I’m slightly to ashamed to say that Saturday was my first trip to see the Royal Ballet. Now I’m back in the UK, you can be assured it won’t be my last. Not by a long shot.
So what did I chose for my inaugural viewing of one of the world’s greatest dance companies? Well I couldn’t just see one piece, could I? So I managed to fit in one of the greatest works of the 20th Century and one of the newest creations of the 21st Century.
The first piece I saw is probably the finest testament to Balanchine’s genius: his masterpiece “Jewels”. Inspired by the gemstones adorning the window of Van Cleef and Arpels, Balanchine created three very distinct bijou-Ballets inspired by Emeralds, Rubies and Diamonds.
Initiating the piece is the viridescent-beauty of Emeralds, evoking the understated majesty of a French garden party. Selections of Fauré’s “Pélleas and Mélisande” and “Shylock” provide a luscious score for the skilled choreography, but with a slightly darker undertone than you may first expect.
Emeralds provides three very interesting matchings: two Pas de Deuxs and a Pas de Trois playing on three different themes of love (I’ll restrain from calling them ‘plots'; this is, after all, the first “full length plotless ballet”).
The first duet speaks of an unrequited love and brings to my mind lovers searching through a forest to find each other, akin to Midsummer Night’s Dream or suchlike. This was danced superbly by Roberta Marquez and Valeri Hristov supported by some very strong Corps. Indeed, the strength of the Corps throughout all three sections demonstrated the depth of talent at the Royal Ballet, and spoke of great things for the future of British Ballet.
Next was the more tender side of love, with Mara Galeazzi and Bennet Gartside giving a masterclass of vulnerable, thoughtful partnering. The support Gartside gave to Galeazzi was rock strong and let her commit to every single step to such a degree that it was tangible right up in the slips.
Following this was my favourite part of Jewels – the Emeralds Pas de Trois. I am always intrigued by the dynamic of a Pas de Trois and it can be difficult for the ‘outnumbered’ dancer to remain in control. This was not the case in this performance however, with Dawid Trzensimiech showing maturity and control with his partnering of Helen Crawford and Emma Maguire. Not only did he handle these two fine women with immense skill, but also included some first-rate entrechat septs.
I’ve always enjoyed Emeralds as a stand-alone piece, and this performance did nothing but increase this opinion. I particularly enjoy it’s double finale – there is the upbeat ending with the four soloists, the trio of demi-soloists and the full corps in unison. Then “La Mort de Mélisande” strikes up and the otherwise joyful finish to the piece is replaced with a sombre tone. The corps vacate the stage to let the seven dancers finish the piece in reverence to the music.
The intermediate piece of Jewels is the unique Rubies – it’s sharp crimson tableau and even sharper choreography hinting at the seduction of urban Manhattan – accompanied by Stravinsky’s superb Capriccio for piano and orchestra.
If I’m honest, I’ve never been the biggest fan of Rubies. I certainly find it an interesting piece, but it’s jazz-like style is slightly too harsh for me – I find myself ‘analyzing’ rather than ‘enjoying’.
This performance was certainly skilled but left me slightly flat. That is not to say Yuhui Choe, Ricardo Cervera or Laura McCulloch didn’t give a polished performance. In fact, I was highly impressed with Laura McCulloch’s command of the stage, especially during the iconic section where the four corps men grab a limb each and contort her through various positions. This part could easily become an act of submission yet she retained control and dominance throughout.
I don’t know whether I’ll ever love Rubies as much as the other two Jewels but I certainly enjoyed the Royal Ballet’s interpretation. I’m impressed at how ‘Balanchine’ the dancers were – I could have just as easily been sat in the Lincoln Center as in Covent Garden.
The finale, and centerpiece to Jewels is the resplendent Diamonds. Beginning with an opening vista of snowy tutus and sparkling tiaras, Diamonds emulates the grandeur and splendor of a Russian Ball accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s magnificent 3rd Symphony.
I’ve always loved Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3 (in fact, all 9 of Tchaikovsky’s Symphonies are sublime – and his first is probably my favourite classical piece of all time) and Diamonds lives up to its music. The tight Corps provided a perfect backdrop for the gorgeous Marianela Nuñez and regal Thiago Soares.
