fri 25/09/2020

Royal Ballet New Works, Linbury Studio Theatre, ROH | reviews, news & interviews

Royal Ballet New Works, Linbury Studio Theatre, ROH

Royal Ballet New Works, Linbury Studio Theatre, ROH

A fine dancer turns into a fine choreographer

Ninette de Valois said the solution to a shortage of choreographic talent was this: “You wait.” Waiting through the Nineties and early Noughties proved the Royal Ballet founder’s point - suddenly new distinctive ballet talent is cropping up all over the place. Taking the pressure off Christopher Wheeldon and Wayne McGregor, young Liam Scarlett showed his confident colours this spring, and now, segueing on from his distinctive performing career at Covent Garden, here is Viacheslav Samodurov, the undoubted star of the Royal Ballet’s New Works programme in the Linbury Studio last night.

This annual showcase for dancers' choreographic efforts showed six pieces, and for one out of six to show a talent which has nothing tentative about it, which is sophisticated in style and in musicality, is a good-enough strike rate to make the evening worth any inquiring person’s time. The criteria are limited in time and scope, obviously - Samodurov’s at 20 minutes was much the longest piece, but he’s made something whose stylishness asks for the big stage. Titled Trip Trac (its only bad feature), it fields five couples - two against three - and three Shostakovich preludes and fugues for piano in a work that displays a miniature sequence of the evolution of classical vocabulary, from its pure aesthetic beauty to the rougher and more kinetic derivations of it.

A fast-flowing A minor prelude is repeated four times, with four different dancers taking increasingly modern liberties with it: the evolution generated by his choice of dancers. Valeri Hristov is a pure classical man, laying out a swift, mercurial phrase of movement slightly reminiscent of Balanchine’s Duo Concertant, with lightly swinging right arm and fleet little springs. Melissa Hamilton has a more modern slickness and ease as she tilts the balances off centre, Mara Galeazzi takes sharper Forsythean lunges into the phrase, and Thomas Whitehead gives it a chunkier, contemporary spin. Each of them bows to us after their little bit, as in Balanchine again (Agon), and as the fugue takes over, a precise deployment of three couples casts ideas fugato down the line between them. The main four then reappear as two couples, the girls in huge blue plastic skirts that rustle sharply over the sad thrumming of the G minor prelude - and suddenly we seem to be in a fine angsty Dutch National Ballet mood. Galeazzi radiates suppressed tantrums; Whitehead (viz Carmen recently with Tamara Rojo) can’t help looking like a man deeply attracted by such women.

The piece seems to ask the watcher questions such as when does style get in the way of ballet? How much styling can it take before it stops striking emotion and starts merely emoting? You don’t get that kind of sophisticated question asked much and it’s lively and stimulating. Apart from anything else, Samodurov really does propose a musical argument with the Shostakovich, well played by Robert Clarke at the side of the stage. So good on him, and let us see more of this smart ballet mind.

In rapidly descending order of entertainment value, Kristen McNally (an arresting young performer herself) has a developing theatrical sense and Don't Hate the Player, Hate the Game, her comic turn for Thomas Whitehead as a bloke apparently suffering a hangover after a night in the West End, was welcome amid an over-earnest crop. Dressed in a ritzy black suit inspired by Dior or Topshop - it’s a little unclear but it looks good on him - Whitehead writhed pleasingly in spotlights and fog to the squawling harmonica of Ennio Morricone’s great Man With no Name theme, while three tarts in tall heels and short black dresses strutted by, and I think we heard Lily Savage's Liverpudlian voice in there somewhere. It hasn’t enough choreographic vigour and a larger ensemble would carry off the idea better, but it was fun, and Whitehead is so handsome that he could do anything and make it watchable.

Erico Montes’ finale to John Adams’ Hallelujah Junction for two pianos had an uncomplicated abstract dance energy, with its four leaping men crowned by the presence of Sergei Polunin, who more and more in even the most inconsequential choreography looks like Sam Shepard puzzling out some darkly knotted new existential conundrum. His finesse for the sake of finesse lifts him far from the norm, but Kenta Kura also shone cleanly, with a cheerful smile. The sole woman Helen Crawford was strictly redundant.

Alastair Marriott gave us Lieder, an angst-ridden duet for Mara Galeazzi and Gary Avis inspired by three Brahms songs about being alone and miserable, and it wasn’t evident from the continual clinging and big emphatic lifts whether he was working with any of the verbal images or with just the general soupy mood of being disconsolate by the sea by moonlight on three occasions. The piece did not speak urgently enough of a response to the specifics of the Lieder, and despite the manful commitment of Avis in particular was again dampened by the music-making, this time the inadequate singing of Grant Doyle.

The gap between wanting and achieving loomed in works by Ludovic Ondiviela and Vanessa Fenton, both attempting muddled emotions which is the perennial trap for less skilled choreographers. (I can’t think offhand of a single good ballet that is about muddled emotions.) Ondiviela’s Duplicity was a three-part 11-minute work of three couples who kept putting on and off white plastic masks, while a voice moodily intoned definitions of duplicity and dissemblance over a slushy mix of piano and cello music (sadly, not well played). Fluent, maybe, but not enough skill, pointedness or intent there to make any marks. For instance, if you’re going to have a man put his hand deliberately on a woman’s bottom or choose to reach to touch her foot, let it be shown why, and what that leads to. Even more so all the palaver about the masks.

Fenton’s One Shade the More appeared to want to be serious, dressed in grey vests and pants, set to a dreary Max Bruch cello arrangement, and possibly (its title is a clip of Byron) had ideas of poets and death dreaming up love’s young hopes. Two extraordinarily camp men (Michael Stojko and Fernando Montaño) rolled around soulfully upside down while a stock romantic couple (Roberta Marquez and Steven McRae) did bland pas de deux, and three girls bourreed about a bit like hired graces. Incoherent, with a poor musical choice (again badly played), and wasting McRae in particular who was (almost impossible to believe) no more interesting than a lampstand.

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