thu 24/09/2020

Agon/ Sphinx/ Limen, Royal Ballet | reviews, news & interviews

Agon/ Sphinx/ Limen, Royal Ballet

Agon/ Sphinx/ Limen, Royal Ballet

What's new with the new McGregor? The music's good, for one thing

Extraordinary lives dancers lead at Covent Garden - in a single day rushing between studios to rehearse the tortured, introspective Mayerling, the pristine classicism of The Sleeping Beauty, the off-centre acrobatics of Balanchine’s Agon and the static wriggles and hip-snaps of Wayne McGregor. All of these works are currently in Royal Ballet repertory, and you can see Ed Watson, Yuhui Choe, Johan Kobborg and an array of others on stage at the moment in all or any of these. But at what cost to communicating hugely different styles of choreography?

Last night the Royal Ballet fielded its latest mixed bill, which looked thrown on in a hurry. When artists of the calibre of Kobborg and Carlos Acosta look blurry in Balanchine’s Agon, a ballet that both have danced with high distinction in the past, I wonder if it was partly because they were out of synch with a conductor who was failing to control the pit (Daniel Capps), or partly because they had not had time to switch mindset.

Agon is a masterwork that rips off any disguise covering lack of preparation, so intent and precise is its dance, so sharply honed its liaison with Stravinsky’s music. The latter, which permutates 17th-century French court music fleetly through twelve-note serialism, is of itself fascinating to listen to, crocheting rhythms and disharmonies into complex figures. Balanchine's response is ice-cold avant-garde ballet pelted with Broadway jazz and renaissance flourishes. Louche shrugs, curled wrists and demure twiddly footbeats jangle together with full-out splits. There is wow factor in almost every step.

Tamara Rojo slinked on with an attitude pitched somewhere around Liz Taylor as Cleopatra with Richard Burton in her sights

Tricky, witty trios lead up to the astonishing climactic duet, trios that usually Kobborg dishes up with two Michelin stars for taste and precision, but last night the company looked ragged, at sixes and sevens with stuttering tempi and unclear orchestral textures.

Acosta pulled out the partnering stops to assist the lustrous debut of Melissa Hamilton with him in the iconic pas de deux, which makes poetry of contortion and requires an exceptionally bendy girl with musical poise and perfect vertical splits, all of which qualities Hamilton is developing in abundance.

Sphinx is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside the enigma which is Monica Mason’s motivation for bringing this risible piece into the Royal Ballet’s repertoire. Glen Tetley, harking back to the old days when he was young and Martha Graham’s darling, offers us a lady sphinx in icing-white Lycra danced upon by two chaps, one a dog-god, the other one Oedipus, both kitted out in bodysuits with wool piping flatteringly outlining their man parts. There is also a throne the size and style of Harrods’ Food Hall, on which said Sphinx, played by Marianela Nunez, disports herself like an oyster waiting to be opened.

The music is Bohuslav Martinů at his most clotted, with a dogged piano buried somewhere in mountains of strings, and goes on interminably, while the two guys display much indecision in anguished solos and awkwardly fumbled lifts as to exactly what they want of the sphinx, who prowls between them like a disconsolate shopper. The only way this rubbish could be parlayed to us, in my view, is the way ENB served it up a decade or so ago when their then star Tamara Rojo slinked on in double-strength eyelashes and an attitude pitched somewhere around Liz Taylor as Cleopatra with Richard Burton in her sights. Pure camp sex, in other words. Nunez is a good, tough dancer, but sexy this was not, and the silliness of the scenario was given no helping hand whatever by Edward Watson and Rupert Pennefather as the hulking chaps.

However, it has an upside, which is to make McGregor’s piece, Limen, look and sound splendid by contrast. This has a magnificent lighting plan by the Japanese computer artist Tatsuo Miyajima with a good new piece of music on offer, an extensive 2007 cello concerto by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. Entitled Notes of Light, this is translucent, shimmering music, through which the lithe, minutely articulated body curls and switch-backs of McGregor’s choreography make contrastingly defined marks.

Miyajima's delicate gauze of blue on which float little digital numbers and the soft streaming light by Lucy Carter give the opening ensemble a serene, watery atmosphere, which once the gauze flies away yields to implied close-ups on pairs, as tiny incidents pass between couples. Yet we can’t get focused on any in particular as, like split-screen TV, several couples appear at once, in different tempi and moods. They don’t move much across the stage, instead displaying their flexibility in high splits or gymnastically engineered lifts, while a wall of pin-pricks of light gradually steals up upon them.

It’s chic and very much in demand right now,  this kind of thing, and no doubt a lot of work to make. It leaves everything open to question, emotions in a vacuum, serving the conceptual theme of McGregor, which is the limen, or the threshold of consciousness below which stimuli are not perceived. At a liminal level, I see a busy, expert dancework that slips down easy with highly artistic lighting and a score worth hearing again. Anything subliminally new about dance or theatre art, or any impending change in McGregor’s robustly untroubled sense of self, you may receive better than I did.

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actually if you had bothered to read your programme the lighting design is by Lucy Carter and Set and Video design by Tatsuo Miyajima !!!!!

Lucy, I apologise and have amended the copy.

Thankyou Very Much Ismene .

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