As the recently married couple (this was their first performance as husband and wife) appeared on stage, the Royal Opera House tingled with anticipation. As their Pas de Deux to the second movement began I could instantly tell we were in for something special. As the dance unfolded, the tenderness and intimacy of their movements transcended the steps and I found myself on the verge of tears. They made the piece undeniable real and emotional, and I know I was not the only person in the Royal Opera House who was moved.
As the corps reappeared the piece shifted to a courtlike dance (with those waltzing brush-steps that seem to be a staple of class centre work) and a seemingly endless supply of couples drifted onto stage. Nuñez and Soares join and manage to make these simple steps even more fascinating and beautful. By the time the music crescendos to a climax the corps are in perfect unison framing the magnificent couple who finish the piece off in style. As soon as the curtain fell I turned to my friend and simply said “that is why I love Ballet”. Diamonds embodies everything I love about the artform, from the touching Pas de Deux to the technical Corps work and the visual sumptuousness . Bravo!
Leaving this opulent extravaganza I rushed down to the basement of the Royal Opera House to see Pita’s creation “The Metamorphosis” in the Linbury Studio Theatre. This is a new production starring Royal Ballet principal Ed Watson in the lead role of Gregor Samsa.
Kafka’s novel famously starts with the line “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect” (or similar translation) and Pita plays on the idea of ‘uneasy dreams’ throughout the piece. As such, you were never sure what is Samsa’s dreams and what is real life – emphasised by the hypnotic and intense music provided by the fantastic Frank Moon.
After ten minutes or so of monotony, with Watson going to work and returning multiple times, there is a subtle shift and we find the alarm clock ringing unanswered. As Watson removes the bed covers he lies on his back with hands and feet aloft, fingers and toes squirming. Rocking off the bed he spews obsidian vomit on the floor, a dark pool against it’s stark white background.
As the piece continues this effusion of treacle became a powerful visual representation of Watson’s transformation, to the point where his entire room is covered in the black-brown bilious fluid. This comes after a dream sequence that was, at once, powerful, uncomfortable and memorable. With the set, music and dancing all accompanying Samsa’s descent into madness, or rather his transformation, you get drawn further and further into the work.
Watson’s effect on his various family members is distinct and fantastically portrayed. His hypochondriac mother (Nina Goldman) hovers between sympathy and revulsion whilst his overly proud father (Anton Skrzypiciel) barely hides his disgust and shame. The most interesting relationship is between Watson and his naïve younger sister (played by the excellent Royal Ballet School student Laura Day). What starts in sympathy slowly descends to terror, and the final blow for Samsa is the rejection and abhorrence he receives from Greta. I was highly impressed with Day, who surely has a great career ahead of her.
At the end of the day though, this piece is all about the character of Gregor Samsa, and in this Watson delivers surely one of the performances of the season. His vacant proletarian gaze is perfect for the monotony of Samsa’s pre-transformtion life. Afterwards, his freakily prehensile toes are used to explore his surroundings, much in the way a reptile ‘tastes’ the air with his tongue. All of this is attached to Watson’s impeccable technique and gorgeous lines. When he takes a penchée his legs seem to extend forever, and his clambering up the walls is done with gracefulness and lightness to his movements, as if he has indeed grown wings. When he finally escapes his room you cannot help but feel sorrow for this misunderstood being, and Watson’s connection with the audience is the reason for this.
The whole piece is smart, daring, intriguing and most definitely unique. At times verging on a hallucinogenic experience you cannot help but feel fully immersed (helped by the traverse seating in the Linbury). I have no doubt that The Metamorphosis will sweep the awards ceremonies this year and you really do owe yourself a trip to the Linbury to see it live. However, I was happy to see Bennet Gartside (fresh from his performance in Emeralds) filming from the corner of the stage and he assured me on Twitter he got some good footage. So fingers crossed there is a general release of this piece sometime soon! Until then, I’ve got the Bolshoi livecast of Esmerelda next weekend – I’m hoping there won’t be any black vomit there!
Until next time, keep dancing!