It’s always good to get back to mixed programmes after one of the Royal Ballet’s long runs of blockbusters, and better still when the first item on the bill is Balanchine’s timeless Serenade.
It’s fifty years ago last week since the company first tackled this lovely ballet, and though I don’t expect a single one of their performances since then would have passed muster with the Balanchine sticklers in New York, they have given and continue to give huge pleasure to London audiences. Opening night saw Marianela Nunez, Lauren Cuthbertson and Melissa Hamilton as the three soloists, with Matthew Golding and Ryoichi Hirano in support: Nunez was beautiful if a little subdued, Hamilton looked far more in control and at ease than she does in classical roles, and Cuthbertson was magnificent. She’s always been good in this role (the ‘Russian girl’) but this time she looked so sparky, so happy, so brave, as if she could take on the whole world and win. She’s having a wonderful season. I thought the last scene, with Hirano and the three women, was very fine, but the piece as a whole felt slightly lacking in drive: the best performances I’ve seen from European companies – the Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Royal Danish Ballet – seemed to have a stronger impulse running through them, and I wonder if perhaps it was because they took the music just a little faster.
Liam Scarlett’s take on the Jack the Ripper murders, Sweet Violets, had a mixed reception when it was new, two years ago, and I remember being impressed by two or three of its many episodes but underwhelmed by the overall effect. This time round I found it much more convincing, even though some of the roles were comparatively underplayed. I think it’s an immensely bold work for a young and still inexperienced choreographer, with so much crowded in and so little explicitly explained. Apparently unrelated scenes emerge as if from a London fog. – it would make a wonderful film – and the condensed format is very powerful, helped by John Macfarlane’s darkly atmospheric setting and Scarlett’s ought-to-be-wrong but actually very clever use of Rachmaninov’s Piano Trio. (And it isn’t actually any more obscure and difficult than many television dramas – if you can decode Sherlock you surely can’t have a problem here.)
Of course it’s a very dark subject – but the outstanding memories for me are not of violence but of the compassion Scarlett shows towards his female characters, helped by superb performances from the two leading women, Cuthbertson and Laura Morera. Morera’s scene in the madhouse was as touching as anything I’ve seen on this stage all season, and Cuthbertson was equally moving both in her staunch friendship and in her own despair.
The programme closed with Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV, wildly popular but for me an arid and tedious piece made bearable only by the ingenuity with which he handles the corps de ballet.