Jann Parry sees The Royal Ballet's triple bill: ‘Untitled, 2023', ‘Corybantic Games', and ‘Anastasia Act III'
|Title||UNTITLED, 2023 / CORYBANTIC GAMES / ANASTASIA ACT III|
|Company||The Royal Ballet|
|Venue||The Royal Opera House, London|
|Date||9-10 June 2023|
Curiosity about the mixed bill that ends the Royal Ballet's current season has centred on ‘the new McGregor', now called Untitled, 2023. The un-title refers to the practice of artists refraining from naming abstract works – in this case, the minimalist Cuban/American painter and sculptor Carmen Herrera. Wayne McGregor commissioned her first-ever stage set in 2018 when she was 102. She died last year, aged 106.
The white backdrop bears a triangular slash of emerald green that sometimes looks like a distant island as Lucy Carter's lighting changes colour and perspective. Stage right is a solid white form that resembles an upturned V. Dancers enter and exit behind it and their extended limbs, straight or angular, often refer to its shape. Unitard costumes by Daniel Lee (of the British fashion brand Burberry) feature green and white contrasts that break up body outlines. Merce Cunningham's collaborators often played with much the same design ideas.
It's odd that Cunningham's name goes unmentioned in articles and interviews because McGregor is similarly interested in openness of interpretation: “Let go of that conventional sense of meaning, let the feeling of the work unfold and see what you notice.” (McGregor quoted in a ROH programme note.) While Cunningham developed a consistent technique, aesthetic and dance idiom, McGregor experiments with different ways of moving, inspired by collaborators from different fields of expertise.
Watching his work for the Royal Ballet is like striving to understand a foreign language intermixed with familiar words and phrases from the classical ballet lexicon. In Untitled, I notice convulsive McGregor spine and neck rolls, a sequence of brisés volés, a duet with hypermobile extensions by the female partner, a gentle nuzzling and tumbling in a male duo. Two women (Melissa Hamilton and Anna Rose O'Sullivan) dance together on pointe, while the rest of the cast are in soft slippers. Unusually for McGregor, there's mirroring in pas de deux – two men in unison alongside each other, a heterosexual pair (Fumi Kaneko and William Bracewell) who appear halves of a Platonic whole: her unitard is white in front, green on the back and his colours are the other way round.
A succession of sequences for varying numbers of dancers has no readily discernible structure. The music, a soundscape of two works by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, surges and ebbs in volume and intensity, but although McGregor's choreography bears some relationship to the music, it's not determined by it. Eloquent pas de deux are followed by garbled group numbers; a fine, mysterious solo for Kaneko disintegrates into random fouettés and a stomp-off exit. McGregor's amalgamation of idiosyncratic contortions, classical ballet and Cunningham's aesthetic can seem disjointed. If you let the feeling of the work unfold, as McGregor advises, the effect, on me at least, is visually beautiful, far from abstract and somewhat frustrating.
Christopher Wheeldon's Corybantic Games is easier to enjoy in this revival from 2018 when it formed part of a tribute to Leonard Bernstein on the anniversary of his birth. The neo-classical choreography is a response to his violin concerto, Serenade, after Plato's ‘Symposium'. The Symposium text was a series of speeches in praise of Eros – love in its various permutations. The ballet's title refers to the wild, euphoric dancing of Corybantes who worshipped the Phrygian goddess Cybele. Wheeldon's choreography, far from frenzied, is playful, polyamorous.
Jean-Marc Puissant's set, together with Peter Mumford's lighting, evokes antique temple architecture. Erdem Moralioglu's costumes, however, hark back no further than the ghastly 1950s, simply because Bernstein's Serenade was composed in 1954: hence the female corsetry, unforgiving even on slender dancers. Black velvet ribbons are supposed to suggest armour for some reason, their flapping lengths now trimmed. The men's former mesh tops have been scrapped so that their musculature is more evident; some of the women wear long pleated skirts, changing into even bigger knickers when the skirts are abandoned. Still not a good look.
Wheeldon has invented a pseudo-antique balletic idiom, using 2-D parallel positions with angular arms, wrists, and feet. Clusters of men and women form triangular pyramids, like the low reliefs in Greek temple pediments. The men, who get the ballet going after a dreamy opening solo, are athletes, bonded and bounding. They are interrupted by a pair of women strutting on pointe, very like the ‘grey girls' in Nijinska's Les Biches. When more women take over, a corps of six complement the choreography for a leading lady (Annette Buvoli). Their intertwined choreography resembles that for the nymphs in The Sleeping Beauty's vision scene. They wind around her and assemble into charming tableaux with her as the centrepiece.
Then follows a speedy duet for two playmates (Fumi Kaneko and Ryoichi Hirano) to the concerto's scherzo movement. A music hall number, it ends with her being thrown into the wings. The witty duet serves as a prelude to the romantic fourth movement for three couples representing different forms of love: two women, two men, and a heterosexual couple. Although each pair has its own choreography, they come together to form picturesque groupings, ending peacefully in each other's arms.
The rousing finale is very like a Broadway dream ballet, with Bernstein's jazzy cadences prefiguring his West Side Story score. The cast of revellers is summoned by a Myrtha-like figure (charismatic Mayara Magri) to take part in a highly organised Corybantic celebration. Wheeldon is a skilled pattern maker, marshalling his cast in dazzling permutations that never become a visual cacophony.
The discordant sounds of musique concrète introduce the one-act version of Kenneth MacMillan's Anastasia, created in 1967. It serves as an indication that the audience is to be taken into the troubled mind of the woman who claimed to be Anastasia. (Several audience members left their seats.) Martinu's Symphony No.6 takes over as the woman struggles with memories or fantasies of her past. Laura Morera, who will make her farewell as a dancer at the end of the season, alternates in the role with Natalia Osipova. It's a fraught role because fragmented episodes from Anna Anderson's untrustworthy story are repeated incoherently – though they match the alternating moods in the music's three movements.
Morera reveals the changes in the woman's reactions to the repeated episodes: panic gives way to submission, longing, then defiance. Her only certainty is her hands. She looks into her palm, and extends a hand regally or lovingly to the man who saved her from execution. Then she puts both hands proudly on the bar of her bedstead as she sails round the stage at the end. Rasputin, her demonic manipulator, crosses himself – or possibly blesses her – as he kneels in the dark.
Morera leaves open the suspicion that she could be deluded Anna Anderson, convincing herself of muddled memories. When Osipova performs the role (10 June), she relives the ‘real' Anastasia's past, recognising family members and denouncing Rasputin as the imposter, not herself. Less nuanced than Morera's interpretation, Osipova's account is compelling, if melodramatic. As we now know, the woman wasn't Anastasia, though MacMillan rather hoped she might be.
Anastasia Act III – Laura Morera, Ryoichi Hirano, Bennet Gartside
Anastasia Act III – Natalia Osipova, Matthew Ball, David Donnelly
Jann Parry, former dance critic of The Observer (1983-2004), has written for many publications as a freelance, and has contributed to radio and TV documentaries about dancers.
She is the author of the award-winning biography Different Drummer, the life of Kenneth MacMillan (2009).