tue 23/07/2019

Within the Golden Hour/Medusa/Flight Pattern, Royal Ballet review - the company shows its contemporary face | reviews, news & interviews

Within the Golden Hour/Medusa/Flight Pattern, Royal Ballet review - the company shows its contemporary face

Within the Golden Hour/Medusa/Flight Pattern, Royal Ballet review - the company shows its contemporary face

Osipova is astonishing as ever, but Medusa the ballet misses its mark

Bad hair day: Matthew Ball as Perseus and Natalia Osipova as the gorgon in 'Medusa', a new ballet by Sidi Larbi Cherkaouiphoto: Tristram Kenton

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui has come a long way since his early days as a hip hop artist, but the outsider status is obvious even before the curtain goes up on Medusa, his first commission for the Royal Ballet and the centrepiece of a triple bill showcasing the company’s contemporary side.

Cherkaoui’s choice of subject – the ultimate #MeToo story of classical myth – rules out the usual ballet tropes. Far from being a love story, Medusa’s is a tale of power abuse times two. Sexual violation by a powerful male (the god Poseidon), is followed by punishment meted out by a second authority figure who ought to be outraged on Medusa’s behalf – Athena, goddess of chastity. Yet instead Athena blames the victim for the crime. Transformed into a vengeful monster with snakes for hair, the blighted Medusa thus becomes a termagant – the very antithesis of ballet's feminine ideal. Which appears to be what interests Cherkaoui.

Olivia Cowley as Athena, Natalia Osipova as Medusa and Matthew Ball as PerseusThat, and the exciting potential of Royal Ballet principal Natalia Osipova (Pictured above), whose astonishing strength and flexibility, not to mention dramatic fabulousness, is a gift for the role. When we first meet her Medusa she’s a priestess in Athena’s temple, a cool monochrome of chaste contemplation backed by the discreet clubbing beats of Olga Wojciechowska’s electronic score. It turns out to be Cherkaoui’s bizarrest but best idea to punctuate this music throughout with songs by Henry Purcell. Sung with piercing acuity by a soprano and counter-tenor, the 17th-century soundworld draws us into an imagined distant past, racks up the tension at key points and adds a beauty that’s often lacking on stage.

It’s as if Osipova and her phenomenal ability for coiling, kicking and turning herself inside out sucked up all Cherkaoui’s creative juices. A masked chorus of warriors looks frankly ungainly. It's unclear, too, when or even whether they're being turned to stone under Medusa's lethal gaze once she's donned the ugly black fright wig. Our familiarity with black braids and dreadlocks gave costume designer Olivia Pomp a difficult task in coming up with anything remotely shocking, and it's not.

The rape that precedes Medusa's transformation is also oddly polite, drawn out into a full-scale pas de deux with Ryoichi Hirano's poker-faced Poseidon. Medusa's mortification and shame is convincing though, as is the dismaying fact that, halfway through the assault, she appears to surrender to and even collude in Poseidon’s sick manipulations.

When in a second pas de deux Cherkaoui pairs Medusa the Gorgon with handsome Perseus (Matthew Ball), his attempt to add intrigue to the fatal encounter by hinting at a romantic history between the pair somewhat misfires. Clearly what Perseus wants to do, and must do to fulfil his destiny, is cut off the monster’s head (without a weapon, apparently: swords are a dratted encumbrance in ballet). That said, the decapitation is skilfully staged. Cherkaoui and his collaborators wisely stop short of trying to show the winged horse Pegasus leaping from Medusa’s bleeding neck, as described in the synopsis.

Artists of the Royal Ballet in 'Flight Pattern'Despite a searing performance from Osipova – this dancer truly is a force of nature, as a soon-to-be-released documentary will set out to show – the ballet as a whole misses its target, the story’s extremity dulled by narrative fudges. Whether any of these can be fixed before next week’s cinema relay will surely be exercising the Royal Ballet right now.

The premiere was flanked by two revivals. Within the Golden Hour is an early-ish work made by Christopher Wheeldon for San Francisco Ballet (America’s oldest and greatest company making a rare visit to London later this month) and tonally it’s very much in the American mould – smoothly virtuosic, beautifully crafted. The Royal first performed it a couple of years ago: this time round new silvery costumes by Jasper Conran are a definite plus.

Crystal Pite’s migration epic Flight Pattern brings the triple bill to an unusually sombre close. This short but large-scale work was a hit for the Royal when it premiered two years ago and has lost none of its force. Filling the stage with 36 dark-coated dancers, the Canadian choreographer invokes the plight of refugees both past and present in surges of weighted movement that call to mind both weary foot-travel and treacherous seas. As the brooding first movement of Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs plays out from the pit, the effect on the permanently twilit stage is of people drained of all identity by their predicament. After filing like cattle into a kind of holding pen and removing their coats, they sit cross legged, the coats piled around them like rubbish heaps. When at the close a light snow begins to fall, the Christmas card beauty feels like a sentence of slow death.

Again, on this revival, you are left convinced that here is an important work, one that shows ballet to be capable of responding to pressing issues, not merely reflecting on itself. By rejecting individual virtuosity, it uncovers important expressive potential in the mass. 

It’s as if Osipova and her phenomenal ability for turning herself inside out sucked up all Cherkaoui’s creative juices

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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