The Royal Ballet
"Rhapsody," "Tetractys - the Art of Fugue," "Gloria"
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
11 February, 2014
by Judith Cruickshank
copyright 2014 by Judith Cruickshank
Congratulations to Olivia Cowley. It can't have been easy to step in at short notice for the Royal Ballet's newest and most high profile star and in a new work too. But she did it, and very well too.
The new work was Wayne McGregor's “Tetractys – The Art of Fugue” which had its premiere at a matinee on 7 February. Two performances were scheduled for that day but at the first performance Natalia Osipova suffered a concussion and was immediately advised to rest. This resulted in the piece being taken out of that evening's performance and audiences being offered their money back – something almost unheard of in this theatre.
To be fair another cast member, Thiago Soares, had also been struck down with illness but given the size of the company and the fact that McGregor is resident choreographer, rather than a visitor likely to be unfamiliar with the dancers, it is reasonable to wonder if the cancellation should have been preventable.
As the title suggests McGregor uses selections from Bach's Art of Fugue in an rather schmaltzy orchestration by Michael Berkeley. His twelve dancers, seven of whom are listed as principals, engage in disparate duets, pas de trois and solos using the familiar sinuous wrigglings, hyper extensions and over-complex partnering that make up McGregor's choreographic vocabulary. None of the pieces has much relation with the others and nothing of what happens on stage seems to me to bear any discernible relationship to the elegant rigour of Bach's invention. The various groups enter, perform, then exit, and the curtain falls, all too predictably, on the unfinished quadruple fugue and a single dancer on stage.
The extensive programme notes tell us much about McGregor's fascination with mathematics and geometry and how they underlie his choreographic decisions, but it will take a keener eye than mine to discern in what way his theories have been translated into dance. Geometry also forms the basis for Tauba Auerbach's brightly colour neons which provide the stage settings for the piece. Auerbach also designed the costumes; unflattering all-over tights, also in brilliant colours, often using contrasting panels.
For some unexplained reason the dancers change their costumes at various points throughout the piece and this, combined with the gloomy lighting, can make it difficult to discern who is actually on stage at any one time. But the cast was uniformly excellent and there was no indication that Cowley hadn't been part of the ensemble since day one.
The programme opened with Frederick Ashton's “Rhapsody” made for Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1980 and additionally, a tribute to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother on her 80th birthday. It has been claimed that Baryshnikov was disappointed in the ballet, having wanted something “English”, but clever Ashton instead provided a a dance portrait of the Russian superstar. There was all the brilliant virtuosity, wit, tenderness, glamour and authority that made him the outstanding dancer of his day. A hard act to follow.
At “Rhapsody”'s last outing Steven McRae gave a textbook rendering of all the steps, but there's more to the ballet than that. This time I saw the young soloist Valentino Zuchetti. A really nice performance, with moments of real daring. He doesn't have McRea's easy virtuosity, let alone Baryshnikov's dazzling brilliance, but I liked the way that he brought out the varying moods in the ballet and in the Rachmaninoff score. His ballerina was Yuhui Choe, delicate and musical with ravishingly pretty footwork. However, she deserves a more flattering hairstyle and headress.
But the designs by Jessica Curtis do few favours for either men or women, and I am sure that had Ashton wished to set his ballet on a blasted heath, as she seems to think, rather than the classical landscape he designed, he would have done so. Perhaps the original costumes and decors were excessive, but when redesigning it would be courteous at least to provide something in tune with the choreographer's intention.
Kenneth MacMillan's “Gloria” completed the programme. In the central woman's role Sarah Lamb danced nicely, although I find her performance somewhat brittle and lacking in the tenderness which was so apparent in the original. Edward Watson was the principal man and Ryochi Hirano took the other male role. Both danced well and sincerely, but some of the tricky partnering failed to go as smoothly as I've seen in the past – lack of adequate rehearsal time perhaps - and I felt that the whole performance lacked something of the searing contrast between grief and joy that I've seen with previous casts.
But what did show strongly in this programme was the originality and inventiveness of the two older choreographers and their skill in deploying a corps de ballet in a way which gives the dancers something interesting to do and still enhances the principals. Both “Rhapsody” and “Gloria” were premiered in 1980, more than 30 years ago. Will audiences still be watching Tetractys in 2044? I wonder.