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Flash Review, 3-17: Infra Rushes As One
Some things new and a lot of clichés at the Royal

The Royal Ballet's Laura Morera and Carlos Acosta in Kim Brandstrup's "Rushes -- Fragments of a Lost Story." Photo by Bill Cooper and courtesy the Royal Ballet.

By Victoria Watts
Copyright 2010 Victoria Watts

LONDON -- As part of its recent triple bill at the Royal Opera House, young choreographer Jonathan Watkins got his first, perhaps only chance to stage a work for the Royal Ballet. The company is much in need of some new home-grown choreographic talent, having not produced a dance-maker of international significance since Kenneth MacMillan. On the evidence of "As One," Watkins is not going to fill that void.

The ballet begins by revealing one woman, Laura Morera in the performance I caught on February 19, through a square opening cut in the black curtain hanging downstage.  Morera performs a solo comprised of a familiar blend of 21st century dance clichés: an opaque gestural language, insufficiently decontextualised to be intriguing; virtuosic extensions; odd articulations shifting through the torso; unmetred phrasing with occasional pauses.  There are shades of Wayne McGregor in all of this, but it lacks the organic integrity of McGregor's own work. At the end of this solo the whole stage is revealed, scattered evenly with dancers, all costumed in grey with plenty of leg on show.   An overly long passage of unison ensues. It is static, contained, but not wholly uninteresting, prefiguring gestures (spider fingers on a keyboard, insistent jabbing at the TV remote) that will recur later in the ballet. My eye is drawn to Steven McRae, a little way back towards the center of the stage. McRae performs with a clarity of intention and a crystal quality of focus, that make the movement seem more dynamic and more nuanced when he does it.

All this is framed by a visually arresting curved bank of video screens that flash various silhouetted images of domesticity. In consequence the perils of combining video with live performance are highlighted. During several of the vignettes that follow, the giant slow-motion swimmers, lips, horse-racing and so forth pull focus from the dancing downstage, especially during 'Channel Surfing.' This duet for Edward Watson and Laura Morera is a vile  gender-stereotyped clash between an emotionally disengaged guy who won't take his eyes off the box or give up control of the remote, and a neurotic woman who frantically does housework and clamors for attention. Watson's long legs are impressive, but otherwise this reminds me of the worst kind of student modern dance from the 1980s, complete with prop sofa.

The next section, 'Urban Youth,' is hilariously unable to capture the drive, the virtuosity, and the passion of any form of authentic street dance. Five young men, in bright orange hoodies, track pants, and baggy tee-shirts roam in a pack under an installation of training shoes strung on telephone lines. Eric Underwood shows his brothers how to 'get down' with some hip moves and they copy him. It reminds me of nothing so much as the YouTube video of Korean prison inmates re-enacting Michael Jackson's dance moves. Not cool.

The Royal Ballet's Steven McRae in Jonathan Watkins's "As One." Photo by Bill Cooper and courtesy the Royal Ballet.

There are scenes of young people dancing in the kitchen at a house party, of young people waiting on chairs somewhere for something unspecified, while Kristen McNally dances a solo of nervous anticipation. She rubs anxiously at her arms, her legs, her torso -- in modern dance these gestures are a sure-fire signifier of the troubled mind. And Steven McRae gets an opportunity to show off his fine jumps and turns cast as a city trader on a trajectory towards total meltdown.  Towards the end, Watkins then tries to pull it all together. A large frame descends close to center stage and a square of light illuminates the space behind like a patch of sun through a window.  While Watson and Morera, still dressed in grey, stand and watch, the rest of the cast, now all in orange, gathers slowly behind the frame. A kind of calm settles on the dancers as they ease through a range of supported lifts and turns. I think Watkins wants this section to indicate a coming together of sorts, an antidote to the isolation and detachment evident in the previous scenes. But I see no connection between the dancers. There's a softness, but they seem distant, removed from themselves and each other, sans camaraderie. Watson and Morera join the group and they all step through the frame before spreading along the downstage edge of the proscenium. Yet more dancing in place follows, projected out to the audience rather than to each other. It's a chorus line manqué.

Watkins's new ballet comes off badly in light of the two pieces that follow. Kim Brandstrup's "Rushes -- Fragments of a Lost Story" does not have the most memorable movement vocabulary, but the partner work for the ensemble arcs with an earthy fluidity and as a whole the ballet is restrained, steering away from histrionic excess towards honest simplicity. The staging, between two transparent beaded scrim curtains, one far upstage and the other down, creates a complex, layered depth that shifts perspective seamlessly between cinematic 2D and corporeal 3D space. Brandstrup presents fragments of a love story of sorts, in which the three principles dance with finesse and passion. Carlos Acosta yearns for Morera in her flashy red dress. Life moves on. Alina Cojocaru lingers on the sidelines, watching, waiting quietly for a time when Acosta might need her. Morera continues to reject Acosta. He becomes violent, throwing a chair, clasping Morera too tightly, casting her forcefully to the ground. This seems like abuse to me but my guess is I'm supposed to feel bad for Acosta's having had his heart broken by the red-dressed Jezebel. When he is finally crushed by disappointment and rejection, Cojocaru is there for him. The final image is of Cojocaru supporting the man she has waited so long for, his cheek to her belly, arms around her, his long body stretching away and down to the floor where merely the tops of his feet anchor him to the ground.

The final work of the evening, Wayne McGregor's "Infra," is a treat for fans of his minimalist alien contortions and post-modern sensibility. McGregor has a very distinctive choreographic voice which can polarize opinion;  so watching the work is probably torture for audience members who aren't fans. This is the piece with the large installation by Julian Opie of digitally produced white figures strolling across a screen strung above the heads of the dancers and a quite hypnotic score by Max Richter. At times the dancers have an oddly fractious but tender relationship. A duet between Melissa Hamilton and Underwood is inhumanly sensual. A section of multiple duets, building until each couple is staged in an oblong patch of light, has a sense of fruitless urgency in which dancers twist, lift, touch, let go and shift position, repositioning themselves. Elite ballet dancers are strange creatures: it makes sense to me that of old they portrayed gods, ethereal creatures, and spirits. In McGregor's work the divine oddity of their skill is put to good use once more. Their feelings and relationships are distant cousins of our own, but amplified, mutated, evolved somehow.  I cannot end without mentioning Underwood's luscious grace in the solo McGregor has made for him. That alone is worth the price of a ticket.

The Royal Ballet's Melissa Hamilton and Eric Underwood in Wayne McGregor's "Infra." Photo by Bill Cooper and courtesy the Royal Ballet.

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