Wednesday 11 November 2009

Difference in sameness

Agon – Sphinx – Limen, Royal Opera House, London

Wayne McGregor’s new work Limen opened at the Royal Opera House on 4 November 2009. Those who have followed the latest steps in the choreographer’s creative journey would certainly detect in this piece a different flavour from the works he has lately made both for the Royal Ballet and for his own company Random Dance.

In Limen, movements keep their distinctive quality of muscular tension paired with smoothness. However, as McGregor himself once declared, ‘there can be difference in sameness’. The difference this time is certainly evident in the music. The score by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho does not create the same hypnotic atmosphere as Olafur Arnalds’ soundtrack to Dyad 1909 (2009) or Joby Talbot and John Hopkins’ music for Entity (2008). Saariaho’s composition evokes a sinister environment, filled with silences as much as it is with sounds. The cello, masterfully played by Anssi Karttunen, starts with a descending series of notes, almost resembling a lament. Then it alternates quivering, squealing and humming sounds which seem to spark dancers’ movements but not to accompany them until their completion. The music provides hints for dancers’ limbs to twitch and stretch restlessly, then sets back to come alive again and stir further motion. The score is subtle, unobtrusive, liminal that is. It lingers at the threshold of sensory perception in such a way that it is barely apprehensible. Quite a change compared to McGregor’s past musical choices, which mixed Talbot’s blunt electronic scores and Richter’s poignant string quartets. Yet Saariaho’s score is not less ravishing.

Limen is a powerful work for two main reasons: the dancers’ bravura and the spell-binding visual impact. Royal Ballet dancers are known for their mastery of the art form but McGregor is unique in taking the resourcefulness of their bodies to its extreme. Performers draw geometries with their bodies and carve the space around them with frantic convolutions as well as the neat lines of their ever-stretching limbs. When Eric Underwood lifts Sarah Lamb during a delicate duet, she gently accommodates her basket-shaped body in his curved arms, just like wine poured in a goblet would end up taking the shape of a tulip. An image bound to be memorable as the seal that only dance can put on beauty.

Royal Ballet’s extraordinary dancers are to be credited as much as lighting and video designers Lucy Carter and Tatsuo Miyajima for the stunning visual effects of the choreography. As the piece opens, indigo-blue numbers float swiftly on what seems to be an immaterial curtain. Numbers have a clear link with the concept of Limen as they can be grouped in both countable and uncountable infinities, making the notion of limit an unattainable challenge to the human mind. The blurred figures behind the curtain sneak from light to shadow and, although they move sharply, the interplay between appearance and disappearance creates an alluring world of trick stillness. Then the curtain goes up and action takes a faster pace. Swirling limbs and sinuous midriffs clot the stage and performers dance on bars of colourful neon light which bring a brisker quality to the choreography and leave behind the initial sinister atmosphere. Yet shadows return to close the piece. Indigo-blue dots slowly crowd on the dark background while the dancers walk, one by one, back into the shadow.

Limen is part of a triple-bill including Balanchine’s seminal work Agon along with Sphinx, by choreographer Glen Tetley, at only its fourth performance at the Royal Opera House. The three pieces convey very different aesthetics, which is what makes this evening so interesting. Agon takes the basics of ballet and reinterprets it with irony and wit. It is a shame that last Monday it was given a sloppy performance by the Royal Ballet, which returned to its high standards only towards the end of the choreography. In the second piece, Sphinx, Edward Watson gives vent to his remarkable talent of dance-actor. Marianela Nunez and Rupert Pennefather follow suit, with a highly dramatic and sensually charged performance.

Remaining dates: 13, 17 and 18 November 2009


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