How should the Royal Opera House celebrate 60 years of The Friends of Covent Garden? Krumping? Balanchine? Don't stress, you don't have to choose, we're getting both in the buffet that is The Royal Ballet: A Diamond Celebration.
I was eager to understand what it means to be a Friend of Covent Garden, and how many there are!? Currently there are 21,000-ish (opera and ballet) and I'm sure what it means is very individual to each and every one. And what you get for £115 a year is:
- Access to rehearsals
- Exclusive behind-the-scenes content
- Earlier access to seats with priority booking
- Subscriptions to the quarterly Royal Opera House Magazine, the annual Season Guide and a fortnightly e-newsletter
- 10% discount at the ROH Shop in store and online!
I've definitely been eyeing the odd Xmas bauble…
So what's on the menu I hear you non-friends scream: “The showcase will demonstrate the breadth and diversity of The Royal Ballet's repertory in classical, contemporary and heritage works. It will also include world premieres by Pam Tanowitz, Joseph Toonga and Valentino Zucchetti plus the Company's first performance of For Four by Artistic Associate Christopher Wheeldon and a performance of George Balanchine's Diamonds” – they aren't messing around.
The programme opened with the overture from Frederick Ashton's La fille mal gardée. Projected onto a black screen was the premise of the performance and quotes from selected Friends about their Royal Ballet experiences. The overture really got me in the mood for Fille… and then the curtain lifted to reveal a blue cyc. No atmospheric set etc. Gala format here we come.
Anna Rose O'Sullivan and Alexander Campbell had the tough job of dancing first and their performances were more than commendable. Campbell is a good Colas as he's a demi-character style dancer of note. He breezes through the challenging choreography relatively unfazed, but I'd like to see his port de bras a little bigger in action. More projection is needed. O'Sullivan as Lise was quaint but needs more use of the body. I missed the Ashtonian bend and rotate throughout and also craved more stillness in her phrasing. I quietly kept wondering “where's Laura Morera?” for surely she's a Friends' favourite? And she's a damn good Lise as we all know.
Next followed Kenneth MacMillan's Manon Act 1 Bedroom pas de deux with Akane Takada and Calvin Richardson. Nothing is easy out of context, and this definitely isn't. Though Des Grieux had a desk at least, and Manon replaced her bed with a screen.
The first thing I noticed was Takada's default Manon mannerisms when not doing actual choreography. This seems to have become the go-to for most, if not all interpretations. It's like they have an itch on their neck and ears. Hands and arms everywhere at once. I've seen it enough. Also her shoes were very noisy which took away from the moment. Things improved though: she had great gusto when attacking the big lifts and really covered some space. Richardson seemed in control of the action and certainly looked the part and he's clearly being tested for the next run of shows.
Qualia by Wayne McGregor is a no for me, though it was beautifully executed by Melissa Hamilton (alabaster gymnastics) and Lukas B. Brændsrød (pliable beefcake). Choreographically I was mostly reminded of Xenia Onatopp. For anyone unsure, Onatopp was a James Bond villain who killed her victims through strangulation with her thighs. As I watched, I craved the pas de deux from Herman Schmerman by William Forsythe (1993).
Christopher Wheeldon's For Four (2006) received its UK premiere. The thinking man's virtuosic divertissement. As always Wheeldon's work looks polished and well-rehearsed. The silhouette start was powerful and informed by rich colour behind. The movement featured a Wheeldon staple of classical port de bras that morphs into angular or gestural developments. It feels original and fresh. As for the four men:
- Matthew Ball is dancing well. I think he's working hard in class as the execution is looking very clean.
- James Hay looked sophisticated and controlled but needs more projection in his movement – it can feel small.
- Vadim Muntagirov was out of his (Petipa) comfort zone which is great to see. He's always wonderful to watch but when pushed tempi and coordination wise it's even more intriguing.
- Marcelino Sambé was full throttle throughout, but at times felt a little imprecise. It would be interesting to see him explore all facets of his capabilities.
The piece is expertly structured but feels a bit flat at times and the Schubert string quartet doesn't help matters. Even extremely well played chamber music still can't fill an opera house. Choreographically I'd lose some of the grand pirouette pull-in moments as they felt a little too frequent. But Wheeldon uses direction well, even within the proscenium frame, and he lets us see the dancers in 360 degrees which is appreciated.
