Review – dual premiere mixed bill (Balanchine’s “Ballo della Regina,” McGregor’s “Live Fire Exercise” plus Danse a Grande Vitesse) – Royal Ballet at Royal Opera House

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Last night was a fabulous evening of mixed short productions at the Royal Ballet – not just a world premiere (Wayne McGregor’s “Live Fire Exercise”) but a new Balanchine (“Ballo della Regina”) for the Royal Ballet, plus a remounting of “Danse a Grande Vitesse” (from 2006). To think that this wealth of investment in dance comes on top of a brand new full-length ballet earlier in the year (Alice) – I’d like to thank Monica Mason and whatever magic she has that has made this kind of money show up to grace our stages with new art. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

For “Ballo della Regina,” I’m pleased to report that the Royal Ballet has chosen a delicious, tender and exuberant Balanchine to add to its repertory. I was spoiled with Balanchine back in Seattle; I find the Royal Ballet is suited to its disciplined style. Marianela Nunez was (save one bobble) graceful and delicate turning by an unusual lifting and dropping of the toes (rather than a pirouette); Sergei Polunin was strong and effortless when partnering her. I was struck by the contrast with the Dutch National Ballet’s von Manen bill of the night before: his “Adagio Hammerklavier” seemed to have the Balanchine style but was utterly lacking in emotional connection. Yet in this piece, Balanchine had Polunin not just making constant, intent eye contact with Nunez while executing the complex signature hand-turnings; he also at one point leaned forward for a second to rest his cheek against her arm. It was a tiny, human gesture that perfectly captured what was missing the night before; a connection between the two leads that spoke of universal humanity rather than just being bodies in space.

Of course, what I will take away from Ballo was the just brilliant work Polunin did in the air. The height! The daring! I don’t even have the words for all the different crazy things he did with his legs and the way it all looked like he was born to spend his life springing off the ground as if, perhaps, in his other life he might have been wearing blue tights and a red cape. “Ballo della Regina,” perhaps; I dub this ballet “Ballo della Rex*.” It was unmissable and I felt like my whole night had hit such a high that if I saw nothing else it would have all been worth while.

Next up was Wayne McGregor’s “Live Fire Exercise” in its world premiere. It started with a big video on stage showing animated trucks and equipment moving around on a desert landscape; then a ball of fire exploded upwards and the dance begun. At first, watching the initial pair of dancers clinging to each other and struggling, I thought perhaps here we had a response to the Japanese tidal wave and the Fukushima disaster; I was excited to think he’d went for something so topical and so contrary to his normal technophilia. (And no, I didn’t read the program notes – I think I should be able to understand ballet without having to be told what’s going on. If you have to spell out what happened that extensively, you’re doing it wrong. I’ll go back and see what he said it was all about once this is published.)

But as the dance went on, the movement seemed to disintegrate into … random movement with no context, simply one pose after another, as if Cunningham had taken the wheel and people were no longer at the center of the event. The dancers slid across the slick stage on flat feet; they occasionally seemed frantic; the girls were held upside-down; at one point a woman slapped the stage with her hand. The ball of fire seemed to have no connection with anything; it was only interesting when the dancers stood so close to the projection that they became silhouettes. At one point one of the men covered his partner’s eyes with her hands; and truly, it was all too terrible to bear watching. The fire ended, the screen went to black and white, the little video trucks drove away … and it was over. Such a let down. Much like David Bowie, I feel like Wayne McGregor has run out of new ideas. Maybe he’ll get lucky and Lady Gaga will do a piece with him – God knows she’s got innovation to spare.

This over, my speechless companion and I decided to head into the night, skipping Danse a Grande Vitesse, which I found dull when it debuted and didn’t care to see again. It was a beautiful spring night; I’d seen Sergei Polunin rise to the stars in “Ballo:” it was now time for visiting and relaxing and drinking some nice wine and trying to put “Live Fire Exercise” behind me.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, May 13th, 2011. Performances continue through May 25th. Travelzoo has a deal using the code PZOO for selected dates of this ballet – 24 quid amphi tickets for 10 pounds. I’d say it’s totally worth it just for Ballo alone, and to be honest I do like the Michael Nyman score for “Danse a Grande Vitesse” so you’ll probably feel like it was worth it in the end.)

*With a better control of the language, Ismene Brown calls this “Ballo dello Re.” Ah well, I really ought to learn Italian.

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