"Chroma," "A Month in the Country," "DGV: Danse a Grand Vitesse"
The Royal Ballet
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
June 23, 2009
by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright 2009 by Alexandra Tomalonis
The Royal Ballet is becoming an almost-frequent visitor again (another gift of Michael Kaiser's direction), but even though we're seeing them once every two years or so, it's hard to take the company's measure on the basis of two programs danced in a single week. The company opened this time with a curious triple bill, two nearly-new pieces and one masterpiece that should be a company treasure. The two new works, to rather similar highly percussive scores, made Ashton's "A Month in the Country" seem an uneasy companion rather than a ballet that should show the company at its best, and made me wonder who is the Royal Ballet today?
I kept thinking of identity, literally, during Wayne McGregor's "Chroma" (2006), set to an orchestration of music by Joby Talbot. From what I'd read when the work received its premiere, I'd expected a rock score, but it's rock music orchestrated, resulting in percussive music that provides a contemporary atmosphere, but little else. The sets (John Pawson) and lighting (Lucy Carter) are stunning: boxes that the dancers, sometimes back lit, use as entrances and frames. The movement, especially in the backlit sections, reminded me of cave paintings: the dancers were completely off-center, buttocks thrust back, limbs quirkily askew. The movement was neither robotic nor sinuous (both of which the static positions suggested) and it was not uninteresting. McGregor knows how to move people, and if this had been the Wayne McGregor Dance Company, I would have been intrigued, but my primary interest in attending ballet performances is not to exclaim, "Wow! This is absolutely antithetical to their training! Look how HARD it is! Gee, I hope they don't get injured!" This isn't merely of academic interest. There's been an anti-ballet bias in the baller world for nearly 40 years now, and "Chroma" got several predictable "Finally, the Royal is pushing the boundaries and going beyond ballet" type of reviews. And so "Chroma" made me think not so much of the body as "behav[ing] as a frequency of color in freedom from white: CHROMA" as the extremely pretentious program notes tell us, but simply, how does the company see itself today and how does it see its future?
The second identity question "Chroma" raises regards the dancers. The cast includes some of the Royal's finest -- Fderico Bonelli, Mara Galeazzi, Sarah Lamb, Steven McRae, Laura Morera, Ludovic Ondiveda, Tamraa Rojo, Eric Underwood, Jonathan Watkins and Edward Watson -- each of whom would be individual in a classical solo, but I often could not tell who I was watching. I've read, and been told by those who saw the work when it was new, that the dancers were individualized, especially Alina Cojacaru, but she did not dance it here, and I did not see such individualization. This is one of the hallmarks of much contemporary modern dance choreography. The choreographer has such a specific vision that the dancers' job is to make it visible without letting personal accents get in the way. One exception was Underwood, whose arresting presence dominated every segment in which he danced, and whose dancing was so subtle that the constant butt thrusts called for by the choreography were like the flexing of a muscle rather than the shaking of a building.
"A Month in the Country" is one of Ashton's last works and the company has brought it to Washington frequently since its first season in 1976. It looked much better than it did on its last visit, where it had become the Sylvie Guillem Show, or even in the days when an overwrought Marguerite Porter danced the ballerina role, rather than Katia, the adorable strawberry temptress. But it didn't look quite like itself, and the dancing (and casting) raised more identity questions. Why has the ballerina role become a tall girl part? Lynn Seymour, who created it, was closer to five feet tall than six, and her lines are in the choreography. Zenaida Yanowsky's dancing was beautifully soft, but her height made the pas de deux seem awkward at times, and it was difficult to imagine that she would stay in a marriage and house that bored her so. As Beliaev, the young tutor who wreaks havoc on the unsuspecting family, Rupert Pennefather handled the pas de deux well, but had trouble with the solos, and did not create a clear character. Watching him, I learned more about Anthony Dowell (who created the role) than I had watching Dowell. How did Dowell show, from his entrance, that he unwittingly brought danger? (Opening night, the audience laughed heartily at the loud chord that accompanies Beliaev's entrance.) How did he establish that he was Kolia's tutor, because that wasn't clear, and Paul Kay's "Aw, shucks!" gesture when Beliaev left didn't help.
There were so many little things that seemed off to me, from the way Vera (Bethany Keating) threw herself on the chaise lounge as Manon throws herself on her bed, sprawling, legs spread rather than feet together, which should matter in an Ashton work, to the way the scene in which Yslaev (Christopher Saunders) loses his keys. It looked as though the keys were thrown on the floor rather than accidentally dropped, and the dancers' timing, instead of showing the languid atmosphere of the house (so little goes on that finding the keys becomes the day's major adventure), they run and turn obediently to, it seems, the music's counts.
Yanowsky's beautifully phrased dancing saved the ballet for me, and Gary Avis's Rakitin (the enigmatic friend of the house) was very much in the right key, but all in all, the dancers seemed to understand the ballet step by step, but not the whole picture. Many small adjustments, and different casting, would easily make the ballet look more like itself.
It was left to Christopher Wheeldon's "DGV: Danse a Grand Vitesse," like "Chroma," also made in 2006, to show, if not quite a company identity, at least a work that challenged the dancers' bodies, technique and imaginations, and that fit in with the company's heritage. "DGV" plays with ballet's vocabulary, but respects it as an evolving language. It's not unusual to see ballets once described as "high energy" that send the dancers moving at top speed, but it is unusual to see one with such strong architecture and purpose. I thought more of planes than trains, since Jean-Marc Puissant's design includes a sculpture that could be part of a plane's fuselage. The dancers crawl out from it, but I didn't think of them as survivors, more as pioneers. The choreography includes images that suggest propellers, and the women are often lifted in flight. The music is by Michael Nyman, and it sounds like movie music. It stays in the background and provides a floor for the dancing rather than shaping it.
The work's center is four contrasting pas de deux (Cindy Jourdain, substituting for Lauren Cutherbertson, with Eric Underwood; Leanne Benjamin and Edward Watson; Marianela Nunez and Gary Avis; and Mara Galeazzi with Federico Bonelli) and here the dancing IS individualized. The ensemble movements are very much part of the ballet, not rests or distractions, and the ending, in which each of the four couples dances different movements, yet all are complimentary, each completing the whole picture, is masterful. Wheeldon remains one of ballet's great hopes. He may not have yet completely developed his own voice -- he does not yet look like himself. But he does not look like anyone else, either.
One note: Before the performance, the company's director, Dame Monica Mason, gave a very brief and extremely gracious greeting, dedicating the evening's performance to the victims of the Metro crash that had taken place the day before, that was obviously much appreciated by the audience. They greeted her with warm applause before she began speaking; she was a favorite dancer here, and the her company is one of our favorites, as well.
Eric Underwood in Chroma – photo Johan Persson
Marianela Nunez and Federico Bonelli in DGV - photo by Johan Perrson