See Us!! by Joseph Toonga was an interesting and largely successful first commission for the main stage. The piece started and finished with a lone dancer in the Black Lives Matter raised clenched fist emblem. Toonga's ROH bio states that “his craftsmanship and signature choreographic style challenges conventions… and shifts audience perceptions by addressing racial stigmas and societal stereotypes”, and I wouldn't disagree. I was engaged throughout the whole 11 minutes, as was the cast of twelve. Toonga confirmed in an Insight evening at the ROH (6 November) that he uses a base of Krumping and Popping styles in his dance language. The movement, therefore, works around (physical) tension and impact, and the gestural inclusion can be read narratively: a clenched fist, gun-shaped hands, arms in a ‘hands up' positioning.
Toonga's relation to the music is generally more emotive than rhythmical but the best moments choreographically were when he took the score more literally. Be that regular, pulsed movement, or more melodic, slow-mo adagio phrasing. The score by Michael ‘Mikey J' Asante (recently enjoyed at Ballet Black also) had a lot more to offer. As did the dancers. I didn't dislike what they'd created together but I think Toonga needs to challenge himself a little bit more content-wise. This work was very him – which is important – and I'm not suggesting that that element be diluted, but I do think he should use the resources in front of him more keenly. Exploring a more codified, classical language within his existing creative framework could allow for the development of a truly interesting syntax. But a success regardless – the work had purpose and filled the house.
Next followed another (first) main stage commission. Dispatch Duet by Pam Tanowitz with Anna Rose O'Sullivan and William Bracewell – both super, part model/part dancers. The only way this work can be described is fresh-as-fuck (apologies). Tanowitz was featured in the Royal Ballet's World Ballet Day 2022 schedule on YouTube and said something concise yet profound in the intro about her creative method: “My work comes from the making of the thing. As I'm making it, we're making meaning together.” Talk about mind melt. Does that mean her choreography has no initial intention behind it, making it pure dance?
When trying to define Tanowitz, and her work, I agree with the New York Times which labels her as a “contemporary postmodernist”. It makes sense when you think of what made postmodern dance definable: “gestures [that] often lacked musical accompaniment [or direct relation]”, “nonlinear, collagelike quality” (from the same NYT piece). These elements are very Tanowitz. But what's expressly her within the work? Well everything, obviously. Apart from the tasteful, relaxed, modern costuming of Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung, and the score, from the open back wall of the theatre, the use of the space in front of the proscenium and the anti-flow presence of deconstructivism, it all screams NOW. Her seemingly random ordering gives no clues as to what's coming next, so consequently you can't look away or lose concentration because it's intriguing. The same can be said for the Ted Hearne score. It could be named ‘does anyone know what the hell is going on?', and the answer is (rivetingly) NO!
The pure dance agenda means that you can focus solely on the choreography, and she takes us everywhere. Minute detail, projected line, 2D disconnected form, grand manège with both spatial and travel intent. Partnering that verges on engineering, and a beginning and an end that could be something or nothing simultaneously. She's a freaking magician. Wherever you see the work you're transported to New York. The home of truly experimental, genre-defining dance. And it's clearly still the case.
Tough act to follow, and not even Natalia Osipova and Steven McRae could manage it. The pair danced in concerto pour deux by Rambert's Artistic Director Benoit Swan Pouffer. Without entertaining a possible premise there's a very evident vibe: witchy woo chiffon and silk DRAMA, helped no end by the wailing Saint-Preux score. Choreographically it was predictable and inoffensive. Osipova has become the Isadora Duncan of classical ballet – it's more feeling over form than ever before, but I'd watch her shopping in Asda. The level of involvement and expression is palpable. McRae didn't have much to do, but he moved generously and well with what he was(n't) given.
And to Prima by Valentino Zucchetti. If honest, the last thing I saw of Zucchetti's (Trio Pathétique, available on the ROH YouTube channel) didn't leave a good impression. It felt archaic. Prima proposed the opposite, feeling fresh and new, in an 80s way, but more of that later. The piece opens with the cast of 4 dancers in silhouette – again. Not the best programming choice referencing the For Four silhouette action already seen earlier. Immediately one can see something unusual costuming wise and once the lights lift it's confirmed. In a good way. 80s bright, clashing colours and random circular designs are in full flow by fashion designer Roksanda Ilinčić. Each dancer is dressed differently in both colour and style of dress. Zucchetti has good taste; his first cast are Fumi Kaneko, Mayara Magri, Francesca Hayward, and Yasmine Naghdi. They all danced brilliantly. It felt like a statement of sorts, reconfirming the new generation of principals. A Pas de Quatre for 2022. And to the movement.
