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Music of the Ballet

The Royal Ballet’s centenary celebration of composer Leonard Bernstein’s birth has resulted in a compelling triple bill that features premieres by Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon, alongside a revival of Liam Scarlett’s “Age of Anxiety.”


The Royal Ballet: Bernstein Triple Bill with choreography by Wayne McGregor, Liam Scarlett, Christopher Wheeldon


The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, UK, March 15-April 9, 2018


Rachel Elderkin

The Royal Ballet in “Yugen” by Wayne McGregor. Photograph by Andrej Uspenski / ROH

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McGregor’s “Yugen,” a piece set to Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms is, at least in my opinion, one of the strongest new works I have seen from the company in the last couple of years. Composed by Bernstein in 1965, the Chichester Psalms were a commission from the Rev. Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester Cathedral.

Here, they are sung majestically by the Royal Opera House chorus. The Psalms are filled with drama, their sound as suited to the opera house as they would be a cathedral. Angelic choral sections are interspersed by deep, bubbling bursts that suddenly trip into trilling, sprightly interludes. Across it all there remains a sense of grandeur and serenity.

It’s a tone that McGregor has captured brilliantly. Petit allegro spring on the spot to the trilling notes of the music, while sweeping movements of the arms and legs allow the dancers to swish across the stage as the score softens and expands. The strong classical base to this work is given a McGregor twist with balances that pull off centre and high extensions smattered throughout. It’s luxurious movement that flows with a silken quality through these dancer’s bodies.

Dressed in loose vest tops and cropped trousers in varying hues of red, the dancers periodically gather in the background; small tableaux that move minutely, keeping a soft but watchful gaze upon a foreground solo or duet. Against the tall rectangular structures of the set (a design by Edmund de Waal that presents a contemporary twist on the columnar archways of a cathedral) their gatherings emanate a statuesque quality. In combination with the cavernous depths of the ROH stage, dance and design build an image evocative of the still and silent depths of a cathedral.

Pure, fluid and poetic, “Yugen” is a truly beautiful piece in which design, choreography, music and lighting (a subtle but integral design by Lucy Carter) combine in harmony. McGregor and his collaborators have deftly captured the complexity of Bernstein’s Psalms while maintaining a reverence that feels at one with the soaring grandeur of this score.

From Psalms to musicals, Bernstein enjoyed success across genres, with his most famous work on Broadway being “West Side Story.”

Revived for this triple bill, Liam Scarlett's “Age of Anxiety” (based upon W.H. Auden’s poem of the same name) presents a clever take on Bernstein’s success on Broadway. From the bartender’s quick flash of jazz hands and the gestural actions that introduce each character, to the clear characterisation and simple, narrative style of choreography, Scarlett’s interpretation plays upon the style and structure of the Broadway musical.

The story follows four lonely characters who, whiling their time away at a bar, soon fall into each other's company. In the leading roles, Sarah Lamb, Luca Acri, Thomas Whitehead and James Hay play their parts with conviction. As the flirtatious Rosetta, Lamb is cool and refined, commanding the three men that surround her. Whitehead also gives a nuanced portrayal as the older businessman, Quant, bringing a calmness and aura of wisdom to his character. Acri embraces his role as the confident and handsome Emble, while Hay is superb as Malin—a quiet and likeable character coming to understand his sexuality. His approach is gentle but compelling, and it's a joy to watch his movement fly in the work's jubilant closing scene.

Scarlett’s interpretation of “Age of Anxiety” comes across as more of a character study than a complex choreographic work. There are moments that catch—a scenario clung upon too long, too few steps to hold the attention—and in terms of narrative and choreography it is slow to develop. However, as the characters flirt and drink with one another their relationships, and the choreography itself, opens up.

With its classical language and slow burning narrative, Scarlett’s “Age of Anxiety” is the Broadway musical that never quite breaks into its showstopper routine—and surprisingly, it’s that persistent, brooding tension that holds the interest.

In a reflection of Auden’s original poem and the dark, oppressive tones recurrent in Bernstein's score, the languid feel of Scarlett’s work comes to epitomise a sense of place and effectively captures the uncertain, disquiet spirit of this work’s post-war setting.

Completing the triple bill is “Corybantic Games,” a new work by Christopher Wheeldon. Choreographed to Bernstein's Serenade, after Plato’s “Symposium” it draws inspiration from Ancient Greece and Plato’s reflections on love—the allusions to which are decisively abstract.

Like McGregor’s new work, Wheeldon’s also features a collaboration with a fashion designer, here Erdem Moralioglu. In keeping with Wheeldon’s ideas the costumes have an Arcadian touch, with cream tights and bare chests for the men and long, transparent skirts for the women that float over 50's style pants and bralets. Black ribbons criss-cross the upper body in a way that is vaguely reminiscent of a wrapped toga, but the tassels attached to them flap wildly and threaten to entangle themselves beneath a dancer’s arm. Their contribution to the costume is questionable and somewhat distracts from the calm simplicity of the opening.

However it’s not long before the stage is filled with dancers and the initial calmness melts away. Cue a cascade of entrances and exits, fleeting partnerships and pas de deux where partners slip from each other’s embrace like liquid. It's an elegantly constructed piece, something Wheeldon invariably does well.

In accordance with Bernstein's score each new scene marks a shift in tone. The shifts are subtle, distinguished by a soft adjustment of light or small choreographic quirks. The occasional flexed foot, a sudden burst of inverted lines, or a background scene in which the women are lifted across the stage like springing antelopes, suggest Wheeldon had some fun with this piece. In a work that feels a scene too long these touches draw the attention and offer something to reconnect with—as does Tierney Heap’s strong and striking performance in the closing scene.

The overriding sense is one of serenity and elegance. Accompanied by Jean-Marc Puissant’s minimalist set, a design that rises and lowers in simple linear configurations, “Corybantic Games” proves a sleek work in both aesthetic and choreography—even if its intended ideas find their voice in style rather than substance.

Rachel Elderkin

Rachel Elderkin is a freelance dance artist and writer based in London. She is a contributor to The Stage and a member of the UK's Critics' Circle. She has previously written for publications including Fjord Review, Exeunt, British Theatre Guide,, the Skinny (Scotland) and LeftLion (Nottingham) where she was Art Editor.



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