BWW Reviews: THE ROYAL BALLET Offers an Uneven Mixed Bill by British Choreographers
The second program of the Royal Ballet of England's return to New York City after an 11-year hiatus - and the first appearance of the company at the Koch Theatre in Lincoln Center - was an ambitious but not entirely successful presentation of works by British choreographers. The greatest failing was not onstage but in the Playbill. No notes at all were included to help the audience appreciate the ballets and the music in a historical context. While I applaud the company as well as the presenting Joyce Theater Foundation for eschewing the standard story ballets in favor of repertory fare, I am at a loss to figure out why the dancegoers were not given any information other than titles, credits, and casting. On the afternoon of June 27th when I was there, I overheard many people during pauses and intermissions commenting that a little assistance in comprehending the inspiration and intent of the choreographers would have been appreciated.
Of course in the age of Google, one can research the ballets. However, most people clearly had not done that in advance and should not have been expected to come prepared. Whether or not some audience members bothered to take to the Internet later is anyone's guess, but I doubt it.
That said, given my responsibility as a dance reviewer, I did do my homework. The opening offering, "Infra" by the Royal Ballet's Resident Choreographer Wayne McGregor to a funereal post-modernist score by Max Richter, gets its title from the Latin word for "below" or "beneath". The dancers, all of them superb technicians, are literally under a city as represented by black and white LED images of people walking back and forth on what seems to be a sidewalk. The stage lights are extremely low throughout with the unfortunate result that the eye is drawn repeatedly away from the action and up to the glowing LED screen with its repetitive pedestrian ambling. I'm not a fan of multimedia when viewers are asked to process visual effects that accomplish little except to compete with the choreography.
Not only that, but although McGregor has been hailed as a leading creator of contemporary ballet, he could have used a judicious editor for this piece that ran about twice as long as necessary. My guess is that twenty minutes in, the lack of program notes notwithstanding, a majority of the ticketholders had pretty much surmised the premise - especially those who had figured out what "infra" means in Latin. From then on, with succeeding couples and groups taking the stage while the projected figures kept on walking, nothing new took place.
After an intermission, Akane Takada and Valentino Zucchetti kicked off a series of pieces grouped together as "Divertissements". The pair's joyous and sparkling rendition of Frederick Ashton's 1977 "Voices of Spring" to Johan Strauss II's waltz by the same name was a welcome if slightly trite antidote to the overthinking of McGregor's ballet. This pas de deux, while not one of Ashton's greatest accomplishments, is nonetheless a jubilant testimony to the joy of dance. Yes, the fact that the ballerina enters carried aloft by her partner while she sprinkles the stage with flower petals could be called corny. Still, aside from making me worry about the dancers slipping on the petal-strewn stage, I gave myself over to enjoying the fun. For the record, Ashton made his choreographic debut in 1926 and went on to become the Founding Choreographer of the Royal Ballet. He produced an impressive body of work including such masterpieces as "Marguerite and Armand" and his critically-acclaimed 1959 production of "La Fille Mal Gardée" still performed around the world today.
Three contemporary male solos, all of them imbued with gymnastic tricks, followed one after the other -- a peculiar programming choice in my opinion, but a decision that was clearly intentional since the men took their page bows together on the apron. "Borrowed Light" a 2015 work created by the Royal Ballet's Principal Character Artist Alastair Marriott for Royal Ballet First Artist Marcelino Sambé to Philip Glass's Piano Etude No.2 is a show-off piece for Sambé's virtuosity. My research turned up a note saying that the choreographer's goal was to move beyond that virtuosity to more "sensitive, expressive elements", but that was lost on me.
On the other hand, Calvin Richardson's unique 2013 version of "The Dying Swan" to the familiar Camille Saint-Saëns cello solo was emotionally satisfying beyond the athletics. In particular, the disjointed movements of the dancer's "wings" were poignant and persuasive.
The next work was "Le Beau Gosse", an exuberant solo from Bronislava Nijinska's 1924 "Le Train bleu", revived by the Oakland Ballet in 1989 and now performed by the Royal Ballet. Vadim Muntagirov did a fine job as what can be translated to mean a happy young fellow. He has been a principal dancer with the company since 2011 and a "lead principal" since 2012. I know this because in the absence of any biographies of the dancers on the Playbill, we were given a very long URL leading to the artists' bios on the Internet. The couple seated to my right grumbled about this before the curtain rose as they tried to call up the site on their phones, and I entirely agree. Perhaps printing costs are prohibitive, but people who have paid for seats and arrived in time to study a Playbill should be rewarded with something to read.
The Divertissements continued with the opening pas de deux of the third section of Christopher Wheeldon's "Aerternum" and concluded with Kenneth Macmillan's "Carousel Pas de Deux". Claire Calvert, partnered by Ryochi Hirano in the Wheeldon work to Benjamin Britten's "Requiem aeternam", is an exquisite ballerina with enviably arched feet and long, lean limbs. She moves fluidly and has just the right amount of stage presence. The Macmillan pas de deux was ably danced as well, yet lacked the dark intensity needed to convey the ill-fated attraction between the young Louise and a no-good suitor. This was Macmillan's last work. He had been commissioned to choreograph a full-length revival of "Carousel", but he died of a heart attack in 1992 at the age of 63 before he completed the work.
Several reviewers previously complained that the Gala at the start of this season's Royal Ballet run was too short with only the hour-long "Dream" on the schedule. This program, in contrast, was too long. After one more intermission, we sat back down for Liam Scarlett's "The Age of Anxiety" to the music of Leonard Bernstein. Scarlett, who is The Royal Ballet's first Artist in Residence, was inspired by W.H. Auden's 1848 80-page poem that also inspired Bernstein's 1949 score, a Jerome Robbins ballet in 1950 that has since been lost, and a John Neumier ballet in 2010 that was largely panned. The gist of the dramatic arc is that four main characters, three men and a woman, meet in a bar in New York in the 1940s during World War 11 and end up at the woman's apartment before going their separate ways as dawn breaks. Various interpretations of Auden's poem conclude that the people are on a quest for "self-actualization" in a turbulent and increasingly industrialized world. Maybe so, but Scarlett's characters seemed to me simply to be tipsy and shallow revelers in the City That Never Sleeps. Without knowing the background of the libretto, I would never have guessed at any meaning deeper than what I just described. Even so, as was true throughout the production, the dancing was first rate.
I hope that we don't have to wait more than a decade before the Royal Ballet once again graces our shores. Perhaps next time the company will bring a more representative selection of classics and repertory pieces, and see fit to fill us in with program notes and artists' bios on the playbill.
Photo by Johan Person