Royal Ballet / Ludovic Ondiviela
London, Linbury Studio Theatre
30 October 2014
Ludovic Ondiviela and his team of collaborators for Cassandra, his 70-minute work about mental illness, have explained their intentions very clearly in programme notes, interviews and blogs. The title, referring to the legendary Greek prophetess of doom, has been coined by psychiatrists as a term for psychosis – the Cassandra syndrome or complex. The affected person has visions and beliefs that others take for delusions. Ondiviela and his composer Ana Silvera are far from unusual in their view that what is labelled ‘madness’ is not an aberration but an altered state that society has problems in accepting.
They set out to show through dance and music the experience of a modern-day Cassandra (or Giselle) and the effect her mental condition has on her family and colleagues. To give her a context, she appears to work in a call-centre concerned with market trading, until she’s hospitalised. So Ondiviela has to find a way of revealing how and why she comes to be sectioned and diagnosed as psychotic.
Olivia Cowley, replacing injured Lauren Cuthbertson, is instantly appealing as vulnerable Cassandra. Coltishly slender and supple, with an expressively wistful face, she puts up no barriers between herself and the audience. She has a boyfriend, Thomas Whitehead, who appears to love her. Maybe he’s a bit too assertive in their first pas de deux, but she’s playful and perky as they take time out from the mechanical routines of the call centre. She doesn’t interact much with any of the others, who don’t seem unduly stressed by their trading activities (lots of red telephones).
We have been alerted from the start by crackling video projections and distorted sounds that all will not be well. But there’s no obvious reason why Cassandra begins to drift away from ‘reality’ in an isolated solo and a second duet with her lover. Silvera appears as Ancient Cassandra, costumed like a 1940s Hollywood priestess, singing unintelligibly. She’s prophesying, presumably. While the Cowley/Whitehead duet continues, another couple are seen in silhouette behind a screen: a mirror image, a premonition, Cassandra’s parents? Still in the dark, I was grasping for clues.
The next scene takes place in a bright kitchen, with Mara Galeazzi as Cassandra’s mother and Paul Kay as her brother. They dance happily to the radio playing Charles Trenet singing La Mer, until static indicates that Cowley’s neural wiring has gone wrong. Mother rings for help, while scene changes shift between call-centre business going on as usual, and hospital screens closing in on Cassandra. Is this really an indictment of society’s indifference to mental distress?
Recorded voices diagnose Cassandra as psychotic. Cowley drifts above the screens in Whitehead’s arms, transported by drugs or her own hallucinations, accompanied by plangent piano notes. Galeazzi worries down below, wringing her hands and reaching out for help. Hers is a most distressing performance, as Cassandra’s mother lurches from anxiety to optimism to despair. Kay is very touching as the brother, devastated by his inability to help his sister. The strength of the production lies in these supporting roles: the family’s predicament is all too believable, graphically depicted.
What Ondiviela fails to reveal is what is happening to Cassandra’s internal self. He hints at her confusion by having her sit on the edge of her hospital bed like MacMillan’s Juliet or Anastasia, while shadows move behind screens. But his choreography for her isn’t revealing of inner turmoil. Cowley’s tendril arms become more angular, held in front of her like a praying mantis, one leg extended high at the side, or both legs splayed in a deep plié. She’s always in an open, effacé position, rarely twisted or contorted. Although Ondiviela is avoiding ballet clichés of agony, his Cassandra is never realistically ugly, terrorised, out of control.
Rather, she’s a poignant Giselle, a once-happy girl whose mind is broken and who sees elusive visions. In a final, lovely pas de deux with her lover (who hasn’t betrayed her), she keeps slipping from his arms, recalling their previous duets but returning to her spirit world. Ancient Cassandra’s curse was that she knew she was right in her prophetic warnings, but nobody would believe her. Yet Ondiviela’s Cassandra has been surrounded by compassion and concern, hasn’t been stigmatised or misused. She is lost to her family and lover, but how should we react to her plight? The impulse and research leading up to the production have become blurred in its realisation: it doesn’t come across as intensely as the creative team intended.
The execution, however, has been admirable. Silvera’s music, a combination of recorded and live musicians, underlines each phase of Cassandra’s experience, often more telling than the action it describes. Becs Andrews’s set is versatile, succinct, easily handed by the cast. Kate Church’s filmed effects are sympathetic without imposing themselves. Ondiviela has established himself as a choreographer on a bigger scale than before, though still in need of an outside eye as he goes freelance. And he has found a future star in Olivia Cowley.