean Cocteau’s The Infernal Machine is a rework of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King) where the Sphinx is not a beast but an immortal woman who has grown weary and longs to fall in love with a human, in this case Oedipus. Cocteau kept its ancient setting but gave the dialogue a modern treatment and added a third character, Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead, who is allied with the Sphinx to kill those who don’t answer the riddle. Given the play’s focus on fate vs. free will and other contemporary themes, Cocteau’s Oedipus could be any young man searching for his own identity, while Thebes could be any major city, with its problems and vices.

The Ballet:

Tetley’s ballet recreates The Meeting of Oedipus and the Sphinx (from Act II of the play). For the Sphinx he introduced elegant angular arms and dynamic footwork given that the mythological creature is originally a winged lion with a human head.  To represent the ominous Anubis and his warnings to the Sphinx he choreographed vigourous solos with fast turns and jumps, while Oedipus dances adagio sections and a very demanding pas de deux with the Sphinx, full of complex lifts.  The immortal woman-Sphinx falls in love and yields to Oedipus, revealing to him the answer to the riddle. Confronted by Anubis, Oedipus raises several fingers and waves his hands in “reply” to the riddle. The Sphinx loses her power and Oedipus leaves unharmed without so much as a thank you for the answer. The ballet ends with the Sphinx  returning to her winged platform to die under the ever watchful eyes of Anubis.

Music

Initially Tetley had commissioned an original score from Paul Chihara with whom he had discussed the story, but he ultimately disliked the material proposed. Turning to his music collection, he uncovered Bohuslav Martinů’s Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani and decided to use it in his ballet. Czech composer Martinů (1890-1959) was a big exponent of Neoclassicism His compositions often reference Czech folk music but with a prominent role for the piano, which point to his admiration for the works of Debussy and Stravinsky.

Sphinx is part of the Royal Ballet’s Autumn triple bill, which runs from 4 Nov – 18 Nov. For booking and further details, visit The Royal Opera House Website.

Mini-Biography

Choreography: Glen Tetley. Libretto based on Jean Cocteau’s The Infernal Machine (La Machine Infernale)
Music: Bohuslav Martinů
Designs: Rouben Ter-Arutunian
Costumes: Willa Kim
Original Cast: Martine van Hamel, Clark Tippet, Kirk Peterson
Premiere: Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C., 9 December 1977

Sources and Further Information

  1. Wikipedia Entries for Glen Tetley [link] and Bohuslav Martinů [link]
  2. Glen Tetley: Obituary by Jann Parry. The Guardian, January 2007.[link]
  3. Wikipedia Entry for Jean Cocteau [link]
  4. Bohuzlav Martinů Institute Website [link]
  5. Jean Cocteau (Critical Lives Series) by James S. Williams. Reaktion Books, January 2008. ISBN-10: 186189354X [link]
  6. The Royal Ballet’s 2009/2010 Season Preview, Press Release [link]
  7. Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. Dover Publications Inc.; Unabridged edition, October 1991. ISBN-10: 0486268772[link]
  8. Renaissance Man: Glen Tetley at 78. Interview by Karen Webb. Dance West Magazine, June 2004. Via Critical Dance [link]
  9. Review: Now That’s a Riddle: A Dancing Sphinx by Anna Kisselgoff. The New York Times, October 2001 [link]
  10. Discover Sphinx. ROH Discover Ballet Webpage [link]

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As UK audiences flocked to catch free ballet & opera performances via the BP/ROH summer screenings, The Times, invited by Royal Opera House (ROH) Chief Executive Tony Hall for a chat during the broadcast of Ondine at Trafalgar Square, ran an article which accentuated one of the biggest opera world dividers in the following line:

…the ROH does not just cater for the arts snobs who can afford the £380 ticket in the Grand tier

While the article focused largely on the ROH’s accessibility campaign via UK-wide free screenings and cinema distribution across Europe, it was hard to ignore the hint of inaccessibility suggested in the above quote. Most newspaper articles covering this initiative tend to adopt the same tone of “it’s either opera in cinema or top seats in the house”, intentionally or not leaving out the seating layers in between and perpetuating the notion that only the rich can afford an evening at the ballet or opera. By pushing these two extremes at the general public, the media is preserving the snobbish/elitist perception of these art forms. The point about cinema is simply that it can reach a wider, global audience for an extended period (ie. months vs. weeks in the case of live performances), not necessarily that it is so much cheaper than attending a performance at the opera house.

