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Eric Underwood in Wayne McGregor's "Chroma." Johan Persson photo courtesy Royal Ballet.

Copyyright 2010 Victoria Watts

LONDON -- I applaud the Royal Ballet for putting together several mixed bills of work this season, including the ones I saw May 5 and June 10 at the Royal Opera House, that have acknowledged the company's heritage (much as I mostly loathe Kenneth MacMillan, I respect that he made an important contribution to ballet in the UK and as such should be honored), supported the creation of new works (the lifeblood for any arts company) and provided challenges to keep both audience and dancers metaphorically on their toes. So what if Jonathan Watkins's work "As One" (reviewed previously) struggled to balance ambitious intent with meaningful execution? It did at least try to say something distinctive. It did register as a piece of art of its time and demonstrated that Watkins is alert to the world outside the ballet studio. He surely still has some very interesting work inside him and I hope he gets the opportunity to make it.

By contrast, Liam Scarlett's new work "Asphodel Meadows," seen on May 5, garnered loud bravos but for my taste was too safe and indistinct, and totally lacked a 21st century sensibility. Even in the most abstract of works, I should surely get some sense of the broader cultural milieu in which a work is made. The timeless classicism of ballets by Petipa, Frederick Ashton, and George Balanchine all resonate with the varying conditions of their production. I understand dance to be a cultural practice like any other in that it is part of the tug and tussle of history, politics, music, visual art, social conditions, and emotional consciousness of its time. When I watch new work I want to sense that, if only obliquely, but "Asphodel Meadows" fails to connect to its own time and place.

This ballet of lost souls starts well. A thin line of light upstage at ground level throws into relief the exquisite perfection of a simple walk backwards. Leg extends point tendu derriere, weight shifts and the other leg extends devant, pausing for less than a fraction of a slow heartbeat before pulling in and through to begin again. The lights brighten and against a white backdrop decorated with vertical smudgy black strokes, like a blown-up detail from a Gerald Scarfe cartoon, three couples take their turn to dance amidst a small corps of couples in pallid earth-toned costumes. The opening groupwork is performed with dash. I have a thing for dancers really launching themselves into the movement, getting through it and beyond it so what I see is the energy as much as the shape, and thus this augured well. However, Scarlett did not sustain this intensity but rather slipped into some very predictable and wholly unremarkable arrangements of steps. Apart from enjoying the alacrity with which Laura Morera and Ricardo Cervera danced their variations I was mostly bored and then wholly mystified by the fervid reception the dance received. The woman behind me stamped and screamed. The grand dame I sat next to was as underwhelmed as I.

On this evening it was the performance of Mats Ek's "Carmen," created for the Cullberg Ballet in 1992, that offered a chance to see just how versatile the dancers with the Royal Ballet are. Ek's choreographic language is only distantly related to the danse d'ecole. His quirky expressionism demands low, grounded runs and walks, an exaggerated use of deep plié, and a spine that either undulates, forgive me, with the force of projectile vomit or remains ramrod straight even when dipping through pendulous arcs. I would have believed the cast had been dancing in this way day in and day out for their entire careers, and some credit must go to rehearsal directors Pompea Santoro and Veli-Pekka Peltokallio for this.

The boldly geometric stage design, the colorful costumes, the construction of narrative, the almost parodic musicality of the phrasing in response to Bizet's familiar melodies, the comic vocals when Carmen (Tamara Rojo) and José (Thomas Whitehead) are arguing, and the emphatic use of gesture give the dance the feeling of a cartoon. This does not diminish the emotional impact. It heightens it. Rojo was fierce and funny as Carmen, inhabiting the part so completely that one might think it had been made with her in mind. I would like to see the Royal Ballet acquire another of Ek's reinterpretations -- his "Giselle" perhaps. It's a canonical piece now, and there's no doubt the dancers here could do it justice. Of course, Britain has its own classical ballet revisionist, but Matthew Bourne can only wish he could choreograph this well.

Leanne Benjamin and Eric Underwood in Christopher Wheeldon's "Electric Counterpoint." Johan Persson photo courtesy Royal Ballet.

