Electric Counterpoint, Asphodel Meadows, Carmen; Dystopian Wonders; Breakin' Convention | Dance review

Choreographer Liam Scarlett triumphs in his main-stage Covent Garden debut

Last week, one of the Royal Ballet's youngest choreographers, 24-year-old dancer Liam Scarlett, saw his work performed on the Royal Opera House main stage for the first time. Scarlett has choreographed a number of workshop and small-stage pieces and has been recognised as an up-and-coming talent for some years. Asphodel Meadows takes its name from Greek mythology, and the district of Hades where the spirits of the departed languish in an eternal present. Scarlett's piece, set to Poulenc's double piano concerto, is abstract in nature, with three duetting couples and a 14-strong ensemble, but its tone is valedictory. As in the paintings of Poussin, the sunlit classicism is shadowed by sadness.

A bright opening sees the ensemble in muted flesh tones against columns of austere black. Carried on the brassy ebb tide of Poulenc's music, they frame a rapturous duet for Marianela Nuñez and Rupert Pennefather in which his attentive ardour is counterpointed by her melting femininity. As he lifts her above him, her back arching and her limbs finding delicate purchase on the air like the wings of a newly hatched dragonfly, the pair seem to reach for an irrecoverable past. Tamara Rojo and Bennet Gartside then enact a psychodrama which, one senses, has been played out many times before. There is the smoothly oiled choreography of desire, expressed in linked gazes and sensuously mirrored arabesques, but also the grit of anger, with lunging face-offs abrasively contradicting the Mozartian honey-drip of the music.

The third couple are Laura Morera and Ricardo Cervera. Close friends in real life, Scarlett takes advantage of their affinity to whirl them around the stage like leaves in a gale. At the end, the three women simply depart the stage, leaving their men among the blanched figures of the ensemble. Asphodel Meadows is an abstract piece, but it's an abstraction through which the emotion bleeds freely. Choreographically, there are strong echoes of Kenneth MacMillan. Of Gloria, perhaps, and Requiem. But the mood is more oblique, and less sacramental. To me, its poignant edge and enigmatic classicism bring to mind the work of Antony Tudor.

If the piece is traditional in form, it is also wholly of the present. It's studded with original detail, like the moment when, as they reach for some defining statement of longing, Nuñez places her hand over Pennefather's mouth, initiating a long, reverberant stillness. As an examination of different states of love, this is a work of astonishing maturity, and the skill and confidence with which Scarlett deploys his large cast promise great things. Perhaps most importantly, at this critical moment in the Royal Ballet's history (director Monica Mason's contract ends in 2012, and no successor has yet been named), Asphodel Meadows demonstrates that the way ahead for large-scale classical companies doesn't necessarily entail a brutal rupture from the past.

Scarlett's piece is bracketed by Electric Counterpoint, by Christopher Wheeldon, and Mats Ek's Carmen. Wheeldon is the choreographic craftsman par excellence, and makes his dancers look fabulous. Sarah Lamb, in particular, is almost blindingly gorgeous in her light-reflective tutu. Beneath the surface of the dance, though, there's not a lot going on. Banal observations by the performers echo from the speakers ("We have to do what we have to do") and substantially undercut the action. Ek's Carmen is one of those ballets you either love or loathe. I'm in the latter camp.

"Tiny foetus, ladies and gentlemen, see the tiny foetus," intones the assistant, as we file past an eviscerated female body, its internal organs floridly displayed. The exhibit is part of Marisa Carnesky's Dystopian Wonders, a walk-through performance piece at the Roundhouse. As in earlier works such as Ghost Train (2004), Carnesky references the world of the macabre sideshow as part of an ongoing exploration of her itinerant Jewish heritage. Through freakish waxworks which may or may not be alive, she also provides a dark perspective on body modification, and I couldn't help remembering that Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, used to linger for hours over the ghastlier anatomical specimens in his local wax museum.

An altogether lighter atmosphere at Sadler's Wells for Breakin' Convention 2010, hosted as ever by the genial Jonzi D. On Sunday evening some 2,000 of us formed the longest ever continuous popping wave, and Jonzi promised that the Guinness book of world records would be informed. The fare, as ever, was variable, from the brilliance of France's Pro-Phenomen to the calculatedly naff rusticity of Just 4 Funk, a west country b-boy crew who spin and freeze to the Wurzels' "Combine Harvester" song, and the sternness of ADiaspora Collective, whose proto-feminist rant left an easy-going audience more than a little bemused. "I think I've accessed my inner angry woman," said Jonzi, a touch uneasily.

Contributor

Luke Jennings

The GuardianTramp

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