sun 23/06/2024

Electric Counterpoint/ Asphodel Meadows/ Carmen, Royal Ballet | reviews, news & interviews

Electric Counterpoint/ Asphodel Meadows/ Carmen, Royal Ballet

Electric Counterpoint/ Asphodel Meadows/ Carmen, Royal Ballet

A triple whammy includes a darkly elegant creation from the RB's rising star

A sombre, maybe privately angry elegy to death: Marianela Nuñez and Rupert Pennefather in Liam Scarlett's new 'Asphodel Meadows'Johan Persson/Royal Ballet

Wonder of wonders - a really cracking triple bill at the Royal Ballet last night. The best of the year, by a country mile, and probably the best for several years: a top-notch beauty from Christopher Wheeldon, the love-it-or-loathe-it Marmite of Mats Ek’s Carmen, and in between a comely and reverberant new ballet from a very young Royal Ballet choreographer who looks set to go places.

Liam Scarlett is only 24 but has spent long enough in his schooldays choreographing feverishly to count as an alumnus of best Royal Ballet values. Like Wheeldon, he sculpts graceful, organically flowing balletic movement with much assurance for both stars and corps, and there is a dark, pensive, even deathly tone to his new ballet, Asphodel Meadows, that shows his descent from Kenneth MacMillan. By gum, the Opera House's PR shot is seductive, with Tamara Rojo and Marianela Nuñez looking hot and suggestive in corsets, but it's misleading.

In fact this is a sombre, maybe privately angry elegy to death, with the three ballerinas - Laura Morera is the third - in close partnership with their men but finding many ways to illustrate the fragility or fractiousness of relationships, and finally on the last notes simply running away, leaving everybody behind. Perhaps they died - or perhaps they have run off to find further candidates to bring to the Asphodel meadows, which is where humdrum, workaday people go after death, eternally to envy the privileged souls in the Elysian fields.

John Macfarlane provides two striking painted cloths, black and white, one negative of the other, with vertical rain trails and a burst of splattery mist, and robes the dancers within this quite Rauschenbergy environment in inky black, plum and beige, dresses that are both sexy and sober at once, strapless and curve-hugging, with long skirts. See theartsdesk gallery of production photographs by Johan Persson.

A quotation cited by Scarlett from C W James’ poem Lost in the Asphodel Meadows runs: "Only the veil of life covers lands beyond, Until death provides a path of access," and it may be fanciful of me to wonder if Scarlett is thinking quietly of his generation now at war. The ballet has a glimmer of MacMillan’s Gloria about it (not least the fact that it is also set to Poulenc). Sketches of aspects of love hook into deep feelings, Nuñez and Rupert Pennefather in the first movement wheeling large like glorious lifetime-mating swans, Rojo and Bennet Gartside in a state of erotic war, Morera and Ricardo Cervera blithe and synchronised.

The music, Poulenc’s Double Piano Concerto, is schizophrenic, making disconcerting, almost cheesy flips of mood from melodrama to garrulous piano chattering to hazy gamelan effects; the challenge for Scarlett was both to pick up on these bewildering changes of texture in his detailing and yet provide an overall arc for us. I was very impressed. Asphodel Meadows is cool and ordered to look at, with its bold dance patterns and commanding use of the large corps through the stage, but it has the details to create interesting emotional cross-currents with Poulenc's ideas.  For instance, the middle movement plays with a Mozart theme of utmost sweetness - yet Scarlett gives us a violent, witchy eroticism (Rojo and Gartside finding a mesmerising dynamic). And the Asiatic gamelan effect draws out a finish with the entire company making crosses with their bodies, standing in strict rows like the crosses in a Christian military cemetery. There is a stimulating amount going on here, musically, philosophically, theatrically, choreographically - this is one bright boy.

Wheeldon_Electric_CounterpointWheeldon, who can sometimes look slick, was on top experimental form when he made Electric Counterpoint for the Royal Ballet in 2008, the most lusciously staged new ballet on that stage that I can remember for a long time (Sarah Lamb and Edward Watson, pictured right by Dee Conway). With only four dancers it looks like a crowd, due to a breathtaking video design created by the Ballet Boyz, William Trevitt and Michael Nunn, which offers the four live performers a glowing, almost irradiated frieze of reflections of themselves to play with and against.

The opening section is a dance-art installation that should be in the Turner Prize. Each dancer has a reflective moment alone with a video alter ego, confessing their performer’s insecurities in voiceover - they should cut the silly words away. Edward Watson saying, “I don’t like my hands”, Eric Underwood intoning about the importance of “owning the moment”: the banality only distracts from the anti-banality of both men's dancing, Watson's weird elasticity and majesty, Underwood's febrile leaps and faune-like self-possession. They stare at their virtual selves questioningly, or morph from virtual dancer to real dancer in a single circular run. Though this opening is in a sense a warm-up, there is nothing languid about the fastidiously powered and pared-down beauty of the posing that Wheeldon has them do. Pale blonde Sarah Lamb simply standing in her glittering tutu is a vision to make your heart stop, while Leanne Benjamin's ghostly avatar suddenly tosses her marvellous ball skirt up, filling the air with slow-motion golden silk as the real Benjamin trots off with hyper-soft, feathery ports de bras.

Then the contemplative Bach piano yields to Reich’s guitar busyness, and the video design patterns the walls with guitar fretboards or the fine black and white of mechanical drawings, against whose geometric rules the dancers and their avatars rebel freely. Once again, this is a work where the guiding abstract spirit is plentifully studded with rich incident between the dancers - Benjamin may be tiny but she moves with the purpose of an irresistible force, and Underwood bears her on his shoulders like an empress.

Carmen_rojo_gartside_deeconwayAfter two pieces of such elegance, Mats Ek’s raucous, diverting Carmen is a perfect finish, its buffoonish choreography irreverent, unlyrical, but annoyingly effective. Tamara Rojo returns to the role like a little red bundle of sexual gelignite, puffing her big cigars like Kathryn Hunter playing Michael Grade, dominating the men with sheer chutzpah. Thomas Whitehead as José looks like a great bewildered baby, and Bennet Gartside’s Escamillo is swiftly emasculated as Rojo pulls a long pink thing out of his trousers (picture left, by Dee Conway). Kristin McNally is an outstanding M (the meek girl-next-door), just as she was in the season's previous premiere, Jonathan Watkins' As One. Rodion Shchedrin’s score is perfect for this vividly theatre-driven treatment, and Marie-Louise Ekman’s designs - huge polka-dot fans for walls, dresses apparently made of sweet wrappers - add to the joyous visual relish of the entire evening.

It may be fanciful of me to wonder if Scarlett is quietly thinking of his generation now at war

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Brilliant review! I've not had a chance to catch Electric Counterpoint as yet, but really enjoyed Carmen (I'm a massive fan of the opers version, so it was going to be hit and miss, but I love it). Nice to see a reviews of asphodel meadows too, as this is an often overlooked. Sam

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