This much-anticipated triple bill with two world premieres featured works by British choreographers closely associated with the Royal Ballet: all three – Christopher Wheeldon, Wayne McGregor and the youngest, Liam Scarlett – have had commissions from other companies, so this promised to be a programme of international interest. Alas, Wheeldon’s Polyphonia, created for New York City Ballet in 2001, outshone both new works and his later commissions from the Royal Ballet.
In Polyphonia the eight dancers treat Ligeti’s piano studies and each other with courtesy and wit. The women appear weightless, skimming the stage like insects skittering on water, or floating in their partner’s arms. Leanne Benjamin is sensational in her two pas de deux with Nehemiah Kish, her tiny body infinitely flexible without ever seeming contorted. Beatrix Stix-Brunell drifts beatifically on pointe in her solo, sustaining the most elegant battements lents. Alexander Campbell and Dawid Trzensimiech vie for the fastest footwork and the quirkiest girls, Yuhui Choe and Itziar Mendizabal. Wheeldon can draw on an extensive classical ballet vocabulary while inventing his own variations; his dancers remain tender human beings even while describing improbable circles over and under their partner’s body – as Benjamin does with Kish.
In Carbon Life, Wayne McGregor’s cast resemble Cirque du Soleil acrobats or dance students imitating Michael Clark videos from the 1980s. For a change, there is no programme note alluding to a creative concept. Instead, rock and pop musicians form an eclectic onstage group, singing of love. A massed band of unisex dancers in minimal outfits struts in simple tendus while Alison Mosshart asks ‘Is anyone out there?’ So far, so banal. Bits and pieces of costume (designed by Gareth Pugh) are added to nudist suits throughout the show: black trunks, tutus, shin guards, thigh-high boots, pointy headgear. A carbonizing process, presumably.
If you watched the ‘Royal Ballet Live’ streaming online, you would have seen McGregor rehearsing duets in detail, revealing that they were all about sexual attraction, even obsession. Seen from a distance, however, the couplings look much like McGregor’s familiar writhings, ripplings, splayings and manhandlings, the only difference being that they’re sealed with kisses. Since there’s no coded structure to his choreography, unlike Wheeldon’s, it’s hard to get a grip on whatever he’s trying to convey. Are we being shown gradations of love? Dancers and their relationships to each other and the songs are unrecognisable. The music, to my ears, is unmemorable. The overall effect is as modishly bland as a trade show to pop music – one designed to attract an inexperienced audience.
Sweet Violets is Scarlett’s sincere attempt at a narrative ballet, with its attendant problems. He faced the same difficulties Kenneth MacMillan confronted in Mayerling: a gallery of ‘historical’ named characters, some with mental or physical conditions ballet can’t specify; information imparted on sheets of paper spectators can’t read; complexities of plot that need to be mugged up in advance. The only way round the requirement for audience members to pay attention to programme notes is to reduce a story to such basic elements, as Boris Eifman does in his ballet-dramas, that all subleties are abandoned. Personally, I’d rather make an effort than be bludgeoned into submission.
I hope Sweet Violets isn’t written off as too muddled to revive in future seasons. It deserves to be seen several times, with foreknowledge of its morbid story. Scarlett is trying to suggest the disturbed mind of an artist, Walter Sickert, whose paintings reveal his fascination with violence and squalor. Sickert frequented the same sort of seedy milieux as Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas but his London lacks the dubious glamour of Paris. Instead of the Moulin Rouge or the Paris Opera, Sickert lurked backstage at the Old Bedford Music Hall on Camden High Street. The claustrophobia of his north London settings has been captured in John Macfarlane’s sets, in which Sickert’s studio is only slightly less slummy than his subjects’ bedrooms.
Here’s what you need to know. Sickert apparently had a deal with royalty, in which he was supposed to look after Prince Eddy, Queen Victoria’s libertine grandson. The arrangement went wrong, in that Eddy fell for a working girl, Annie Crook, one of Sickert’s models; he may have married her in secret and had an illegitimate child. Annie had to be removed as a threat to the establishment, as did her accomplice, Mary-Jane Kelly. Sickert had an artist friend, Robert Wood, who was suspected of murdering a prostitute in Camden Town. He appears in one of the paintings, seated on a bed next to a naked woman. Sickert was obsessed with the Jack Ripper murders and believed he knew the identity of the notorious killer. The American crime writer Patricia Cornwell has identified Sickert as the Ripper, without forensic proof.
In Scarlett’s account, Johan Kobborg is the first-cast Sickert, combining creepiness with Victorian respectability. He dismisses Alina Cojocaru as his assistant, Mary-Jane Kelly, for informing on Eddy’s affair with Annie Crook (Laura Morera). Then he suffers remorse on discovering she’s reduced to selling herself outside the music hall. Even worse, she obliges him to witness Annie’s downfall, mad or syphilitic in an asylum. Sickert resorts to extreme measures to rid himself of his guilt. Kobborg, a fine actor, manages to be repressed and psychotic, haunted by his sinister alter-ego, Jack – Steven McRae, a mad-eyed shadow of death.
Meanwhile, Thiago Soares as Robert Wood has murdered Leanne Cope, who reappears to him as a reproachful ghost. While the downtrodden low-life girls are too similarly costumed in grey, Tamara Rojo, Sickert’s top model, undresses provocatively in red. She poses with Soares, which cannot bode well for her. A dancing girl in a blood-red tutu (Emma Maguire) must be doomed, as are her companions, touched by slimy Jack. Their variety act ballet, after which they’re joined by stage-door johnnies, offers an all-too-brief respite from gloom and disaster. Lit by David Finn, the ballet girls in their colour-saturated tutus closely resemble Degas’ paintings and pastels, as his eyesight faded.
Scarlett has had to find ways of working with and against his choice of music: Rachmaninoff’s Trio élégiaque, written in grief at Tchaikovsky’s death. Sometimes music and action coincide brilliantly, as in the angry opening duet, with Wood washing his hands to tinkling notes after the first murder; or dying Annie rapturously fantasising the return of Eddy. Backstage at the music hall, however, the revelry is constrained by Rachmaninoff’s changes of mood and tempi. The choreography throughout is musically and dramatically expressive, never tortuous in spite of its subject matter.
There are too many changes of scenery and too many characters as Scarlett attempts to evoke Sickert’s canvases and combine high and low intrigue, real or imagined. (Christopher Saunders puts in enigmatic appearances as the Victorian Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, while phantom McCrae skulks conspicuously in corners).The first-night audience seemed baffled, to judge from nervous clapping during scene changes. Scarlett rallied more generous applause when he took confident bows in front of his cast, hand modestly on heart. And what a starry cast of principals and soloists, fully involved in their characters’ horrid fates. Sweet Violets, though over-ambitious, is the best stab at a psychologically complex narrative ballet the company has commissioned for years.