Royal Ballet triple bill; 3Abschied – review

Royal Opera House; Sadler's Wells, London

Ballets have cyclical lives. In the early years of the last century, Giselle was considered so old-fashioned that Diaghilev hesitated to present it in Paris; today it is one of the most popular works in the canon. Frederick Ashton's 1968 Enigma Variations, an elegiac group portrait of Edward Elgar and his friends, seems to be coming to the end of its current cycle. On the opening night of the Royal Ballet triple bill, the piece was illuminated by the moving performances of Christopher Saunders as the composer, Bennet Gartside as AJ Jaeger and Nehemiah Kish as Richard Arnold. Around them, however, interpretations seemed depthless and the comedy unfunny, and the bemused reaction of many audience members told its own tale.

In dramatic contrast was Kenneth MacMillan's Gloria (1980), which has never seemed more resonant. Set to music by Poulenc, the ballet is a lament for the dead of the first world war. The dancers, in tattered and decayed costumes, seem to be rising from the grave. Carlos Acosta and Thiago Soares take the lead male roles, and while Acosta dances with defiant passion, it's Soares, his features a deathly grey, who imprints himself on the memory. His duet with Sarah Lamb, who is at once spectral bride and consoling angel, is the statement of an all-consuming grief. Lamb, measuring out the choreography in pensive lines, is luminously fine and there's a sublime moment when she and the two men are lifted aloft, spirits ascendant. Gloria is perhaps ballet's most profound meditation on loss, and as flag-draped coffins continue to return home from Afghanistan, its accusatory tone cuts deep.

The Ashton and the MacMillan followed Liam Scarlett's accomplished Asphodel Meadows, which had its premiere last year. Set to Poulenc's Double Piano Concerto, this is also located in the valley of the shadow of death, although perhaps in a slightly more sunlit region than Gloria. Designer John Macfarlane's palette echoes the postmortal mood, with a black-on-ivory set and costumes of dark brown and clay, and Jennifer Tipton's lighting intermittently throws the dancers into Stygian silhouette.

But all is not unrelievedly sombre. Like the music, Scarlett's choreography cuts between brassy blare and delicate cascade. Constructed around a series of duets, the foreground activity is counterpointed by a subtle ebb and flow of ensemble dancing. In the first duet, Rupert Pennefather and Marianela Nuñez alternately cleave and withdraw. It's as if they are trying to rekindle lost feelings, but there's an interrogative note, too, as if each is unsure of the other's reality. Then Tamara Rojo, meltingly plush, is partnered by Gartside, his initial gravity lightening into romantic tendresse, and Laura Morera and Ricardo Cervera bring the piece to an airy conclusion.

Death pretty much took up residence in the dance schedules last week. 3Abschied is an attempt by choreographers Jérôme Bel and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker – he's French and an enfant terrible/philosopher type, she's Belgian and recently accused Beyoncé of stealing routines from her ballets – to create a danced version of the final movement of Gustav Mahler's The Song of the Earth, in which the composer expresses his acceptance of his forthcoming death. Speaking directly to the audience, the pair describe their initial choreographic stratagems for "Der Abschied" ("The Farewell", as the final movement is called), which include having members of the on-stage orchestra pretend to die as they play.

The solution they arrive at is to have De Keersmaeker sing the words of "Der Abschied", which are scored for a mezzo-soprano voice. As the best-loved recording is by Kathleen Ferrier, and De Keersmaeker is wholly untrained, this takes some chutzpah. But off the waifish 51-year-old dance-maker goes, arms winging abjectly behind her, singing in a thready, barely audible voice, and essaying little dance moves in her clumpy work boots. The result is weirdly entertaining in a manipulative, solipsistic way. De Keersmaeker describes the process as "putting Mahler's work under stress". I'm guessing Mahler's work will survive.

Contributor

Luke Jennings

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Dream and Song of the Earth; The Rodin Project – review
Sadly for Titania, this Oberon seems more interested in Puck, writes Luke Jennings

Luke Jennings

12, Feb, 2012 @12:05 AM

Article image
Royal Ballet triple bill – review

The outstanding Steven McRae evokes Baryshnikov in Frederick Ashton's demanding Rhapsody, writes Luke Jennings

Luke Jennings

20, Mar, 2011 @12:05 AM

Royal Ballet triple bill – review
A high-impact bill of Glen Tetley and MacMillan's Rite of Spring was topped by Ashton's scintillating Scènes de Ballet, writes Judith Mackrell

Judith Mackrell

30, May, 2011 @3:58 PM

Article image
Batsheva Ensemble; Royal Ballet triple bill – review
Batsheva Ensemble work together to brilliant effect, while the Royal Ballet pay tribute to Kenneth MacMillan, writes Luke Jennings

Luke Jennings

25, Nov, 2012 @12:04 AM

Article image
Frederick Ashton Triple Bill review – time’s up for these fairy kings
Music, choreography and dancing were superb at the Royal Ballet’s celebration of Frederick Ashton. But, oh, the costumes…

Luke Jennings

11, Jun, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
The Winter's Tale review – 'a ballet to keep'

For Christopher Wheeldon and for British ballet, everything was hanging on his new full-length work. Happily, for the most part it's a ravishing success, writes Luke Jennings.

Luke Jennings

12, Apr, 2014 @11:05 PM

Article image
Royal Ballet: Triple bill: Chroma/The Human Seasons/The Rite of Spring; Romeo and Juliet – review

The abiding image of Royal Ballet's triple bill is of manhandled women, writes Luke Jennings

Luke Jennings

17, Nov, 2013 @12:05 AM

Article image
Royal Ballet triple bill review – falling in step with Nigel Farage
The Ukip leader is an unlikely feature of Hofesh Shechter’s new work in an unbalanced Royal Ballet triple bill

Luke Jennings

05, Apr, 2015 @6:00 AM

Article image
Royal Ballet triple bill – review

Wheeldon, McGregor and Scarlett offer something old, new and gothically blue, writes Luke Jennings

Luke Jennings

14, Apr, 2012 @11:05 PM

Article image
Royal Ballet triple bill – review

This Royal Ballet triple bill scores two out of three, says Luke Jennings

Luke Jennings

07, Jul, 2012 @11:05 PM