Royal Ballet: Agon / Sphinx / Limen @ ROH, London

performed by
Leanne Benjamin, Yuhui Choe, Helen Crawford, Tristan Dyer, Mara Galeazzi, Bennet Gartside, Melissa Hamilton, Nathalie Harrison, Paul Kay, Hikaru Kobayashi, Brian Maloney, Sarah Lamb, Stephen McRae, Laura McCulloch, Marianela Nunez, Ludovic Ondiviela, Rupert Pennefather, Ivan Putrov, Johannes Stepanek, Leticia Stock, Akane Takada, Lara Turk, Eric Underwood, Edward Watson

directed by
Although Limen, the new work from the Royal Ballet’s Resident Choreographer, Wayne McGregor, is the piece that has caught the headlines, the two other ballets that make up this triple bill are equally strong, creating an overall programme that could not be more delightfully varied if it tried.

The evening opens with Stravinskys final, though nevertheless groundbreaking, ballet, Agon, choreographed by Balanchine. Designed as a Concerto for the dance, it was written in 1953 at a time when the composer was exploring Arnold Schoenburgs method of 12-note serialism.
It opens with four men in a line, their limbs moving fluidly, their white t-shirts contrasting with the blue backdrop to create an air of constrained excitement. As the eight women join them, a quartet of white tops and two quartets of black leotards form, before the movements of individuals acting against the group dynamic serve to mix and blend the colours.

Elsewhere, Yuhui Choe delivers an almost precociously brilliant turn in a pas de trois with Bennet Gartside and Johannes Stepanek, and Nathalie Harrison and Eric Underwood perform a captivating pas de deux. At one point, their two sets of arms wrap around each other, and as they appear almost to climb through the resulting ring, it makes their entire dance feel like an out of body experience.

Glen Tetleys Sphinx, inspired by Jean Cocteaus 1934 play, La machine infernale, focuses upon Oedipuss encounter with the Sphinx. It shows how this merciless guardian of the pass above Thebes suddenly succumbs to love, and consequently perishes. The ballet is rather too clever for its own good, and I found myself simply marvelling at the beauty of the movements as Marianela Nunezs Sphinx interacted with Rupert Pennefathers Oedipus, rather than analysing the Sphinxs demise in microcosm.

But what beauty there is. Nunez is lyrical, and every now and then there is a wonderful moment when her body hits a point mid-movement where it suddenly forms a single diagonal line from head to toe. Pennefather is agile, muscular and all conquering, whilst Edward Watson makes up the trio as Anubis. A master at applying stylistic integrity to his movements, it never occurs to us that he is consciously thinking about his steps. Instead his body flows freely through space and the overall effect is of one swimming frenetically through air. The power of the performance is also aided by Willa Kims minimalist costumes, conductor Barry Wordsworths considered approach to Martinus score, Henry Roches insightful solo piano playing, and the sumptuous Art Nouveau-style ramp on stage, itself forming a Greek Sphinx.

And then comes McGregors Limen. Using Finnish composer Kaija Saariahos cello concerto, Notes on Light, which captures a solar eclipse, there is a strong sense in which we are witnessing the before and after of a main event that remains tantalising intangible. As with all McGregors works, there is no one single meaning and the characters do not move in straight lines from a narrative viewpoint.

With set and video design by Tatsuo Miyajima, the piece opens with the dancers performing behind a blue screen upon which numbers float, as if the dancing is taking place within a trigonometrical cosmos. Throughout, the dancers jerk and tumble and lift, support and pass each other in a series of routines. At the end, all fifteen dancers appear in flesh coloured costumes and adopt poses that possess all the sweeping grace of a Canova sculpture, but also a fluid vitality that no statue could ever deliver.

The piece does not feel quite as revolutionary as McGregors Infra did on its first appearance in 2008 (perhaps because it follows it so quickly), but it does seem a degree more accomplished, the next step forward on McGregors exploratory path. It may not be long before the Royal Ballet stages an all-McGregor triple bill, and, also on the basis of such works as Chroma and Nimbus , such an evening would surely be as pleasurable as this one.

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