During the Insight event (6 November) Meaghan Grace Hinkis (Hayward's second cast) mentioned similarities between the choreography of Ashton and Zucchetti, and it's an astute analysis. Having been to the Royal Ballet School and joining the company (after Zurich and Norwegian) one would kind of expect it from Zucchetti's work. But I also sensed New York City (Ballet) vibes. NYCB is renowned for pushing new work, and taking risks. Prima had the same kind of pulsating energy and Zucchetti challenged the dancers movement-wise, subsequently bringing their dancing to the stage in a very zeitgeist way. Though extremely well-rehearsed it didn't feel staid, and that isn't easy to do.
Throughout we saw fast, precise footwork, serrée petit allegro, challenging multi-directional phrasing and whimsical play. He featured a great, leitmotif port de bras phrase which saw the dancers command the space. They took one arm from the front to the back of the body with a ripple-like motion along the horizontal plane, simultaneously goading and restraining the observer – simple but provocative. Zucchetti also uses pirouette well. Instagram and YouTube are distasteful hotbeds for “watch me do a multiple pirouette with a long, drawn out, kind of ugly preparation” style content. Not in Prima. There are many different kinds of pirouettes executed, but they're all mid-phrase, connected, and with almost invisible preparations, as they should be: another very NYCB/School of American Ballet/Balanchine technique trait. That said there's another fouetté renaissance moment, last seen in Stina Quagebeur's Take Five Blues at English National Ballet. Naghdi executed 6 (I think) double fouetté turns, bang front and centre. Impressive sure, but also why? In short Prima works as all involved are inspired. Zucchetti by the dancers, and they by him. This bodes well. And I'm sure Kevin O'Hare already has many plans in place.
And to Balanchine's Diamonds, the 3rd movement of the seminal full evening work Jewels (1967) that closed the Diamond Celebration programme: Balanchine's balletic ode to his homeland and their regal approach to the art form. Balanchine abroad is perhaps a different thing to Balanchine at NYCB, and the old NYCB guard would say the current City Ballet offering isn't what they would consider pure Balanchine either. So how should one view the work? From a pedigree or looser perspective?
The ballet opens with a waltz for the corps de ballet and two soloists and it wasn't a good start. The choreography is simple and repetitive so needs uber execution, which was missing for me. This is the pedigree I mentioned. Students at SAB are trained in the studio to be ready for Balanchine's work and my observations (to date) have leaned towards the more rather than the less emphases in their movement technique. Pose beyond the toe, relevé with true lift, tight footwork, lengthened ‘finished' fingers, and projected line. If honest, I missed all of the above to the point that I started thinking about Viviana Durante in Kenneth MacMillan's Act 2 Anastasia pas de deux for Mathilde Kschessinska which uses the same Tchaikovsky score. Not good. Claire Calvert came closest to doing the choreography justice as she was showing some actual dynamic content. And does she have the best feet in the biz? Talk about line!
I've seen Diamonds at both NYCB and the RB previously with some great casts. And the Opera House are of course leading this opening night with their prima ballerina Marianela Nuñez. I've always acknowledged Nuñez's capability as a dancer but with her maturity, I've been able to find an even broader appreciation. Such skill and dedication can't and shouldn't be denied. She can basically do anything, probably in a hurricane also, with such ease. She really is a ballerina. The work is impeccable, right through to how she does her hair. The chignon always feels higher placed than others, which in turn allows for a long neckline and regal head alignment – stunning. In fact, she uses her head and back now more than ever, fuelling expression, which is definitely a keeper.
The pas de deux was basically seamless, and Nuñez had a great connection with her Cavalier; the recently promoted (to principal) Reece Clarke. Extremely tall, Clarke has both presence and authority on stage. Regarding the dancing, I'd question some of Nuñez's choices musically and emphasis-wise though, but that's the prerogative of an ‘assoluta'. However, with more finish in her port de bras, and accented stillness in phrasing I think we'd see, and feel more of the choreography.
Nuñez dances even better when alone in my opinion. In the Scherzo she was more alive, more accented. I'd love to know her inner monologue when dancing, but I'd hazard a guess she wasn't saying nice things about Maestro Koen Kessels. When doesn't Kessels push tempos? But, this slight discomfort brings a more engaged, reactive Nuñez to the party – so yes please Koen! Clarke is rising to the challenge of being a principal but there are still aspects that need work. Allegro-wise he needs a quicker takeoff to encourage a more ballon look. His relevé action needs more height, and pirouettes need a flatter, more open back. I'm saying more a lot, but more dynamic range also.
It's impossible not to love the end of Diamonds – choreographically it whips the audience into a frenzy, but also the cast. I wondered if Nuñez might spontaneously combust at one point. Her Instagram account often includes the #ilovemyballerinalife hashtag, and she clearly does. And why the hell not?! It's evident she works like a dog, and it pays off. She's doing exactly what she was destined to and she's doing it extraordinarily well. Brava.
