Royal Ballet mixed bill review – Scarlett and Yanowsky deliver a mesmerising melodrama

Royal Opera House, London
A magnificent performance by Zenaida Yanowsky in Liam Scarlett’s Symphonic Dances crowns a programme including Balanchine, Forsythe and Wheeldon

When Zenaida Yanowsky retires at the end of this season, the Royal Ballet will lose one of its most profoundly intelligent and unusual ballerinas. Yanowsky, a peerless dance actor, can create a character through the merest shift of her glance or twist of her wrist; she can wear a costume like no one else. And it’s fitting that the ballet Liam Scarlett has created for her parting gift feels as idiosyncratic and multilayered as Yanowsky herself.

Symphonic Dances is a setting of the late Rachmaninov score – music whose diabolic jazzy energies and imperial grandeur recall the composer’s Russian past. Scarlett’s designers have created a stage of melodramatic contrasts: a crimson and black colour scheme, shadows pierced by shafts of light. The work opens with Yanowksy, a sorceress in a fabulously extravagant dress, swirling her skirts into a crimson maelstrom as she conjures up the dancers and the music around her.

During the ballet, Yanowsky changes persona several times. She’s an imperious dominatrix alongside a quicksilver James Hay; she’s a commander of forces as she moves through the ballet’s chorus; she’s a tender lover in the arms of Reece Clarke, who is momentarily allowed to be her equal. Gender roles are interestingly bent. In one section the men wear skirts, whirling luxuriantly across a vast bare stage as Yanowksy, in a tuxedo, looks on. One of the finest sections of choreography has men and women joined together in acrobatic unisex moves, the intricate geometries of the ensemble recalling the revolutionary years of constructivist art.

Symphonic Dances is a long score, and at moments Scarlett’s invention flags under the strain of filling it. At its best, however, this ballet concentrates into a mesmerising vortex of energies, and it will imprint images of Yanowksy deep in the memory – magnificent and strange.

Natalia Osipova, centre, in Strapless part of the Mixed Programme by The Royal Ballet.
Scandalously good … Natalia Osipova in Strapless. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Narrative is only implied in Scarlett’s work, but Christopher Wheeldon’s Strapless is all about the story, and now that some adjustments have been made since its premiere, it’s been significantly improved. The contrast between the amoral world of the artists and the hypocritical respectability of late-19th-century Paris feels more deeply realised, and Natalia Osipova, as the ambitious socialite felled by scandal, brings greater subtlety and more genuine tragedy to her acting.

The rest of the cast are excellent, too: this entire mixed bill is graced by performances of outstanding quality. William Forsythe’s Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude lives up to its title, with dancing of heartstopping precision and speed. Marianela Nuñez, at its centre, finds moments of unfeasible stillness within its electric storm of activity.

Francesca Hayward and Marcelino SambéŽ in Tarantella part of the Mixed Programme by The Royal Ballet.
Off on holiday … Francesca Hayward and Marcelino SambéŽ in Tarantella. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

No less astonishing are Francesca Hayward and Marcelino Sambé in Tarantella. George Balanchine’s leaping, twirling pastiche of a Neapolitan duet combines brazen virtuosity with a challenging larkiness, and the chemistry between Hayward and Sambé is pitch perfect. The two were ideally matched as the young lovers in Frederick Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardée; in Tarantella, it’s as though we’re seeing Lise and Colas happily married and jaunting off on an Italian holiday.

Contributor

Judith Mackrell

The GuardianTramp

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