Electric Counterpoint/Asphodel Meadows/Carmen @ Royal Opera House, London

A revival of Christopher Wheeldons award-winning Electric Counterpoint opens the Royal Ballets latest triple bill programme, with Leanne Benjamin stepping into Zenaida Yanowskys (ballet) shoes.

An exploration of the digital age, Benjamin, Sarah Lamb, Eric Underwood and Edward Watson dance against video projections of themselves. Its also biographical, featuring sound clips of each dancer talking about themselves and as artists.
The projections are duplicated to form a virtual corps de ballet while also conveying a slightly spooky sci-fi effect, complemented by the retro-yet-futuristic sounds of Steve Reichs guitars and a Kraftwerkesque set. Not only are the dancers personalities laid bare, as are their styles. There is no escaping when its just you on stage and were treated to Watsons light and speedy frapps and Underwoods poetic agility. Wheeldon might have walked away from his own company, and no one may be sure where he would end up, but Electric Counterpoint does prove why we care in the first place.

The evening ends with Mats Eks cartoonish Carmen supposedly the showpiece of the evening but in fact the most unsatisfying. Its nice to see the corps so alive they shout! They sing! They yell incoherent phrases in a language we dont understand! But just as well its a well-known story, because the narrative is not explicit. Thus, when it comes to the inevitable ending, it wasnt shocking, and Don Joss murder felt as though it had come out of nowhere. Importantly, the tragic impact of Carmens death was diluted by Escamillos melodramatic Spanish yelping, which provoked some laughs, but at the wrong time. To make matters worse, in a rare Royal Ballet faux pas, Bennet Gartsides screaming Escamillo even managed to carry the lifeless body of his lover into a wall.

It is undoubtedly a very funny Carmen, and its full of theatrics. But all the cigar-lighting, ribbon throwing still could not compensate for the fact that theres not as much ballet as there perhaps should be for a closing piece. Eks choreography for the women may be deliberately flat-footed, brashy and crude, but one cant help but think there must be a less literal way of doing things.

Although its hard to fault Tamara Rojo the part practically has her name on it (Alina, Marianela et al just wouldnt have cut it) its all posing and not enough dancing. The Habanera where Carmen teases the surrounding men, and composed so to place her sexuality and freedom on full display was particularly disappointing. Were not seduced by this Carmen, and the men hardly look at her.

The character of M was more puzzling still. Carmens direct opposite (womanly, gentle, devoted), in Eks version M is a ghostly figure representing both Joss life before Carmen and possibly his subconscious. But why her steps are so comic and exclusively so is baffling, however.

Congratulations to Liam Scarlett, who has become the youngest choreographer to present a piece on the Royal Opera House main stage. Naturally, all eyes are on Asphodel Meadows.

Scarletts choreography is charming like all great modern ballets, it feels simultaneously old and new, a sense of time frozen. At times, put the corps in petticoats and it feels like a romantic ballet, yet the placing of the arms and the dancers formations are undeniably modern.

Asphodel Meadows is the Greek underworld that lies between Elysian Fields and Tartarus. It is the middle ground, neither where the saintly goes nor the place for the evil; Scarletts conscious choice away from the potentially more dramatic impact of heaven or hell although it is a shame that this motif is not exploited more in the dance.

Scarlett has opted to keep his Asphodel Meadows abstract. Although hes very much a classical choreographer, at times there seemed to be a defiance to get away from that, and these steps looked at odds with the rest of the piece as a whole.

But what he really showed was his confident command of the stage and use of his classical heritage in a contemporary setting. The three parts of Poulencs concerto are divided into three distinct parts, all with a slightly different feel, featuring a central pairing Marianela Nuez/Rupert Pennefather, Tamara Rojo/Bennet Gartside and Laura Morera/Ricardo Cervera. The underrated Morera outshone her partner in the jubilant, lightning-fast final section.

Against a moving black screen and plain lighting, with some very quirky movements set to the deceptive simplicity of the piano score, Asphodel Meadows received raucous applause. Perhaps its not too premature to ask Mr Wheeldon to watch his back.

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