Bach is made for dancing

Plus: Directors of Swan Lake could learn something from Channel 4's reality TV show Big Ballet

15 February 2014

9:00 AM

15 February 2014

9:00 AM

Royal Ballet Triple Bill

Royal Opera House, in rep until 15 February

It appears that J.S. Bach’s music is to theatre-dance what whipped cream is to chocolate. Masterworks such as Trisha Brown’s MO, George Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco and a plethora of less-known, though equally acclaimed compositions owe a great deal to the giant of baroque music. Wayne McGregor is the most recent addition to this illustrious roster of successful Bach-inspired dance-makers with Tetractys —The Art of Fugue, which world-premièred last Friday.

Set, as the title implies, to Michael Berkeley’s orchestration of The Art of Fugue, played on the piano by Kate Shipway, the new work stands out for the intensity of the dialogue between music and dance. Linear beauty dominates a majestic series of trios, quartets and duos, which materialise out of the darkness in line with the developments in the score. The choreography, in which elements of McGregor’s known style are mixed with formulae that are not so typical of his vocabulary, is perfectly encased in Lucy Carter’s lighting shades, which, in turn, provide the background to Tauba Auerbach’s costumes and sets.

Both McGregor and Auerbach focused on Bach’s well-known use of symmetries. Yet each responded differently: the choreographer with ideas that moved from the classic dance idiom in its purest form to more unconventional and less linear readings; the designer, with pastel-toned colour blocks for the costumes and lighting installations that come to life in line with the music, creating shapes and patterns that reflect and highlight the score’s geometries. Their efforts thus blend seamlessly.

The designs are never invasive, and the dance, with its shifts from linear simplicity to quirky-looking, appropriately neo-baroque inventions, remains constantly at the forefront, splendidly executed by 12 of the Royal Ballet’s best artists. Among them was the newly acquired star Natalia Osipova, whose Giselle sent ripples of both approval and disapproval through ballet-goers and balletomanes earlier in the season. In the old Romantic ballet, her airborne quality looked amazingly impressive — even though a tad inappropriate in the first act, in which the character has to be more earthbound. In Tetractys, she impressed viewers with her extreme suppleness, displayed in those physically challenging neo-baroque solutions mentioned above.

The new ballet was sandwiched between two monoliths of British choreography: Ashton’s Rhapsody and MacMillan’s Gloria. Both brought down the house. In the former, Laura Morera and Steven McRae gave a performance to remember. McRae is one of the few who can dazzle audiences without indulging in vulgar, cheap tricks. Which makes him ideal for Rhapsody, where dance pyrotechnics must always be matched by noble poise and behaviour. As for Morera, her understanding of the stylistic requirements and interpretative subtleties are second to none. I only wish the corps de ballet had been more in unison. The ever so poignant Gloria is an ideal vehicle for stars such as Carlos Acosta and Sarah Lamb. Their rendition crowned what, as a whole, was a beautiful evening.

On my way out I was asked to comment on Big Ballet, Channel 4’s new reality TV show that challenges ballet’s long-held tenets and canons. I am sure the question was designed to elicit rather vitriolic comments. Lo and behold, it did not, as I think the programme, despite its televisual predictability, has many strong points. Not least the fact that in his selection of ‘big’ dancers, ballet high priest Wayne Sleep makes sure that there is an aesthetic unity in his unique corps de ballet, and that his ‘swans’ understand perfectly what it is all about. Which is something many ballet directors ought to do more often.

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