The Royal Ballet’s Obsidian Tear/ Marguerite and Armand/ Elite Syncopations at the Royal Opera House
Past and present come together in The Royal Ballet’s current triple bill, featuring the moving minimalism of Wayne McGregor, a traditional love tryst by Frederick Ashton and the riotous ragtime highs of Kenneth MacMillan.
In their final mixed programme of the season, The Royal Ballet is presenting three pieces by choreographers whose work showcases defining eras in the company’s history: Obsidian Tear by Wayne McGregor, resident choreographer since 2006; Marguerite and Armand (1963), by Founder Choreographer Frederick Ashton; and Elite Syncopations (1974) from the Royal Ballet’s Principal Choreographer from 1977-1992, Kenneth MacMillan. Representative of the past and present, it was an evening of professionalism and technical proficiency, a nice introduction to The Royal Ballet’s repertoire and current company of dancers. The three pieces are tonally and technically vastly different, and their relation is tenuous, lending a somewhat haphazard feel to the evening beyond a survey of ballet and dance history. McGregor’s masculine modernism is followed by the most ‘classical’ of the three pieces, based on La Dame aux camélias and originally choreographed for ballet legends Margo Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, with a riotous ragtime finale as the entire company performs MacMillan’s unusually upbeat and comedic Elite Syncopations.
McGregor’s Obsidian Tear, with its spare set, minimal fashion and all-male cast is a striking start – especially the opening pas de deux performed by Benjamin Ella and Joseph Sissens to Vasko Vassilev’s gorgeous violin solo. The piece is McGregor’s ‘choreographic response’ to Esa-Pekka Salonen’s work, including Nyx, a composition inspired by the Greek goddess who represents Night, and the violin composition, Lachen verlant. The first ten minutes are marked by the sinuousness of the dancers’ bodies and the violinist’s work, a tautness that reminded me of a Hitchcock climax sustained to a point of almost unbearable tension. These opening moments encapsulate one of the most profound aesthetic possibilities of dance, an art that depends upon balancing the physically impossible with the impossibly graceful. The suspense – emotional, musical and, of course, physical in the suspension of bodies in lifts and turns that play on the male casts’ ability to compete and distribute each others’ weight in ways that are not always possible in male-female partnerships – lent a significance and artistry to McGregor’s piece that the other two pieces of the evening mostly lacked. Salonen’s full orchestral work, Nyx, a ‘symphonic poem’ which McGregor heard at its 2011 Paris premiere, inspired the major sequence of McGregor’s piece, which featured an ensemble of male dancers in various power struggles set to beating drums. While the prowess of the men of the Royal Ballet is on full display in this longer and more dynamic portion of the opening performance, I preferred the opening pair’s taut longing and resistance, an ambivalence between bodies, as well as audience and performers, that created an extra narrative arc to the night.
I wish the same chemistry had been on display in the revived Marguerite and Armand created by Frederick Ashton in 1963 and set to music by Franz Lizst. Based on Alexandre Dumas fils’ tragic tale of love, betrayal and consumption, the one-act ballet was originally performed by Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev to great acclaim and ‘rapturous response’ from an audience enthralled by the passion and chemistry between the two leads. Unfortunately the performance by guest artist Alessandra Ferri and Ferderico Bonelli did not inspire the same delight or passion in me, though Ferri was lovely and Bonelli’s performance improved in expressiveness (and timing) as the piece continued. I also couldn’t help but think as I was watching what an extremely odd choice this piece is for the current moment. The story of a courtesan whose life is negatively determined by the men around her, and dependent on their approval of her sexual desirability and value seems particularly tone-deaf. Perhaps if the performances themselves and the chemistry between the two leads had been more inspired, I would have been moved beyond my antipathy to the tale. To make the plot more palatable, the audience must believe (as the programme claims) that not only is Marguerite a ‘woman not in control of her own life’ and ‘disarmed’ by her love and feelings for Armand and destroyed by her illness, but that Armand is also not in control of his emotions – capable of great harm towards his lover because equally capable of great love, not simply vanity that characterised the performance. As a centerpiece, this did not work, which is a shame as it is the most traditional of the performances and could have been the most accessible for both ballet classicists and newcomers to dance. I felt like the dancers and the audience were going through the motions: both forms of classical ballet performance and staid and stuffy audience response, and this seemed particularly performative and ritualistic in contrast to the first and last pieces of the night.
The high-minded classicism and tragic consequences that Marguerite and Armand plays in miniature corresponds to the tone of Kenneth MacMillan’s serious’ long-form narrative ballets of love and despair, such as Romeo and Juliet and Manon. MacMillan choreographed the final piece of the evening, Elite Syncopations, as an antidote to the emotional investment required by his usual repertoire.
A riot of color, sound, and movement, Elite Syncopations was a fun way to cap off the night, and many of the dancers attacked their roles with a gusto and enjoyment that spilled into the audience. Incorporating the syncopated rhythms of Scott Joplin’s turn of the century sound, which saw a resurgence in popularity in the 1970s, this piece featured the full company sharing the stage with a ragtime band and significantly changed the energy of the night, although maybe more as a tonal clash than a relevant expansion. Overall, the night belonged to the men of the company. The three pieces didn’t create a coherent narrative, and so depended on seeing what the dancers could variously do with different moods, types, eras and intentions of choreography, and each featured multiple men demonstrating their skill while only the final piece featured the women of the company. The male dancers were allowed a greater show of skill in the choreography that was chosen, while some of the more elegant ballerinas lacked a sharpness that would have better suited the music and the mood of this final piece in which they were featured.
Of Elite Syncopations, MacMillan is quoted as wanting to create a ‘confection’ that he could ‘toss off and walk away from.’ This mirrors my own feelings about the evening; I enjoyed the pieces but walked away without being particularly moved, amazed or challenged, except for the first ten minutes of McGregor’s Obsidian Tear and one highly comedic and technically impressive duet in MacMillan’s piece, the ‘Alaskan Rag,’ a dynamic, athletic slice of slapstick that required a perfectly-timed pairing between Tierney Heap and David Yudes.
The remaining performances of The Royal Ballet’s triple bill will be shown on 25 & 30 April; 2, 4, 8, 11 May 2018, at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.*
*Join thousands of students already making the most of ROH Students. It is absolutely free to join and could be the start of a fantastic journey into opera and ballet. Click below to sign up: Become an ROH Student http://www.roh.org.uk/for/rohstudents