"Different Drummer", "Chroma", "Rite of Spring"
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
February 2-23, 2008
by John Percival
copyright 2008 by John Percival
Well, so far this season I've seen "La Bayadère" (two performances) and Jewels" (likewise twice) from the Royal Ballet. That's not a lot from four months' work, October to January, so I must mention that they have also danced "Romeo and Juliet" and "The Nutcracker", neither of them favourites of mine in these productions, "Sylvia" which I hope to catch shortly, and an alleged Ashton double bill with "Les Patineurs" - fine, but accompanied by Anthony Dowell's ballet supposedly based on "Tales of Beatrix Potter" which Ashton made as a film performed largely in the open air. It should have been left that way - on stage it doesn't work so I felt I had to miss that programme.
Now here's a weird show from the company. The centrepiece, heaven knows why, is a revival of Kenneth MacMillan's "Different Drummer", based on Büchner's "Woyzeck". This is a strange, complex story, even in its original form as a play, or when adapted into Alban Berg's opera "Wozzek". Without the words of
the play or the opera, it must be extremely difficult for most spectators to tell who's who in the ballet, and what they are doing, so the ballet makes little sense. It was created in 1984, and failed to please even with two powerful personalities (Wayne Eagling and Stephen Jefferies) playing roles built around them as Woyzeck and the Drum Major who steals his woman. Consequently there were few performances back then, and I don't understand how director Monica Mason imagined it would work any better now.
Some spectators seem to have found Edward Watson moving as the unfortunate hero and Martin Harvey an effective drum major. How could they? To me these looked blandly anonymous: doing their best in hopeless circumstances. As for the dancers unfortunate enough to be cast as the captain, doctor etc., their position was hopeless. Leanne Benjamin gave a sexy, sad account of the ill-treated Marie (a role originally done with strong success by Alessandra Ferri, no less), but this was not enough to save the show. MacMillan's production (and this would have been a further reason for letting it be quietly forgotten) provides daft, unintended giggles in a corps de ballet of soldiers, bayonets fixed, criss-crossing the stage in grands jetés, or the hero drowning in a Victorian metal bath and pulling a wooden lid down over himself.
The only merit was that music director Barry Wordsworth and the orchestra had fine although only marginally relevant scores by Webern and Schoenberg to play; a relief after the screeches and scrunching of Jody Talbot's score for the opening ballet, "Chroma". This is the work which caused Monica Mason (heavily prodded, I suspect, by ROH chief executive Tony Hall, who possibly has odd views on ballet) to appoint its choreographer Wayne McGregor as resident choreographer - a peculiar choice, many of us think. The ballet sets its cast of its cast of four women and six men leaping, twisting and jumping at
each other, these tricky bits punctuated by stolid walking about. I trust that the pushy steps are less difficult and dangerous than they often look. Anyway the cast carry it off bravely and surprisingly well. The crumpled grey singlets and knickers they wear are by no means flattering, but John Pawson has designed a handsome structure with bold spaces for entrances; this is built white but lighting makes it look mostly grey.
Finally, we had Kenneth MacMillan's "Rite of Spring". Tamara Rojo makes the sacrificial victim look amazingly young; I'm not sure whether that's entirely a good idea (it's certainly very different from Mason as a toughy in this version's premiere, or I think anyone in between). Unfortunately MacMillan's massed ensembles now look just abstract patterns; whatever can have happened to the anti-nuclear passion they originally displayed, in keeping with Sidney Nolan's bomb-blast backcloth?. The timing of this weak revival was the more distressing, given to clash with Pina Bausch's overwhelming "Rite" brought to Sadler's Wells, which I'll report on shortly.
It seems to me disgraceful, moreover, all the more so since the run opened on a Saturday matinee, that the Covent Garden management failed to advertise their programme as totally unsuited for children.
Photographs by Johan Persson.