The article made me think back on a brief conversation I had on the tube a while ago. I was slightly dressed up so a man next to me asked if I was going to Covent Garden. I responded I was on my way to a performance at the ROH. Upon probing further he finally asked how could students afford the cost of a ticket. My  reply that the ticket in question had only cost me £12, and that there were times in which I could get into the theatre for even less via the Student Standby scheme, seemed to surprise him greatly.

Royal Opera House. Photo: Peter Mackertich / ROH ©. Source: BAFTA.com

Royal Opera House. Photo: Peter Mackertich / ROH ©. Source: BAFTA.com

Turning this debate into  figures: irrespective of ticket prices, ballet and opera companies are non-profit organisations which are supported by citizens, in North America via donations and in Europe via taxes. For instance, the ROH has an annual grant equivalent to (approx) £27.5M in public money to fund both the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera. In return for the subsidy the company must seek to broaden its audience. The ROH receives a further £15.3M from donations and legacies, and box office takings of around  £35.6M (based on last year’s figures, a healthy number for recession times). When added, the previous numbers indicate that the ROH generates more than £2 for every £1 given by the government grant, thus avoiding deficit and justifying public spending on it. To keep its side of the bargain, recent changes have increased the costs for a top tier ticket whilst creating cheaper seats in certain areas of the house. In 2008, a quarter of the tickets were cheaper than £30 for full-length ballet productions (costing less in the case of shorter works), with the least expensive tickets costing a mere £6.

In 2008, The Guardian published the following “top tickets” price comparison:

  • The Royal Opera £210
  • British Grand Prix (formula 1) £169 / per day
  • Glastonbury (music festival) £155 / per weekend
  • Men’s Final Wimbledon (tennis) £91
  • Hairspray (musical), London’s West End £60
  • The God of Carnage (play), London’s West End £47.50
  • Odeon (cinema) Leicester Square £17.50

A more up to date web search returns the following price estimates:

  • Chicago,(musical) West End: £25 – £59 + £4.50 service charge
  • The Royal OperaCarmen: Grand tier £210 – £880, Stalls £14- £219, Balcony £14-240, Amphitheatre £9-£97.90
  • The Royal BalletThe Sleeping Beauty: Grand tier £110 – £480, Stalls £10-£120, Balcony £10-£170, Amphitheatre £6 – £70
  • Hamlet starring Jude Law, West End: £32.95 – £42.75
  • Coldplay (music) at Wembley Stadium: £44 – £63 + £4.50 service charge
  • U2 (music) at Wembley Stadium: £61 – £93.50 + £4.50 service charge
  • Odeon cinema (non central) Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: £9.00 – £11.00
  • Odeon cinema Leicester Square The Proposal £13.50 – £19.00
  • Chelsea FC (football) Premier League Ticket: £39 – £64

The comparisons above tell us that whilst top tickets for ballet and opera are indeed very expensive (notably those eye-poppingly exclusive grand tier seats), there are plenty other alternatives in every tier of the house, ranging from the equivalent of a movie ticket to the price of a football match (it brings to mind the quote – football is “poor man’s ballet” – a 180 degree shift in paradigm if you look at Premier league ticket prices).

If one considers the production costs associated with a full-length ballet, the expensive designs and costumes, the orchestra, etc. £15 for a ticket seems better value for money than all the other options above. Add to the equation the fact that certain ballet and opera companies run schemes with bulk discounts or membership deals (such as the Friends of Covent Garden scheme or The Sadler’s Wells multi buy discount) and costs dip even further.

(NB: For the sake of this comparison exercise I’ve taken into account the costs for full-length productions which are more expensive than a programme of mixed bills: £6 – £260 for the Royal Ballet’s Agon/Sphinx/New McGregor Triple Bill next season).

Of course, there will always be cheaper entertainment options out there and why not, plenty of stay-at-home ways to watch ballet and opera (TV, DVDs, Iplayer). However, live stagings give audiences a proper opportunity to fully connect and engage with the performers, the scale of which cannot be reproduced in cinema screenings or on DVD. And once you have experienced a live ballet or opera, chances are you will want to return as often as possible. Hopefully the above will serve to demonstrate that opera and ballet do not have to be a once in a lifetime experience or a special occasion treat.

Sources and Further Information

  1. From the Ten O’Clock News to a night at the opera, Tony Hall is taking it to the people. Interview at The Times by Dan Sabbagh [link].
  2. Royal Opera raises Top Ticket Prices by Charlotte Higgins at The Guardian [link]
  3. Ticketmaster.co.uk [link]
  4. Arts Council UK Website [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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