01 April 2010

Concerto/The Judas Tree/Elite Syncopations - Royal Ballet @ Royal Opera House, Wednesday 31st March 2010

To a half-empty Opera House yesterday to see an extremely mixed bill in honour of Kenneth Macmillan, a bitter, angry old queen whose signature style of choreography still defies pinning down. The evening felt cheap and “thrown on” and nobody really seemed to be dancing their best. There was a real “its mid-week, there’s only rubes in so let’s not bother pushing the envelope” feel to the whole evening. The performance wasn’t helped by an extremely idiosyncratic grab-bag of short items, seemingly plucked out of the air at random. A better selection might have done much to improve the overall feel of the evening.

The first out of the bag was Concerto, a “pure dance” piece to music by Shostakovich and with no plot. I must admit straight out that I’m not a great fan of pure dance, but by the second movement, this was really working its magic on me. I think it was the effect of the wonderfully lit stage, with an enormous low-hanging sun (I thought it was setting, but then I’m a “glass half empty” person and it could just as well have been rising; in my own defence, the generally autumnal colours of the costumes gave it an “end of summer” feel). Pretty shapes, nice music, interesting choreography (although my brain kept trying to force some kind of narrative on it) – although there was some incredibly sloppy lining and spacing going on, which my eye always seemed to be focussing on.

Next up was The Judas Tree, the type of ballet which completely turns me against the entire art form (and yet its one that gets the most column inches in all the reviews). Horrible discordant “weasel music” of the kind which a four year old produces at their first violin lessons, ugly choreography and an incoherent storyline overlaid with semi-religious overtones. Much as I fought to overcome my prejudices and open my mind to the piece, the shutters came down after about five minutes and I started tuning out; after ten minutes I was staring into space and not registering anything other than the sight of hunky young men stripped to the waist. Otherwise, not worth the effort. It was Macmillan’s last work and shows just how confused and desperate to please he had become – unfortunately it’s a real case of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

This piece then poisoned my mind to the evening’s last offering, Elite Syncopations, another “nothing” ballet danced on a completely bare stage. Unfortunately this also appeared to be a desperate attempt at crowd-pleasing by Macmillan, in his “straining for a laugh” mode; there’s no subtlety of humour such as in Ashton’s Les Patineurs, merely clowning. And the costumes kept getting in the way visually – when 30 or 40 people (including the on-stage band) are dressed up like rejects from Chipperfields Circus, your vision gets tired by the bright colours and attempts to pick out the details of each individual costume and silly hat, rather than concentrating on the movements. There were two people wearing exactly the same costume which became glaringly obvious when they were close together and annoying when they moved apart. It may have been well-danced but again, there were spacing issues and wobbly lineups all over the place.

Macmillan choreographed several short ballets and I think it would have done his memory better service if we’d seen something like Winter Dreams (which is based on Chekov’s Three Sisters) or maybe explored some of his more obscure stuff – I’ve never seen Valley of Shadows, Gloria, Fin du Jour or Different Drummer and they all seem intriguing titles. This particular triple bill seemed just that bit too safe, and there was a definite lack of sparkle to the evening.

For such short pieces (25 minutes, 35 minutes and 36 minutes) I completely fail to see why the Royal Ballet insist on such incredibly long intervals of 30 minutes each. Two of these intervals add a whole hour to the proceedings and I could have been home in time to watch Kitchen Nightmares without them. Still, I suppose the upper crust have to have time to swill their champagne and wolf down their smoked salmon sandwiches without getting indigestion.

And still no sign of the Destribats in the Benefactors list. They've been missing for a good couple of years. Maybe the recession is hitting them hard.

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