The Philip Glass triple bill at Rome Opera Ballet showed off three very different choreographic styles to one composer’s music. Glass has a way of seducing the listener into his world —his music is guileful and hypnotising. The mainly minimalist component to his music results in there being a stronger connection with Vivaldi or Bach than Wagner or Strauss, so it is not surprising that these earlier composers are often turned to by modern choreographers, just as they turn to Philip Glass.
Benjamin Millepied’s Hearts and Arrows, Jerome Robbins’s Glass Pieces, and Nuit Blanche, a new piece by Sébastien Bertaud, were on the programme.
It’s hard for any work to stand up against Glass Pieces, a perfectly cut gem. Created for the New York City Ballet in 1983, it was rightly used as the programme’s centrepiece and continues to surprise by its originality and creative spark. The unrelenting busyness of the first part has the corps de ballet moving in random crisscross patterns across the stage, everyone is going somewhere, like commuters at a train station during rush hour, yet everyone is alone; there are no pairs or groups. They are dressed in brightly coloured practice clothing with the women in short skirts. Out of this disorder appear three couples dressed in pastel-coloured unitards: Federica Maine and Alessio Rezza in yellow, Elena Bidini and Giuseppe Depalo in salmon, and Eugenia Brezzi and Simone Agrò in pale green, and they are cool, confident and coordinated. They occasionally succeed in inspiring the others to form cohesive movements too. They move through the chaos with classical ballet movements creating islands of harmony in a sea of turmoil.
The second part features a long, almost slow-motion pas de deux beautifully interpreted by company principals Rebecca Bianchi and Claudio Cocino, with the women of the company moving slowly from stage left to stage right near the backcloth, sometimes in profile, sometimes facing the audience, but as they are backlit, they are anonymous, black shadows. It is as though that even in the intimacy of night, there is a hidden army of people working to keep a city operating… the city is probably New York itself.
The last part feels tribal with the choreography exclusively based on the use of groups, with hunched-over running, geometric shifting around the stage, and many, many jumps. The Rite of Spring-like insistence demands participation; no one is alone now. Everybody is included in the highly-coordinated and demanding collective movements. The ballet doesn’t conclude as such, it just stops. The music is suddenly interrupted and the dancers freeze… if not it could have gone on forever, in the city that never sleeps.
Hearts and Arrows opened the programme. It is part of Millepied’s trilogy Gems for his L.A. Dance Project and uses the music of Glass’s String Quartet n° 3, “Mishima”. It is Millepied’s response to George Balanchine’s Jewels – both were commissioned by Van Cleef & Arpels. Hearts and arrows are features seen in a well-cut diamond, and those that exhibit these features are said to shine the brightest, and vertical lighting towers with spotlights shining down on the eight dancers form the scenery. This work corresponds to Balanchine’s Diamonds. It would be futile to compare the two because they have nothing to do with each other except for the concept and their sponsor.
The original costumes in 2014 had the dancers in black and white, though here they are coloured rather like the costumes in the first section of Glass Pieces. Maybe this is because Millepied shot a film of the work in Los Angeles’s concrete riverbed and the city’s suburbs in 2015 which had the dancers in street clothes. The choreography often recalls other works — as with the Twyla Tharpian casual backward runs — but is challenging in its athleticism as dancers twist around each other, roll on the stage, and leap high. The dynamics between them are in continual flux, though the overall effect is casual: a group of friends hanging out in the park – playing, flirting, testing each other, filling time. The work is pleasing, the dancers were a tight-knit team, but the relationship with diamonds escaped me completely.
Although the publicity for the programme’s new work seemed more excited by the fact that the designs were by Maria Grazia Chiuri (the artistic director at Christian Dior Couture) than by the piece itself, Nuit Blanche was characterised by a chic charm for many aspects of its staging, not just for its fabrics and cuts.
Bertaud’s choreographic voice was not particularly distinctive at first glance, though it was attractive and allowed the principal couple, Eleonora Abbagnato and Friedemann Vogel, to be framed beautifully, yet not to dominate the piece. It is set to Glass’s Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, and Abbagnato and Vogel had a sustained duet in the second movement, the longest of the three, and it was a reminder of what star quality is about. Although there was the occasional jeté, it was the slow, sinuous movements which impressed, as they entwined their bodies with perfect and poetic control.
The dozen or so other dancers on stage worked well together, both for the more demanding sections of the choreography and especially for some striking shapes made from varied groupings. The women – in dark-grey calf-length gauzy skirts overlaying a floral design with semi-transparent tops decorated with flowers and petals – could have walked out of a Norman Parkinson 1950s photo shoot; the men had the transparent top style descending to clad their whole body. The meticulously cured lighting was dim giving the entrances and exits a mysterious, ethereal quality, and the backdrop had simple mist-like streaks on black – it was a gossamer-coated dream.