Wheeldon triple bill review – Osipova glitters as 1880s It-girl

Royal Opera House, London
This Christopher Wheeldon programme includes the premiere of one-act ballet Strapless, whose scandalous heroine Madam X is all attitude and frocks

Christopher Wheeldon is getting very clever at narrative ballets. Together with his designer Bob Crowley, he’s learned to pace, control and clarify his storyline, distilling dramatic essentials with ease. At the very least, his new one-act ballet Strapless is a superb piece of stagecraft. Whether it succeeds as art is less certain.

The ballet is inspired by John Singer Sargent’s once-scandalous portrait Madame X, and by the story of its socialite model Amélie Gautreau, whose wantonly suggestive pose on canvas led to her being ousted from the very society that had courted her. Paris in the 1880s is vividly evoked throughout: in the clash and colour of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s score, in the sets and costumes, and in the small character detail. Kristen McNally is particularly good as the wife of Amélie’s lover Samuel Pozzi, compressing a whole biography of bossy Parisian hauteur into a palette of brittle, fussy steps.

Natalia Osipova
Natalia Osipova as Madame X in Strapless. Photograph: Bill Cooper

Wheeldon’s problem, however, is that he has too few characters with whom to engage our sympathetic imagination. It shouldn’t matter that Amélie – danced with a marvellous air of careless entitlement by Natalia Osipova – is a blatantly amoral heroine. (Manon, for example, is objectively less lovable.) But within the terms of this story, she’s nearly all surface attitude and frocks. Wheeldon choreographs one queasily erotic duet for her and the predatory Pozzi (Federico Bonelli) that hints at the vulnerability behind Amélie’s restless avidity.

Yet it’s only in the final scene, when she is exiled from Paris and stripped of her finery, that the ballet probes beneath her polished skin.

Wheeldon’s most interesting character is Sargent, danced with fine restraint by Edward Watson. At key moments the ballet presses on the nerve of his covert homosexuality, and by far the most absorbing drama comes in the scene where the painter, posing Amélie for her portrait, visualises her as his lover Albert. Here Wheeldon’s choreography reaches into a whispering hinterland of desire and imagination that should perhaps have been the ballet’s real focus.

Strapless is part of an all-Wheeldon programme which rises to exhilarating excellence with its two companion works, both created in America and both welcome additions to the Royal’s repertory. Marianela Nuñez and Thiago Soares find a tender, transparent emotion in After the Rain; and Within the Golden Hour, for all its sludgy redesign, is equally well danced. I look forward to seeing and writing about them both again.

At Royal Opera House, London, until 19 February. Box office: 020-7304 4000.

Contributor

Judith Mackrell

The GuardianTramp

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