Fireworks and a fast ride

On paper, the highlight of the Royal Ballet’s new triple bill seemed sure to be Wayne McGregor’s premiere for the company.

But as they say, expect the unexpected. Instead, the night was a showcase for the extraordinary talent of one of the Royal’s newest principals, Sergei Polunin.

The 21 year old dominates the stage – and is completely at home on the stage – in a way I’ve not seen since the best years of Nureyev.

This being 2011, Polunin’s technique is much superior, but you don’t need to know anything about the specifics of ballet technique to appreciate the line, jump, flair and theatricality in a performance such as his in Balanchine’s Ballo della Regina.

It’s remarkable in its precision and perfection.

Any ballet company in the world would love to have Polunin in their ranks so the Royal is extraordinarily lucky that the Ukrainian chose to go to the Royal Ballet School in 2003 aged 13, and graduated into the company four years later.

Last Friday he danced the central pas de deux of Ballo della Regina with Marianela Nunez whose aplomb, warmth and generous breadth of movement reached out to the far corners of the auditorium.

Danced to excerpts from Verdi’s Don Carlo, the ballet is a bonbon in blue, with a sea blue backdrop, pale blue chiffon for the 12 corps girls and mauve for four soloist girls but it is the principals that carry the ballet in the same way as they do in Balanchine’s Theme and Variations where the corps is a delicate wrought iron lacework of support as they weave under one another’s arms, acting as a frame for the principals.

Near the end of Ballo della Regina the music takes the dancers into a processional sequence, perhaps a reference to the processional at the end of The Sleeping Beauty, in turn an acknowledgement of the birth of ballet in the French courts.

The 17 minute ballet should have been a glass of champagne before the sustenance of Wayne McGregor’s new work, Live Fire Exercise, but the sweet to sharp contrast between the two was jagged and interrupted by that other performance, the 30 minute interval when the audiences struts its stuff in the Floral Hall and red velvet crush bar then the shuffle back to the auditorium.

On stage, the mood changed from blue to khaki, from shimmer to army surplus, from daylight to gloom. Not an easy transition.

Wikipedia defines a live fire exercise or LFX as “any exercise in which a realistic scenario for the use of specific equipment is simulated.

“In the popular lexicon this is applied primarily to tests of weapons or weapon systems that are associated with the various branches of a nation’s armed forces, although the term can be applied to the civilian arena as well”.

In this case, the armed forces and weapons were represented by John Gerrard’s design – a background of digitally reconstructed 3D models (as explained in the program note) “around which a virtual camera viewpoint slowly operates”.

Translated, this was a slowly changing landscape of army vehicles and large cranes all of which appeared to move as if on a stage revolve.

Three couples, in dark green-grey sheer tunics and tights, danced before this wasteland in which a fire plume flared then died away.

The dancers lines, at times, mirrored the sharp angles of the machinery, and at others, broke away into more balletic steps and turns sometimes striking a discordant note against the background of devastation.

Program notes for LFX were dense but offered one rationale, that in history, war and ballet were linked and that the father of ballet, the Sun King himself, employed ballet as “a strategy of power”. (A bit of postmodernist word juggling can always find linkages.)

The six dancers powered through the 20-minute piece – danced to Michael Tippett’s score (Fantasia concertante on a Theme of Corelli, conducted by Barry Wordsworth) – with Eric Underwood, in particular, appearing to relish the muscularity of the choreography.

Bringing conflict and war to the dance stage is hardly new (The Green Table, Gloria) but here, the impact seemed blurred with the dancers overwhelmed by their digital setting.

The contrast with 5 Soldiers, a dance theatre piece by the Rosie Kay Dance Company I saw the following evening, was odd. This is a visceral work for five dancers whose sheer physicality and the simplicity of the set and props really bring home the impact of war. (More in another post to come.)

If Christopher Wheeldon had put up his hand as the next artistic director of the Royal Ballet, to succeed the outgoing Monica Mason, then the closing piece in the triple bill, DGV: Danse Ă  grande vitesse, would be a bold type bullet point on his CV.

It displays his strengths in every way. It’s an exhilarating ride for the audience, it stretches the dancers, it provides opportunities for more than just a handful of dancers (always a problem in major ballet companies), it shows his ability to choreograph for ensembles other than just as a frame for the soloists, and most importantly, it reveals his abilities as a choreographer of fresh ideas and beautiful imagery.

Set to a score by Michael Nyman, MGV: Musique Ă  grande vitesse, both music and dance express the qualities of a journey, whether by air, rail or dream.

Nyman was commissioned to write the music to commemorate the 1993 inauguration of the European line of the French train
Ă  grande vitesse, known as the TGV.

So the music is a fast ride, reminiscent of the score of an old movie in which a train rushes by and calendar pages are torn and thrown to the wind in a further evocation of time passing swiftly.

The two main elements of Jean-Marc Puissant’s set are a giant spotlight beaming down on the action from upstage right and a mesh structure upstage that could be sections of a train or the interior panels of a plan but also reminded me of Marc Newson’s Lockheed Chaise Longue.

As a former dancer himself, Puissant has designed dancer-friendly costumes, that is, they enhance the body and make everyone look elegant in their jewel coloured ribbon patterned leotards for the women and tops and tights for the men.

While the ensemble seems to act as the motor of the piece, the upfront engines are four couples.

In each of their pas de deux, the men hold the woman in lifts that suggest they are the figurehead of a ship, the wings of a plane, or the hood ornament of a luxury car (such as silver angels or bronze medallions). The most commanding of the women was Zenaida Yanowsky dancing with Eric Underwood in the first solemn pas de deux.

But each pas de deux expressed a different element of the fast dance ride, from playful (Australian principals, Leanne Benjamin and Steven McRae) to dream like (Melissa Hamilton and Gary Avis) to powerfully athletic (Sarah Lamb and Federico Bonelli), much like a journey that is embarked on with care, becomes a joyous holiday, moves into a state of timelessness, then ends with a fast re-entry.

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Danse à grande vitesse, Leanne Benjamin and Edward Watson, photo © John Ross

Live Fire Exercise, Akane Takada, photo © Bill Cooper

Live Fire Exercise, © Bill Cooper

Sergei Polunin