As I settle in to my second visit to the Royal Opera House, with a slightly less vocal audience than on the opening night, there was a palpable sense of relief that we were physically present, in a socially distanced auditorium and happily watching an alternative cast. It was a real eye-opener. Kevin O’Hare continues on his mission to show us that The Royal Ballet is saturated with talent throughout the ranks, offering opportunities to the youngest and newest Company members. It was probably necessary to programme this quadruple bill in a particular order to accommodate technical or scene changes, especially as the final ballet required a deluge of snowflakes as a constant, falling from the flies (the crew have to abide by COVID rules too). However, it might have been preferable to end with the radiance of Christopher Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour, full of charm and meticulously crafted choreography. Instead, in spite of wonderful dancing and choreography throughout, the mood seemed to darken as the evening progressed. This is not a reflection of the quality of work, but more to do with the ongoing struggle to identify who was who, on an increasingly dimly lit stage.
Wheeldon’s Golden Hour descends upon us like a warm summer’s evening, so musically rewarding (Ezio Bosso), with sheer, shimmering costumes (Jasper Conran) and Peter Mumford’s glorious lighting design. The uplifting mood, steps sitting so comfortably within the intricacies of the choreography, which segues seamlessly from one part to the next, makes for gratifying viewing. This is one of the most aesthetically pleasing creations, certainly a favourite of mine and as danced by both casts that I saw, showcases the purity of the style so often associated with The Royal Ballet. It’s impossible not to anticipate with glee, the duet performed by two men requiring exceptional speed, and on both occasions Leo Dixon and David Yudes, then Francisco Serrano and Aiden O’Brien proved worthy exponents, though another cast, Téo Dubreuil and David Donnelly have yet to be eclipsed. The pas de deux throughout were exemplary and I particularly liked the pairing of newly promoted principal Anna Rose O’Sullivan with Vadim Muntagirov on the first night.
Optional Family: a divertissement was a world premiere and a first creation for The Royal Ballet by American choreographer Kyle Abraham. Already highly respected across the pond, Abraham presented us with what felt like an appetiser prior to the main course (which will be a new work for the Company in 2022) coming in at just 10 minutes. It opened with a reading of correspondence between spouses who are weary of each other after 35 years together. The letters, written by Abraham are witty and gritty. Robotic voices deliver stinging, yet amusing ripostes before we see the aggravated couple embark on a series of quicksilver moves, jumps and spins that convey emotional strife with rapid delivery. Natalia Osipova and Marcelino Sambé were the couple in the first instance, both powerful in their portrayals. Their spat at the back of the stage was delicious. The stranger/character (or does he simply represent ‘desire’, which has been lost?) who comes between them was corps de ballet member Stanisław Węgrzyn, giving us yet another opportunity to see a young dancer in a solo role. All three gave memorable performances although the relationship between Węgrzyn and the couple remained ambiguous. The alternative cast was a revelation. Claire Calvert is already well known to Opera House audiences and gave a very different account from Osipova. Calvert dances beautifully, with lovely lines, footwork and deft execution of the many pirouettes and jumps, but she was outperformed by her colleagues. The two men are less well known but both gave extraordinary performances. As the interloper, Joseph Aumeer gave a remarkably mature account. Always notable for his strong stage presence, he has the ability to convey emotion and drama via every muscle in his body. Even preparations convey intent. The softest of landings from high jumps; controlled, languorous pirouettes that bask in the ease of his balance; a breadth of movement that singles him out for his grace – his performance will surely secure more solo roles. The other role was taken by Brayden Gallucci who I don’t recall seeing before. However, it is unlikely that I will overlook him in the future. Again, his movement style is very distinctive. Pliancy and clarity abound – a name to watch.
After the interval, came two works by Crystal Pite, created for Nederlands Dans Theater in 2016 and 2012 – both were new to The Royal Ballet. The Statement is the 21st century response to Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table which was created in 1932 and depicted the futility of peace negotiations. Pite’s The Statement is set in a boardroom, presumably within the confines of a large corporation, whereupon two employees are asked to give a statement to someone from “upstairs”. To a clever dialogue written by (and partly spoken by) Jonathon Young, a regular collaborator of Pite’s, it is both pithy and at times, amusing – with the cast of four dancers expressing the words with conviction and brilliance via exaggerated body language and movement. Tom Visser’s lighting adds to the drama which builds to a dramatic crescendo, exploding all the tension associated with errors and differences of opinion. It’s worth mentioning that both casts were a balance of senior dancers and corps de ballet and without exception, engaging both physically and dramatically. On opening night, Ashley Dean, Kristen McNally, Joseph Sissens and Calvin Richardson absolutely hit the spot. The alternative cast was Amelia Townsend, McNally again, Joshua Junker and Matthew Ball – what an intriguing mix of risk and security, which brought about startling successes.
The closing piece, Pite’s Solo Echo, was inspired by Mark Strand’s poem ‘Lines for Winter’. Set to two movements from two different sonatas by Johannes Brahms and exquisitely played by Robert Clark (piano) and Christopher Vanderspar (cello), the music alone was worth the wait. The angst ridden choreography is movingly depicted and especially effective, was the second half where bodies connect, interlink, unfold and reform in intriguing ways. There is an urgent feel to the choreography, infused with melancholy, which finishes with the loss of the central character (Sambé or Luca Acri). Pite’s choreography is eminently watchable, as were each of the casts, but closing with a piece alluding to death, however abstractly, leaves one feeling a tad subdued.