Jann Parry sees Northern Ballet's triple bill: Generations
|Venue||Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House London|
|Date||31 October 2023|
Federico Bonelli, who took over as artistic director of Northern Ballet last year, was back in familiar territory in the Royal Opera House with his curated triple bill for the Leeds-based company. He was surrounded on the first night by former colleagues and Northern Ballet supporters, lamenting reduced Arts Council funding and threats to the company's orchestra. From April next year, tours might have to take place without live music, an option resisted by the Musicians' Union. The Linbury season had just three musicians, violinist Geoffrey Allan and pianists Ewan Gilford and Colin Scott.
The programme's title, Generations, encompasses new works by two up-and-coming dancer choreographers, Benjamin Ella and Tiler Peck, and an established ‘classic' from 1973 by 91-year-old Hans van Manen. Ballet based, it's a well-balanced mixed bill that audiences should relish everywhere NB can still afford to tour. All three works portray aspects of love in their own distinctive ways.
Tiler Peck's commission, Intimate Pages, is a coup for Bonelli. A leading dancer with New York City Ballet turned choreographer, she attracts media attention as well as admiration for her multi-skills as actress, designer and presenter. London audiences last saw her in her own show, Turn It Out with Tiler Peck and Friends at Sadler's Wells in December last year. She brings her New York dynamism to her creation for ten dancers, an imaginative response to Janacek's String Quartet no 2 (recorded, for the Linbury performances).
The central character (Harris Beattie on the first night) seems an updated version, in my interpretation, of the danseur noble searching for unattainable love. A toughie, he is tormented by visions of desirable women in red, unable to decide which might be The One. As the music surges, he is tempted by three sirens – perhaps different aspects of his elusive ideal, Sarah Chun. Aerys Merrill is flighty, with an airy jump, while Heather Lehan is seductively soulful. Three men tease and thwart Beattie by carrying Chun away, although she returns to beguile him. Janacek's yearning theme drives him into delirium as he flings himself around the stage in hectic leaps. Like Albrecht in Giselle, he's in danger of being danced to death. Beattie survived, just.
Benjamin Ella's Joie de vivre, to eight pieces for piano and violin by Sibelius, is more romantic. His six young people are playful, courteous to each other until adolescent squabbles break out between the boys. Couples test their connections, swapping partners before a secure relationship is established between Dominique Larose and Joseph Taylor. Ella, a soloist with the Royal Ballet, makes use of Ashton's low lifts rather than acrobatic ones, though the combination of spins and catches in the partnering can be tricky. He has his cast respond to the folk elements in the music, as in Ashton's A Month in the Country. At one point, the cast pauses to listen to the musicians in the ‘pit' below the stage: pianist Gilford and violinist Allan.
Ella's choreography follows Sibelius's dansant music so closely that when there's a glissando for the piano, a man slides full-length along the floor. The men are boisterous, the women flirtatious, until, near the end, Larose and Taylor declare their commitment, the most mature of the three couples. Light-hearted and charming, Joie de vivre may be conventional, but there's nothing wrong with that.
Van Manen's Adagio Hammerklavier, created 50 years ago, is still surprising. A pity about its 1970s costumes, though, borrowed from English National Ballet's production: baggy cotton underwear for the bare-chested men (with glittery necklaces) and ill-fitting Grecian tunics for the women. The clean lines the six dancers make, three pairs matching each other precisely, are all-important. They pause as they move from one sculptural position to another, holding still as if for a snapshot – van Manen is a renowned photographer. Colin Scott plays Beethoven's Piano Sonata no 29 at the very slow tempo van Manen requires, making the ballet a solemn ceremony. The dancers frequently raise their arms in wide V-shapes, heads and chests uplifted, resembling angels poised in flight.
The women are treated with reverence by the men, who support them in potentially precarious balances and renversés. Each pas de deux has a different emphasis, restrained or declaratory. Suppressed erotic tension breaks out when a woman unexpectedly throws herself into a man's arms or plunges in a backbend. Joseph Taylor has an assertive solo, watched by Larose, who waits until he's ready to devote himself to her once again. In the intimate space of the small Linbury theatre, the audience is kept at a distance by the dancers' introspection. They acknowledge each other near the beginning and end with slight turns of their heads. They only acknowledge us when they take their bows to our appreciative applause. As van Manen knows, less can be more.
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).