Royal Ballet: Bernstein Centenary review – McGregor and Wheeldon at the top of their game

Royal Opera House, London
A revelatory tribute to Leonard Bernstein features designs by Erdem and a set by Edmund de Waal, with the music of Chichester Psalms and Serenade

There’s a kinetic kick and theatrical flair to Leonard Bernstein’s dance scores that have, rightly, made them beloved by choreographers. Yet the composer suspected that every piece he wrote was “theatre music in some way”, and one of the revelations of the Royal Ballet’s all–Bernstein programme is just how deep the dance impulse lay in the concert scores, as well as in the familiar full-throttled works such as West Side Story and Fancy Free.

The first revelation of the evening is Yugen, Wayne McGregor’s setting of the earthy, ethereal masterpiece Chichester Psalms. Composed in 1965, the score is a startlingly eclectic fusion of Hebrew text, Christian choral tradition and Broadway jazz. While it might seem an unlikely choice for so secular and scientific a choreographer as McGregor, the result is one of the most beautifully achieved dances of his career.

There’s a pure drama of contrasts in the opening moments that remind me of McGregor’s Chroma. Eleven dancers stand silent and silhouetted within the luminous spaces of Edmund de Waal’s set; and the world seems to hold its breath before the first notes of the music blast through it. McGregor’s choreography is expertly musical, seeking out the lyricism of Bernstein’s melodies in long, floating lines, and riding its energies in such cleverly massed configurations that his modest ensemble can look like a tribe.

As the work unfolds we identify Calvin Richardson as its central figure – a wanderer in exile, seeking faith and consolation – with Federico Bonelli and Sarah Lamb as his supporting companions. McGregor expertly conveys emotions as much through the movement’s dynamics as its figurative imagery: the eerie beauty of the lone treble chorister singing Psalm 23 is made touchingly human by the questioning, quivering tension in Richardson’s own solo. When he’s joined by Lamb and Bonelli for Psalm 131 (“Surely I have calmed and quieted myself”), it’s the space between the dancers that speaks as eloquently as their gently interlacing moves.

Corybantic Games
Magisterial … Corybantic Games. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

There’s a cleverly sustained line of narrative, too, in Corybantic Games, Christopher Wheeldon’s setting of Serenade. But rather than referencing the text that inspired Bernstein’s music – Plato’s Symposium on Love – Wheeldon conjures a more generic classical world of athletes, acolytes and lovers, presided over by Tierney Heap as an Amazonian goddess.

Dressed by fashion designer Erdem in an elegant if slightly fussy fusion of 1950s corsetry and Greek drapery, and framed by the abstract temple architecture of Jean-Marc Puissant’s set, the cast take on the colours and qualities of the music as it moves from the burnished, magisterial first movement to the joyous hurtling virtuosity of Marcelino Sambé and Mayara Magri’s duet to the exquisite drowse of the fourth movement, lit by Peter Mumford to the blue of a Mediterranean twilight. Finally, in a Dionysiac finale, a regally implacable Heap whips the entire cast through a cascade of showstopping, kaleidoscopic configuration.

Like McGregor, Wheeldon is working at the top of his game, and it’s tough for Liam Scarlett that his own contribution, a revival of his 2014 work The Age of Anxiety, comes sandwiched between the two of them. It is beautifully designed and danced but apart from the role of Quant, delicately and touching performed by Bennet Gartside, it feels more like pastiche than poetry.

  • In rep at the Royal Opera House, London, until 9 April. Box office: 020-7304 4000.

Contributor

Judith Mackrell

The GuardianTramp

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