On May 5 the triple bill kicked off with Christopher Wheeldon's "Electric Counterpoint," and there was more Wheeldon on offer on the June 10 program, which sandwiched his "Tryst" between Wayne McGregor's "Chroma" and George Balanchine's "Symphony in C." I scribbled lots of notes about both of Wheeldon's works and certainly in each there are moments, tiny moments of brilliance that I would like to see over and over again. The final image of "Tryst," in which a field of silhouetted dancers, profile to the audience in a shallow parallel squat, unfurl over and over again like time-lapsed sprouting beans sticks with me. The first four solos with avatar in "Electric Counterpoint" would also bear repeat viewing. Edward Watson, Sarah Lamb, Leanne Benjamin and Eric Underwood duet with images of themselves and the use of technology here seems thoughtful, purposeful, and appropriate. However, subsequent sections when the whole space is opened up to the four dancers and their digital counterparts are rather clumsy in their interplay between live and projected image. In spite of attempts to give a sense of depth and of perspective with the size and spacing of the virtual corps de ballet, the effect is still one of 2D images projected onto a wall, and the relationship with the four live soloists becomes obtuse.

McGregor's 2006 "Chroma" comprises seven sections set against short wordless tunes by Joby Talbot and Jack White III of the White Stripes. The set, designed by architect John Pawson, is pale and blank and cavernous with two passageways for entrances at either side and a large aperture at the back. With artful lighting, the planes of the space advance or retreat, and the blank colorless arena glows warm, mutes in grey, or glitters in icy chill. As the cliché goes, to all intents and purposes this is an abstract work. It is a ballet about space, about form, about human colors and dimensions. With McGregor it is never just that though. All facets of the human condition are played out and commented on through the interactions and pronouncements of our not-quite-worldly over-evolved cousins the ballet dancers.

The first section frames a struggle between Edward Watson and Tamara Rojo. There's a brutality and a bombast in the music that squashes the dancers. The sound presses in on them, distorting their bodies, impelling conflict and discord whenever they get within reach of cooperation and compromise. The next episode puts me in mind of a scene from Star Trek. Captain James T. Kirk has encountered an alien lifeform and we watch with him as they go about their business in almost human ways. It's the retro tingling of the music, the oddly seductive movement, and the bizarre neck jerks and head thrusts that take me to another galaxy.

I beg your forgiveness, for in the third section I succumb to fetishizing the body of Eric Underwood. I know I shouldn't, but I can see no one else when he is dancing. There's a long and disgraceful history of marvelling at the 'animal grace' and primitive nobility of African-American dancers. It's an age-old ploy by which anyone who is not a white straight man is defined purely by body, undermining claims to full subjectivity. I promise that's not what I'm intending to do here. Underwood just really is exceptionally beautiful and gifted as a performer. His walk is eloquent, his upper back is fluid, and his extensions are precise and controlled. I enjoy that McGregor's choreographic harshness tumbles into flashes of jazzy humor in Underwood's punctuated ripples and rolls. All this successive and sequential movement through the torso can't help but bring to mind the great Asadata Dafora's 1932 virtuoso solo "Ostrich."

The fourth section is a male trio that features Steven McRae and does all that a Steven McRae fan might hope. There is such perfect clarity to his dancing that even the most astonishing virtuosity appears to be somehow obvious.

By the fifth section all the disjunctive beauty of the dancing has made me a little mournful and the qualities of tenderness and mild panic in the movement crystallize for me. I can see nothing but creatures flailing in an oil slick. Each twist of shoulder, flap of arm, shrug of leg looks to me like a futile attempt to escape and get clean. It is heart-breaking. I cannot shake this interpretation for the 6th section when again the dancers seem to be floundering in their own constricted grace.

The final section builds to three exhilarating trios dancing in unison and ends abruptly with a snap to black. A reprieve. Perhaps a Rapture.

(From top) The Royal Ballet's Tamara Rojo in Mats Ek's "Carmen"; Rojo and Steven McRae in Wayne McGregor's "Chroma"; Sarah Lamb and Edward Watson in Christopher Wheeldon's "Electric Counterpoint"; Rojo and Thomas Whitehead in "Carmen"; and the Company in Liam Scarlett's "Asphodel Meadows." Johan Persson photography courtesy Royal Ballet.

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