Royal Ballet review – sublime surprises from Cunningham, Tanowitz and Ashton

Royal Opera House, London
Pam Tanowitz’s gloriously rich Everyone Keeps Me is performed alongside bracing and serene revivals from Merce Cunningham and Frederick Ashton

It’s a tough call to share a bill with Merce Cunningham and Frederick Ashton, two towering transatlantic granddaddies of 20th-century dance-making. But New York-based choreographer Pam Tanowitz rises to the occasion with a beguiling new work to round off the Royal Ballet’s Cunningham centenary celebration.

Cunningham famously used chance – dice rolling, coin flipping – as a choreographic technique. Fittingly, a sense of glorious unpredictability shines through Tanowitz’s Everyone Keeps Me. With the emotive melodic swell of Ted Hearne’s score undermined by the sudden screech and grind of the musicians’ bows against their strings, Tanowitz endows her classically based choreography with rich, unexpected detail and puzzling changes of tack. Dartingly fleet phrases become abandoned-marionette flops, while legs rear up with a dressage-like flourish amid the subdued ensemble.

Dressed in an array of gorgeous hues, from blush pink to muted turquoise, the nine dancers converge into a softly snaking chain and splinter apart into solos and duets shaded by subtle shifts in energy: sometimes they’re standoffish, sometimes almost companionate (as when Anna Rose O’Sullivan capers with sparrow-light precision under the curving frame of James Hay’s arm), nearly always enigmatic. The inscrutability isn’t off-puttingly po-faced but leavened by moments of sly wit, an invitation to smile as well as wonder.

Francesca Hayward, Matthew Ball and Mayara Magri in Cross Currents by Merce Cunningham.
Pared-down classical lines … Francesca Hayward, Matthew Ball and Mayara Magri in Cross Currents by Merce Cunningham. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The same can be said of Cunningham’s Cross Currents, from 1964, which sees its three dancers (Francesca Hayward, Mayara Magri and Matthew Ball) hop backwards into the wings with business-like speed and no regard for the niceties of a denouement.

In unhooking movement from music, Cunningham’s work poses a bracing challenge for the audience, and provides dauntingly exposed passages for the dancers, who manage well here. As they balance and turn with cool composure and pared-down classical lines, Conlon Nancarrow’s piano score provides a densely jazzy rhythmic foil, evoking the frenetic scrabble of a kitten let loose on a keyboard.

Nicol Edmonds, Melissa Hamilton and Reece Clarke in Monotones ll by Frederick Ashton from Merce Cunningham Centennial @ Linbury, ROH. (Opening 10-10-19)
Quiet majesty, with Satie … Nicol Edmonds, Melissa Hamilton and Reece Clarke in Monotones ll by Frederick Ashton. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Elsewhere, the serenely singing lines of Ashton’s Cunningham-inspired Monotones II – set to Erik Satie’s Trois Gymnopédies – are rendered with quiet majesty by Melissa Hamilton, confidently flanked by Reece Clarke and Nicol Edmonds. Apart from the silver-spangled sheath-hats, it’s sublime.


Anna Winter

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Royal Ballet: Ashton mixed programme review – two sides of a sublime choreographer
Vadim Muntagirov and Lauren Cuthbertson dance a sparky revival of The Two Pigeons, while Monotones expands magically beyond ballet’s minimal means

Judith Mackrell

19, Nov, 2015 @2:18 PM

Article image
The Royal Ballet: Ashton mixed bill review – a five-star masterclass
Elegance and intelligence abound in this evening devoted to the genius of the choreographer Frederick Ashton, says Judith Mackrell

Judith Mackrell

20, Oct, 2014 @12:24 PM

Article image
Royal Ballet Mixed Bill - review

From the moment of Alina Cojocaru's first entrance – steps skimming fast and delicately as moths' wings – she gives a masterclass in dancing as metaphor, writes Judith Mackrell

Judith Mackrell

17, Mar, 2011 @5:51 PM

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

Article image
Royal Ballet: Beauty Mixed Programme review – rose petals and a lust for water
A wild variety of pas de deux fuel this mixed bill, from kitschy Strauss to a duet with a table, plus part of Sleeping Beauty

Lyndsey Winship

27, Jun, 2021 @4:29 PM

Royal Ballet: Ashton Mixed Bill – review

The enduring marvel remains Ashton's genius for translating emotion into pure physical states, writes Judith Mackrell

Judith Mackrell

13, Feb, 2013 @5:50 PM

Article image
Ashton at the Royal Ballet review – miraculous moves and romantic rapture
The company’s founder choreographer Frederick Ashton is celebrated in a sensational triple bill that captures his spirit and style

Judith Mackrell

06, Jun, 2017 @12:26 PM

Article image
Royal Ballet announces new director
Former dancer Kevin O'Hare plans to bring together the 'most talented artists of the 21st century'

Mark Brown, arts correspondent

14, Jun, 2011 @4:19 PM

Article image
Royal Ballet mixed bill review – a winning world premiere from Wayne McGregor
McGregor’s all-male Obsidian Tear, one of his strongest works to date, contrasts with brutal Kenneth MacMillan, plus superbly performed Christopher Wheeldon

Judith Mackrell

29, May, 2016 @1:24 PM

Article image
Sylvia review – lustful hunters and weapons-grade dancing
Marianela Nuñez and Natalia Osipova take turns playing one of classical dance’s most unconventional heroines, in the Royal Ballet’s opulent Arcadian fantasy

Judith Mackrell

01, Dec, 2017 @3:20 PM