And bravo to Kevin O'Hare for curating a balanced programme that echoed what the Friends of Covent Garden should represent. The equal importance of the past, present, and future. A mantra surely transferable to dancers, choreography, audiences, and the art form as a whole. Hopefully.
THE ROYAL BALLET: A DIAMOND CELEBRATION
MARKING 60 YEARS OF THE FRIENDS OF THE ROYAL OPERA HOUSE
Conductor KOEN KESSELS
ORCHESTRA OF THE ROYAL OPERA HOUSE
L A FILLE MAL GARDÉE – OVERTURE AND PAS DE DEUX
Choreography FREDERICK ASHTON
Music FERDINAND HÉROLD
Arrangement and orchestration JOHN LANCHBERY
Designer OSBERT LANCASTER
Rehearsal Director CHRISTOPHER SAUNDERS
Dancers ANNA ROSE O'SULLIVAN, ALEXANDER CAMPBELL
MANON ACT I ‘BEDROOM' PAS DE DEUX
Choreography KENNETH MACMILLAN
Music JULES MASSENET Orchestration MARTIN YATES
Designer NICHOLAS GEORGIADIS
Principal Coaching EDWARD WATSON
Dancers AKANE TAKADA, CALVIN RICHARDSON
Choreography WAYNE MCGREGOR
Design WAYNE MCGREGOR and VICKI MORTIMER
Staging EDWARD WATSON
Principal Coaching ANTOINE VEREECKEN
Dancers MELISSA HAMILTON, LUKAS B. BRÆNDSRØD
Royal Ballet Premiere
Choreography CHRISTOPHER WHEELDON
Music FRANZ SCHUBERT
Costume Designer JEAN-MARC PUISSANT
Lighting Designer SIMON BENNISON
Staging JASON FOWLER
Rehearsal Director CHRISTOPHER SAUNDERS
Dancers MATTHEW BALL, JAMES HAY, VADIM MUNTAGIROV, MARCELINO SAMBÉ
String Quartet VASKO VASSILEV, ANNA BLACKMUR, AMÉLIE ROUSSEL, CHRISTOPHER VANDERSPAR
Choreography JOSEPH TOONGA
Music MICHAEL ‘MIKEY J' ASANTE Orchestration PETER RILEY
Lighting Designer SIMON BENNISON
Assistant to the Choreographer THEOPHILUS O. BAILEY
Dancers MICA BRADBURY, ASHLEY DEAN, LETICIA DIAS, LEO DIXON, BENJAMIN ELLA, OLIVIA FINDLAY, FRANCISCO SERRANO, JOSEPH SISSENS, AMELIA TOWNSEND, MARIANNA TSEMBENHOI
Choreography PAM TANOWITZ
Music TED HEARNE
Dispatches by Ted Hearne, copyright ©2015 by Unsettlement Music (ASCAP)
Costume Designers REID BARTELME and HARRIET JUNG
Lighting Designer SIMON BENNISON
Assistant to the Choreographer MELISSA TOOGOOD
Répétiteur DEIRDRE CHAPMAN
Dancers ANNA ROSE O'SULLIVAN, WILLIAM BRACEWELL
concerto pour deux
Choreography BENOIT SWAN POUFFER
Lighting Designer SIMON BENNISON
Assistant to the Choreographer JASON KITTELBERGER
Dancers NATALIA OSIPOVA, STEVEN MCRAE
Choreography VALENTINO ZUCCHETTI
Music CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS
Costume Designer ROKSANDA ILINČIĆ Lighting Designer SIMON BENNISON Senior Répétiteur GARY AVIS
Dancers FRANCESCA HAYWARD, FUMI KANEKO, MAYARA MAGRI, YASMINE NAGHDI
Solo Violin VASKO VASSILEV
DIAMONDS FROM JEWELS
Choreography GEORGE BALANCHINE © The George Balanchine Trust
Music PYOTR IL'YICH TCHAIKOVSKY
Costume Designer KARINSKA
Set Designer JEAN-MARC PUISSANT
Lighting Designer JENNIFER TIPTON
Staging and Rehearsal Director CHRISTOPHER SAUNDERS
Répétiteur SAMIRA SAIDI
Benesh Choreologist ANNA TREVIEN
Dancers MARIANELA NUÑEZ, REECE CLARKE
CLAIRE CALVERT, LETICIA DIAS, ISABELLA GASPARINI, ASHLEY DEAN, LUCA ACRI, NICOL EDMONDS, CALVIN RICHARDSON, JOSEPH SISSENS, ARTISTS OF THE ROYAL BALLET