The Judas Tree/Song of the Earth review – from torrid violence to delicate majesty

Royal Opera House, London
A five-company tribute to Kenneth MacMillan continues with brave and brilliant stagings of two very different works

This season’s Kenneth MacMillan celebration continues with a double bill that lays out the extremes of the choreographer’s sensibility to brutal and sublime effect. While the evening closes with the majesty and delicacy of his setting of Mahler’s Song of the Earth, it opens to the torridly graphic violence of his most controversial ballet, The Judas Tree.

I’ve watched The Judas Tree a number of times since its 1992 premiere, but have never been able to see it as anything but the most muddled and rebarbative of MacMillan’s work. Even though its storyline is meant to be allegorical (its main characters standing for Christ, Mary Magdalene and Judas) and even though some of the choreography is a brave – even brilliant – foray into the darkest reaches of expressionism, the action feels queasily akin to bad porn.

An unnamed female character appears among a group of construction workers and, without preamble, starts posing and touching herself. She may be mockingly assertive, but in the very odd terms of this ballet she’s pretty much asking for sex. When her “lover”, the Foreman, sees her with his friend, he’s goaded to revenge, killing the friend and encouraging his gang to rape the woman. The guilt that drives the Foreman to hang himself, however, seems directed only towards his friend, rather than towards the woman, who has been flayed, splayed and violated to within an inch of her life.

Danced with valiant conviction … Cuthbertson with Edward Watson in The Judas Tree.
Danced with valiant conviction … Cuthbertson with Edward Watson in The Judas Tree. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

It is a distressing ballet to review, and all the more so because the Royal Ballet dance it with valiant conviction. Lauren Cuthbertson as the Woman, honours the fine detail of the choreography, and manages to convey some dignified sense of purpose in her character’s indignities. Thiago Soares judges the role of the Foreman nicely, allowing his pent-up rage to unravel by subtle degrees, and Edward Watson embodies the inward struggle and the physical logic of MacMillan’s choreography with an almost otherworldly clarity.

One significant aspect of MacMillan’s enduring power is the puzzle of his creative personality, and Song of the Earth looks as if it could so easily have been the work of another man. It is performed this season by English National Ballet and outstanding among a very good cast is guest principal Jeffrey Cirio, dancing the Messenger of Death with a sensitivity that allows him to shade the role’s athleticism with quiet intimations of tragedy. Isaac Hernández, a hugely watchable artist, brings a poignant, puppyish naivety to the doomed young lover.

Quiet intimations of tragedy … Jeffrey Cirio, front, in Song of the Earth.
Quiet intimations of tragedy … Jeffrey Cirio, front, in Song of the Earth. Photograph: Laurent Liotardo

However, his partnership with Erina Takahashi lacks chemistry, and it is only when the latter is dancing on her own, her tiny body fluttering in space, her hands and face stark with anguish, that we feel on our nerve endings the inexorability of death.


Judith Mackrell

The GuardianTramp

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