If you believe the Royal Opera House is the palladium of ballet, this Wheeldon, Scarlett, McGregor triple bill is bound to prove you wrong. As diverse as the audience watching it, the show that opened in Covent Garden on 5 April 2012 demonstrates how resourceful the Royal Ballet programming has become and how moldable its dancers are.
The night opens with a revival of ‘Polyphonia’, originally created by Christopher Wheeldon for New York City Ballet in 2001. With its neat lines and evocative shapes, ‘Polyphonia’ exudes Wheeldon’s signature style all along. The reassuring symmetries and balanced patterns in the choreography create a luring contrast with the haunting music by György Ligeti, which many would recognise from the piano sequence Stanley Kubrick chose as the eerie soundtrack to his 1999 thriller Eyes Wide Shut. If a flaw had to be found in such a refined architecture of bodies in motion, it would be the execution. Several days after the opening night, the performance was still not as spotless as one might expect from the Royal Ballet and it looked as though it had not been rehearsed enough.
Following Wheeldon’s abstract piece, a complete change of scene is conjured up by Liam Scarlett’s ‘Sweet Violets’. A narrative ballet revolving around the obsession of artist Walter Sickert with Jack the Ripper’s murders, Scarlett’s work looks more traditional and less daring than one might expect from a 25-year-old choreographer on the rise. However, the complexity of the plot and the ingenious designs counteract the safe choice of the format.
As events unfold and characters swoon into a gloomy world of murder, sex and insanity, it becomes at times hard for the audience to grasp hints that are key to the storyline. At the same time, eyes are hypnotically entertained by John McFarlane’s highly graphic settings. Shadows are cast on sinisterly high walls whilst bed sheets are transformed into fetishes of insanity or backdrops to murder. At some point, the viewers’ perspective is even relocated to the backstage of a vaudeville theatre, allowing the audience to peep into the performance of enticing ballerinas clad in blood-evoking red costumes. What ultimately invigorates ‘Sweet Violets’ is the dancers’ vivid interpretation of the characters. Particularly stunning is Laura Morera in the role of deranged and miserable Annie Crook.
The evening closes with a bombshell: ‘Carbon Life’. Although Wayne McGregor can always be trusted to bring thought-provoking performances to the stage of the Royal Opera House, this collaboration with musicians Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt was undoubtedly beyond any prediction. McGregor’s pieces are known for overpowering the audience but, if the works he created so far for the Royal Ballet were oozing with energy, ‘Carbon Life’ bursts with it.
Inspired by pop culture, this piece showcases McGregor’s distinctive limbs-stretching and boundary-pushing choreographic language set to a brand new context. Guest artists including 1980s blue-eyed soul icon Boy George and American rapper Black Cobain, perform on stage alongside the dancers and in perfect synergy with them. Gareth Plugh with his Bauhaus-reminiscent costumes and Lucy Carter with her brilliant as ever lighting, complete the roster of high-caliber professionals involved in this project. It’s a spirit that recalls the artistic circle of Sergei Diaghilev who gathered under his creative leadership talents from multiple art forms, such as Stravinsky and Picasso, to create the magnificent and provocative performances of the Ballets Russes.
As an exhilarating music fills the theatre, it often distracts the beholder from the choreography itself but does not take away from it. In fact, it is clear that McGregor does not intend to put the different elements of his piece in competition with each other; he simply gives the audience the chance to keep a dynamic focus of attention on the performance, which is also key to nurture a strong engagement with it. Above all, the bodies still remain the backbone of the piece and some performances like the sensually obsessive duet between Sarah Lamb and Edward Watson and the hyper fast solo by Steven McRae, are indeed jaw-dropping.
‘Carbon Life’ is the ultimate take on pop culture. If there is an artist who should be called contemporary, that is Wayne McGregor.