Sunday, 28 May 2017

The Royal Ballet's Quadruple Bill - well balanced in Content, Style and Mood

Natalia Osipova in Strapless
Photo Bill Cooper
© 2017 The Royal Ballet: all rights reserved
Reproduced with kind permission of the company 

Because of the terrible events of last Monday ballet did not seem all that important to me last week. I missed the launch in Doncaster of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by Daniel de Andrade for Northern Ballet altogether. It appears to have been well received so I will try to catch it at some other venue - probably Leeds between the 5 and 9 Sept. I attended class on Thursday but found it hard to put my heart into it. I very nearly let the Royal Ballet’s mixed programme go too until I realized that that was exactly the sort of despondency that terrorists try to induce. We owe it to their victims, if not ourselves, not to let them win by cowing or depressing us.

Thus I woke up early yesterday to catch the 07:51 train from Wakefield to London. That was the last train that would get me there an hour before the curtain was due to rise. The programme consisted of works by William Forsythe, George Balanchine, Christopher Wheeldon and Liam Scarlett. Scarlett’s Symphonic Dances was a new commission. I had seen Balanchine’s Tarantella before but Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude and Wheeldon’s Strapless were also new to me. I am very glad that I made that trip because I saw the Royal Ballet at its best. I get the impression that dancers like mixed programmes because of their variety and also because there offer lots of opportunities for them to shine.

The afternoon began with The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. A strange name I thought. I am not sure where the vertigo came in but it was certainly thrilling not to say also exuberant and joyful. It must have been very hard work for the dancers, particularly the women as this YouTube video of the San Francisco Ballet’s performance of that work shows. The work begins with two men in mauve costumes standing in 5th. Yesterday they were Trystan Dyer and Valentino Zuchetti. They introduce themselves with slightly different solos. They are joined by three women in lime green tutus. Each of their roles is exacting as this video by Dorothée Gilbert demonstrates. Forsythe set his ballet to the final movement of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, as stirring a work as have ever heard. Mauve and green may not be an obvious colour match but it worked for this piece.

The momentum was maintained a few minutes later by the Tarantella Last year I saw Michaela DePrince and Remi Wortmeyer dance it at the Dutch National Ballet’s opening night gala in Amsterdam (see "Quite simply the most exciting dancer I have seen for quite a while" 29 Oct 2017 and the YouTube video of Wortmeyer with Maia Mahateli). The Dutch National Ballet’s performance had thrilled me then and yesterday’s performance by Alexander Campbell and Meaghen Grace Hinkis thrilled me again. The crowd loved the show too and Hinkis was presented at the curtain call with the biggest bouquet of the afternoon.

The work that I had come to see was Christopher Wheeldon’s Strapless because I had missed it first time round. It is a narrative ballet based on Deborah Davis’s John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X (see The real Madame X: the true story that inspired Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet Strapless 18 May 2017). The ballet is about the ostracism of the Parisian socialite, Amelia Gautreau, after a painting of her by John Singer Sargent showing a strap of her dress dislodged from her shoulder was exhibited at an important art show. Not a single portion of her body had been exposed but those who went to art galleries in Paris at that time knew that Madame Gautreau was conducting an illicit affair with a fashionable gynaecologist called Pozzi. They gossipped mercilessly as to how and why that strap had been dislodged.

It is not easy to base a ballet on an episode in history but Wheeldon carried it off well. A sex scene between Pozzi (Federico Bonelli) and Madame Gautreau (Natalia Osipova) was represented by a pas de deux in which the dancers removed their outer garments. It was not in the least bit smutty as the dancers remained well covered but it was still very sexy. The man who destroyed Madame Gautreau’s reputation was, of course, Sargent danced by Edward Watson. From one brief conversation with him, I formed the view that Watson was a really good bloke (see Ed Watson: more than just an outstanding dancer - a really good bloke 13 Feb 2015) but in Strapless as in A Winter’s Tale, he dances a really beastly character. Madame Gautreau implores him to withdraw the painting from the show but he ignores in the quest to advance his career. Watson portrayed Sargent’s arrogance and stubbornness superbly. This ballet has introduced me to the music of Mark-Anthony Turnage of which I shall try to hear more. I also admired Bob Crowley’s sets and costumes.

Most of the Royal Ballet’s regulars will have seen Strapless before. For them, Symphonic Dances would have been the main draw. Based on three movements of Rachmaninoff’s music the ballet is built around the leading lady who was Laura Morera yesterday. Morera, who danced the leads in Viscera and Frankenstein, is another of my very favourite dancers (see Laura Morera 25 Aug 2015). In the programme notes, there is an interview with Scarlett in which he says:
“I’ve worked consistently with Laura over the years and created so much work on her that I wouldn’t be choreographing without her.”
The ballet began with the Non Allegro. Morera appeared in a swirl of red material. She was joined by Giacomo Rovero and the ensemble. Morera was in each of the subsequent movements - alone with the ensemble in the second movement and with Matthew Ball in the third. Towards the middle of the second movement, the back of the stage began to glow red. It became a screen which for a time projected images of the dancers much in the way Darshan Singh Bhuller does in Mapping (see Rehearsals: Revealed - Darshan Singh Bhuller Mapping). Different images appear on the screen which seems to become an electrode. The ballet ends with Morera alone on stage with the descending device hovering above her and seemingly zapping her. Two colours predominated in the ballet - black and red - which, as Christopher Bruce showed in Rooster, can be a striking combination.

The quadruple bill was balanced well in mood, style and content. Judging by the snatches of conversation that I caught as I descended the stairs and the messages that have appeared on social media, the audience that spilt onto Bow Street were more than satisfied.


  1. I suspect Meaghan got the biggest bouquets as it was her birthday :-) irrespective of this they were well deserved as Tarantella is a hard piece to dance. An excellent Quad Bill in my opinion I thoroughly enjoyed it!

  2. Thank you for that information, Helen. I hope Meaghan Grace Hinkis had a great birthday and I wish her a happy and healthy year to come.