Sunday, 18 March 2018

Bernstein Centenary

Leonard Bernstein 1918-1990
Photo Jack Mitchell
Source Wikipedia

Royal Ballet Bernstein Centenary (Yugen, The Age of Anxiety and Corybantic Games 17 March 2018, 19:30 Royal Opera House Covent Garden

This year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, one of the most popular classical composers ever. One of the reasons for his popularity is that he did not work entirely in the classical idiom.  Consequently, many of his tunes appeal to an audience who have never entered a concert hall.  They are simple and memorable - easy to sing, hum or whistle. To celebrate the anniversary the Royal Ballet revived Liam Scarlett's The Age of Anxiety and commissioned new works form Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon, namely Yugen and the Corybantic Games.

I liked all the ballets in the programme. Yugen and The Age of Anxiety appealed immediately.  Corybantic Games was different. I admired the choreography, the geometric sets and, of course, Bernstein's music and I am an enormous fan of Lauren Cuthbertson but I think I will have to see it again and probably more than once to appreciate it properly.  Happily I will get that opportunity when the programme is streamed to cinemas on 28 March 2018.

Recently Gary Avis, the work's ballet master, tweeted that Yugen was breathtakingly beautiful. On seeing the tweet my first reaction was that he would say that - but he was right. I literally gasped for breath from the moment the stage revealed the geometric set with the dancers clad in red at first glance almost exactly alike. McGregoor had interpreted Bernstein's Chichester Psalms (extracts from the psalms including the 23rd sung in the original Hebrew) in movement and the result can only be described as sublime. I was enchanted by the whole performance.

The Age of Anxiety could not have been more of a contrast.  According to the programme notes it is based on W H Auden's poem which I have yet to read.  Wikipedia states:
"The poem deals, in eclogue form, with man's quest to find substance and identity in a shifting and increasingly industrialized world. Set in a wartime bar in New York City, Auden uses four characters – Quant, Malin, Rosetta, and Emble – to explore and develop his themes."
Well everybody must have got the New York bar bit but the coming to terms with industrialized world bit bypassed me. The ballet seemed to be about 4 people getting progressively drunk until the barman throws them out. They repair to Rosetta's flat with a magnificent view of the New York skyline. One of them passes out.  The last scene reveals Manhattan at dawn and the dancer's wonder at the sight.

Well Rosetta was  obviously Sarah Lamb and she was splendid in that role as she always is.  Luca Acri was Emble, Yorkshireman Thomas Whitehead was Qant and James Hay was Malin. I always give Whitehead an extra loud clap or cheer whenever I see him on stage because ........ well, we Northerners have to stick together, don't we.

For some reason or other the Corybantic Games reminded me of Ashton's Symphonic Variations even though Bernstein's music is so different from Cesar Franck's as is Wheeldon's choreography from Ashton's. I think it may have been because of the classical allusions. I seem to remember my old classics master telling me that the Olympic games were only one of a number of games in which the Greek city states competed. I surmised that the Corybantic Games must have been another. The dancers were clad simply as athletes and their movements were pretty extraordinary too. The work was divided into five movements with Matthew Ball, William Bracewell, Yasmine Naghdi accompanying Cuthbertson in the first. Beatrix Stix-Brunnell on her own in the second, Navarra Magri and Marcelino Sambé in the third, Cuthbertson, Naghdi, Ball, Ryoichi Hirano, Stix-Brunnell and Bracewell in the fourth and Tierney Heap leading the ensemble in the fifth.

The crowd applauded politely at the end of Corybantic Games - especially when the leading ladies received bouquets - but the applause ended before the lights came on again. Nothing like the sustained clapping and cheering for the other two works.  I think the Wheeldom will become a well loved staple of the repertoire in time but audiences need to get to know it better.  Perhaps a different title would have helped.

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