The Royal Ballet’s away-day to Hull, this year’s UK Capital of Culture, was dramatic in its scale: 17 pieces presented over three hours, with an impressive number of the company’s big stars – plus local lads Xander Parish (Mariinsky Ballet principal dancer) and Joseph Caley (English National Ballet principal dancer) – performances from Hull ballet schools and a video relay to about 3,000 shivering souls in the nearby Queens Gardens.
The Royal Ballet director Kevin O’Hare (himself from Hull) had clearly pulled out all the stops to make this opening night for the refurbished New Theatre a memorable occasion – this was a deluxe tasting menu covering the breadth of the Royal Ballet’s work, which confused some punters (“I wasn’t expecting it to be all these little minuets,” one audience member opined in the interval) but certainly gave a lot of bang for your buck.
Parish and Caley were on top form for their homecoming: Parish locked into the warmth and humour of Eric Gaulthier’s Ballet 101, where a demanding voiceover calls out the numbers of 101 poses to put him through an increasingly frantic routine. With the newly promoted principal Yasmine Naghdi, he looked majestic as he powered through the party pieces of the Sylvia pas de deux. Caley, meanwhile, was a dynamo in the jazzy Hamlet solo from David Bintley’s The Shakespeare Suite, which reimagines Hamlet’s interior agonies as grand expansive gesture. And in the closing pas de deux from Le Corsaire he presented a firework display of big moves alongside another newly minted principal, Akane Takada.
The classics and heritage works of the repertoire were well represented. The Act II pas de deux from Swan Lake had Reece Clarke showing off beautiful partnering skills with Fumi Kaneko. Despite overly murky lighting, Natalia Osipova shone as a joyous Juliet to Matthew Ball’s Romeo in Macmillan’s balcony pas de deux. Ashton’s Méditation from Thais, performed by Yuhui Choe and Ryoichi Hirano, was a display of stately, controlled grace. The final pas de deux from Ashton’s The Two Pigeons (complete with birds) was a bit difficult to read when presented in isolation, but allowed us to see the rather sweet husband and wife pairing of Steven McRae and Elizabeth Harrod.
The modern repertoire included Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude – an ambitious choice for the opening number, not least because I’m not sure the RB has quite got a handle on this punishing piece (although James Hay acquitted himself well). Marianela Nuñez and Thiago Soares were as affecting as always in Christopher Wheeldon’s sensuous, melancholic duet After the Rain. But the standout by far was the pas de deux from Wayne McGregor’s Qualia, which showed off the contortionist skills of Ed Watson and Melissa Hamilton in all their glory and looked like luxuriously world-class dance.
Hull’s Skelton Hooper School of Dance and Theatre, which trained O’Hare, Parish, Caley and Harrod, as well as Parish’s sister Demelza (an RB first artist, also performing) got its moment in the spotlight, as did the city’s Northern Academy of Performing Arts, which staged a cheeky piece called Death of the Spoken Word, in which the dancers brandished mobile phones throughout.
There was also a chance for RB dancers to flex their choreographic muscles. McRae’s stirring solo Czardas Tap Dance let him combine his considerable tap and ballet skills to startlingly unusual effect as he whirled round the violinist Robert Gibbs. And Calvin Richardson’s interpretation of The Dying Swan was also arresting, using a broken articulation as his defiant swan fought against its end.
Disappointments? Maybe Francesca Hayward and Alexander Campbell’s Tarantella, which had the energy, certainly, but not the chemistry that Hayward has achieved when she has performed it with Marcelino Sambe. And Heart’s Furies, Andrew McNicol’s piece specially commissioned for this evening, was a rather ponderous pas de trois that didn’t really hit the emotional heights it was aiming for. But the enthusiastic response from the Hull audience buoyed the whole evening.