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Posts Tagged ‘Triple Bill’

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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It is interesting to discover how choreographers find inspiration for a new piece and how they bring their ideas alive through dance. When David Bintley first announced he would do a ballet inspired by a physics equation, E=mc2, many were puzzled. How could Bintley turn an abstract mathematical statement into a ballet?

Using David Bodanis‘s biographical account of the eponymous equation as source material, Bintley started from its components (or ancestors) energy E, mass m, speed of light c and squared 2, to create his ballet’s three main movements, plus an interlude, The Manhattan Project. He then added choreographic nods to the related discoveries of scientists such as Michael Faraday, Antoine Lavoisier, Émilie du Châtelet, among others and, most importantly, to Albert Einstein.

While there is no need to know about physics or Relativity to appreciate the piece, there is more to Bintley’s imaginative dancing than meets the eye and as I have the  advantage of a high energy physics background, all those scientific references certainly added to my enjoyment:

Elisha Willis and Joseph Caley in BRB's E=mc2 Photo: Bill Cooper Source: BRB ©

Elisha Willis and Joseph Caley in BRB's E=mc2 (Energy) Photo: Bill Cooper Source: BRB ©

In Energy, for instance, Bintley plays with Faraday’s idea of curling lines generated from a magnet’s interaction with electric currents so dancers curl their arms and hands throughout. An almost bare stage, a central projected strip of clouds, the piece starts with a bang and the corps de ballet come in and out, filling all the space, making swirling patterns to the pitching music. His choreographic framework is clearly Faraday’s engine: using the current of a power source near a dangling wire to charge a magnet Faraday visualised circular lines coming from it, which could “sweep” the wire and induce it to rotate magnetically as does the screw in the video below:

The swirling corps de ballet is to Bintley’s choreography what the circular magnetic lines are to Faraday, the main couple – Joseph Caley and Elisha Willis – acting as the dangling wire as they rotate around the ensemble of dancers and around each other in beautiful turns and pirouettes, with their burst of energy also echoing the electric currents printed in the costumes designed by Kate Ford.

Strikingly different Mass, with its shades of brown and a moody, melancholic violin score, revolves around three groups, each with two men and a woman, plus a central pas de deux for Gaylene Cummerfield and Matthew Lawrence. The women are lifted and moved around slowly, indicating heaviness, the influence of gravity and mass over every physical object. The focus on bodies and the various ways in which they can be used to create geometry (for instance the iconic image of the three lifted dancers in a triangle) as well as the various balances taken by the dancers across the stage all point to Lavoisier’s studies on mass conservation and his conclusions on the weight of substances before and after a chemical reaction. Bintley also reminds us of the connection between mass and energy when later on these dancers enter forming a compact mass, moving as a whole with their hands curling in the same way as the previous group.

in Mass. Samara Downs in The Manhattan Project. Photos: Bill Cooper. Source: BRB ©

Celine Gittens and Tom Rogers in Mass and Samara Downs in The Manhattan Project. Photos: Bill Cooper. Source: BRB ©

The interlude brings a red square of light in the background, a dancing white geisha and thunderous sound which develops into an explosion. This may be a short section but references to the atomic bombs and the destruction of  Hiroshima and Nagasaki could not be more direct. Though visually impacting I thought that Bintley could have done without this section, not least because it logically should have come after Celeritas2, although logic in this case would have made for a grim finale and I much prefer the dazzler we got.

A background wall of lights directed to the audience, with the dancers playfully running and doing grand jetés from the sides lead us to closing piece Celeritas2 (latin for swiftness) which uses notions of speed and wave-particle duality exhibited by light. Bintley reminds us that light waves are nothing but electricity and magnetism forever chasing each other in space, just like first soloist Alexander Campbell and principal Carol-Anne Millar when they “play catch” and switch between front and back, with oscillating movements.

Bintley reserves his most visually stunning trick for a climatic end which uses the ensemble of the corps. Looking at light in terms of particles he builds rows of dancers in non-stop soft soubresauts. The dancers propagate their light in waves from the front row all the way to the last, each individually a photon, a “light” particle and  collectively a “wave” of dance going all the way to the back of the stage. The ensemble suddenly stops and only then does the main couple break to the sides, in mind-blowing chaîné turns. He could not have devised a more crowd-pleasing, applause-generating number closer.

Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet in Celeritas². Photo: Roy Smiljanic Source: BRB ©

Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet in 'Celeritas²'. Photo: Roy Smiljanic Source: BRB ©

Overall E=mc2 does an excellent job of translating a deep and abstract mathematical concept, the result of the work of an outstanding group of thinkers, into dance. The meaning of each movement was made clear through the choreography, by Peter Mumford’s remarkable use of lighting and via the enjoyable score from Australian composer Matthew Hindson. While the piece looks modern and fresh the steps are pure classical ballet which will allow it to live in the repertoire for many years to come.

Bintley’s new piece was bookended by the work of two Australian choreographers, Stanton Welch and Garry Stewart. Welch’s Powder, set to Mozart’s luscious Clarinet Concerto in A minor, had cheeky muses playing around with mere mortals. Whilst Mozart is not the easiest composer to dance to there are many bright points,  such as the sequences for male dancers which evoked four greek marble statues coming to life through synchronised jumps and balances (special mentions to Yasuo Atsuji and Joseph Caley) – and in the elegant pas de deux between Robert Parker and Natasha Oughtred.

Natasha Oughtred with Kosuke Yamamoto, Steven Montieth, Joseph Caley and Yasuo Atsuji Photo: Bill Cooper Source: BRB ©

Natasha Oughtred with Kosuke Yamamoto, Steven Montieth, Joseph Caley and Yasuo Atsuji in BRB's Powder. Photo: Bill Cooper Source: BRB ©

It is impossible to look at the shape (dancers extending through rows of linear lights) and sound (strong/electronic beat) of Stewart’s The Centre and its Opposite and not think of Forsythe‘s In the Middle Somewhat Elevated. But while the choreography is not very original it is certainly diverse in the interchange between modern extreme extensions and standard classical ballet combinations: deep grand pliés with arms on fifth, adagio dancing  (developpés going into a attitude en promenade and balances on arabesque) and a sequence of petit allegro steps (jeté, jeté, glissade, changements). I find Stewart’s use of a large group of dancers well judged since it allows many younger artists to appear alongside more established principals, with some fantastic dancing from young promises Dusty Button (a crazy balance that went for ages), Aonghus Hoole and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson, as well as the elegant Robert Parker, who made the most of his beautiful classical line in a different, surprising context.

Dusty Button and Aaron Robison in BRB's The Centre and its Opposite Photo: Bill Cooper Source: BRB ©

Dusty Button and Aaron Robison in BRB's The Centre and its Opposite Photo: Bill Cooper Source: BRB ©

This was a well-thought triple bill, which showed the diversity of the company and a new work which is sure to become a staple. It also served as a perfect showcase not only for the company’s stars but also for their corps members. With all the pieces making the most of BRB’s ensemble, we have proof that in ballet as in nature, one really needs to gather mass to generate huge amounts of energy!

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