At 7.25 on Friday evening, anticipation mixed with excitement mixed with concern in the Royal Opera House auditorium. Forget The Sound of Music this was the hottest ticket in town, not least for the world premieres of two highly anticipated new works. Chroma, with choreography by Wayne McGregor and designs by John Pawson, more interestingly boasts a score from rock band The White Stripes, re-orchestrated by Joby Talbot.
On paper, it did not look promising one of those foolish genre fusions that is usually consigned to either the ‘if only’ file or the ‘complete waste of time’ file after its premiere and the Royal Ballet regulars looked as awkward with the concept as the White Stripes fans looked awkward just to be there.
Half an hour later, and the thunderous audience reception suggested that the performance had gone better than most expected. Indeed, it turned out to be one of the most exciting premieres of any art-form that London has seen this year. Chroma is a glorious and highly articulate piece of theatre, with astounding choreography matching a percussive, almost mechanically rhythmic score.
McGregor’s use of bodily distortion is ever-present, but is here transformed into a new harmonic language. With all the painful postures, awkward manoeuvres and unorthodox routines required of the dancers, McGregor manages to avoid even the essence of ugliness. Rather, the choreography seems to emancipate the body; to discover a completely new freedom of the limbs that is then manipulated and distorted itself. The minimalist white backdrop and drained costumes only add to the tension and thrill of the dancing.
The other premiere, if not as surprising as Chroma, provided a heart-stopping end to the evening. Danse grande vitesse uses Michael Nyman’s 1993 composition of a similar title as a basis for exploring the idea of movement, and it does so with the most tremendous imagination. The most heart-stopping moment comes at the very end, when Nyman’s score ends on a crushing climax but the choreography continues in complete silence; the dancers seemingly suspended in a hushed, timeless void. It is rare to see two world premieres on one night, and even rarer for them both to work, but I sense that both will be returning next season and for many more after that. In between, Balanchine’s classic The Four Temperaments seemed rather like an anti-climax. The finale in particular did not excite in the way it normally does, while the solo piano of Henry Roche hacked away with no sense of purpose.
However, here and throughout the evening, the soloists were excellent. In Chroma I was particularly impressed with the black dancer, Eric Underwood, who explored McGregor’s flexible, almost feminine male choreography with a secure Classical technique. In the Balanchine, the three opening themes were flawless, while Viacheslav Samodurov characterised excellently, for all the heaviness of his landings. Judging by the curtain calls, I was the only one there not overly impressed by Carlos Acosta, who seemed to be living on his reputation a little too much. However, he partnered an effervescent Darcey Bussell, who also impressed in DGV with the most delicate, poignantly fragile dancing.
Edward Watson looked shattered by this third work, having danced in all three, but his movement remained of the highest quality throughout. His solo with an especially sultry quartet of girls in The Four Temperaments showed a complete ease in the air. In DGV Zenaida Yanowsky was exceptional, while Frederico Bonelli entered with purpose and inhabited the stage.
The conducting of Richard Bernas was adequate. Cowbells lagged behind the beat in Chroma, as did untuned percussion in the thanklessly minimalist third work. However, the orchestra provided fine accompaniment, and nothing more was needed in this instance. Director Monica Mason should be proud of herself.