Liam Scarlett has experienced mixed fortunes of late. His full length Frankenstein for the Royal Ballet last year was widely criticised, while his emotive piece No Man’s Land – seen as part of English National Ballet’s Lest We Forget triple bill – was a harrowing but captivating piece told concisely.
Now, Scarlett returns to the Royal presented with another prime opportunity to showcase his talents. Symphonic Dances is a substantial one act piece created to display the physical prowess with soon-to-retire Principal Zenaida Yanowsky. There is a dramatic and distinctive colour palette of reds and blacks, and Yanowsky takes centre stage in a billowing skirt. She is admired from afar by the male corps; the Queen surveying her kingdom in which they are her tiny pawns. She is strong and demands respect, her commanding presence and Rachmaninov’s powerhouse of a score creating an opening that packs a punch.
Unfortunately however, Scarlett’s work all too easily runs out of steam. The 45-minute piece is divided into sub-sections, the second of which sees Yanowsky take on a more androgynous look in a asymmetrical jacket. It’s a piece that although is engaging and passes quickly, it’s a struggle to decipher anything particularly happening. There’s some intriguing interplay between Yanowsky and her many admirers but this never draws to a satisfying climax. She is left standing scrutinising her corps for long periods which she does capably but it feels like a waste when she is so adept at creating more intense drama.
There is an all too brief pas de deux with a cautious James Hay whom she towers over intimidatingly as he attempts to melt her ice Queen exterior. Yanowsky invites him in before casting him aside with ease. The piece finally builds to a mesmerising few moments where Yanowsky and Reece Clark, a more physically equal pairing, dance in a compelling climax. It may end of a high but the overall sense is one of a disappointing emptiness.
The excitement of the Scarlett world premiere is preceded by a generous prelude of three shorter works. William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude is a snappy opener to the evening featuring five dancers in a punishing and dynamic tour de force. It’s warp speed choreography that demands precision in it’s technique and delivery, and some handled it more successfully than others.
This is not a work that can be performed under rehearsed, and only when the dancer is at ease with the physical demands can any natural musicality and personal interpretation shine through. Marianela Nunez and Steven McRae’s experience was apparent here. They zipped through this formidable 15-minutes with satisfying aplomb.
However, Schubert’s score is a ferocious challenge and recent replacements Beatriz Stix-Brunell (covering for an injured Sarah Lamb) and Akane Takada (replacing Lauren Cuthbertson) struggled, lacking the necessary sharpness. With such precise choreography a flicker of hesitation transmits loud and clear to the audience.
Having been treated to George Balanchine’s Jewels last month, we are left with an all too fleeting input of Balanchine choreography in wonderfully frenetic ten minutes that is Tarantella. In contrast to The Vertiginous Thrills, Francesca Hayward and Marcelino Sambé ripped through this frantic gypsy-themed party piece with panache.
Both of these dancers are young and fiercely committed, they dance Tarantella as if they were born to do so, possessing both the necessary charisma and technique in abundance. Sambé is a delight, his endless energy in the jumps and leaps, as well as his confident partnering, is impressive. Meanwhile Hayward is joyful and I particularly enjoyed her stylish jetés. Together the pair make a delightfully carefree partnership, and this was a near-perfect display I could watch multiple times over.
This fast-paced tone was brought to an end by the inclusion of Christopher Wheeldon’s Strapless. Premiered only last year, Strapless is strengthened by visually strong staging and thoughtful touches that evoke the Victorian era. Natalia Osipova is her silky-smooth best in a black velvet gown with crystal straps but the choreography is unexciting and underwhelming.
It’s a story of opulence and high society that should be thrilling but it’s bewilderingly slow to get started. Even the sensuous pas de trois between Osipova, artist John Singer Sargent (Edward Watson) and his lover, Albert (Matthew Ball) cannot enliven the storytelling. The imagery, Sargant’s vision of his lover that comes later, is too obvious and the unveiling of the completed painting is drawn out, so much so that the audiences forget any investment they had in the characters.
Criticisms aside, it’s danced by a mouth-watering array of principals who do their best to uplift the piece from its failings. Watson is a neurotic, self absorbed protagonist who agonises over his decisions convincingly, evidence of his recent stint as Prince Rudolph in Mayerling still present. Osipova is flawless, her glorious extensions and technical strength saving the day, she exudes a knowing mischief as she toys with Samuel-Jean Pozzi (Federico Bonelli) and latterly Sargant. However, to become less of a chore, Strapless requires some ruthless editing and choreographic reworking.
Although, the inclusion of the Wheeldon piece is jarring in a bill that features no other linear narratives, this is a largely enjoyable and varied evening of contemporary ballet. It demands a plethora of emotions from these diligent dancers and who commit themselves wholeheartedly to everything thrown at them.
First published on LondonDance.com
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