Sensual and silky: the Royal Ballet returns to Covent Garden

27 June 2020

9:00 AM

27 June 2020

9:00 AM

Live from Covent Garden

Royal Opera House, viaYouTube


BBC Four

Wayne McGregor’s Morgen! and Frederick Ashton’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits are the first pieces of live dance — streamed in real time from an empty auditorium — to come out of Covent Garden since March. Unaware that recordings would be available afterwards, I clung to these fleeting displays with the panic of grandparents on a Zoom call, furiously, helplessly slapping the screen whenever it buffered.

Both are quick ballet interludes to longer opera programmes — not afterthoughts, exactly, but not centrepieces either, though with two shirtless danseurs and a beloved ballerina between them, they do just fine asserting their presence. Vadim ‘the Dream’ Muntagirov tackles the Ashton work, reaffirming his repute with a soulful take on this five-minute lamentation, choreographed in 1978 to Gluck. With his lyrical hand gestures and silky, wistful turns, Muntagirov all but begs us to witness his melancholy. His leaps are spongy, his lines supple and searching. Best of all are his développés derrière, which unfold like spun sugar against flautist Katherine Baker’s quivering notes.

I expected itchy energy from Francesca Hayward and Cesar Corrales in McGregor’s Strauss-scored piece — the ins and outs of their self-isolation have been well documented on Instagram — but the new work is a polished gust of amorous clasps, more tender than McGregor’s usual fare and more accessible too.

We open with a serene close-up of Hayward reciting verse from the poet John Henry Mackay: ‘Upon us will descend the muted silence of happiness.’ Wide-eyed and soft-tempered, she’s a doe at the riverbank, while her partner slinks in with more of a serpentine vibe, coiling his torso in currents that send his limbs skittering. These visages compete more than harmonise — with Corrales’s graphic undulations winning out — though the overall effect is fluid, intimate, especially when muscular lifts morph into sensual cradles.

BBC Four’s new series Danceworks profiles four recent productions and their creators. ‘Firedance’ is the flashiest of all: an eye-grabbing mash-up of ballroom, Latin and contemporary dance from Strictly stars Gorka Marquez and Karen Hauer. Between the stylised primping (witness Marquez running a personal massager over his pecs) and the low-stakes conflict (think train delays on opening night), it’s a fairly predictable narrative. Can the good people of Ipswich handle this hot-and-heavy display? Yes, it turns out! But we’re promised fire, and the duo does sizzle, even when they’re sweating it out in their Fulham studio, away from the glitter and pyrotechnics.

Contemporary choreographer Sharon Eyal is more elusive. The filmmakers, possibly unnerved by her offbeat sensibility, decide to present her creation with little comment. We see Eyal’s dancers bobbing like sexy androids while she throws out directions such as ‘now come the screams’. Her interviews to camera feature righteously smeared lipstick and a casual declaration that she favours extremity. I would’ve loved a deeper dig into the nuances of her body-pumping style — the eroticism and ecstasy it conjures — but that would require more time and a different tack; the series is for the generalist, focused on introducing names and ideas, not investigating them. It’s fascinating all the same, with some zippy shots of her company’s stomping grounds in Tel Aviv, and of their month-long residency in a Peckham car park, which culminates in a vivid première.

We’re into beefier territory with Ballet Black, a company founded in 2001 to address the under-representation of BAME dancers in British ballet. The story here is how BB’s outreach and commercial crossover — which reached new heights last year, when they performed with Stormzy at Glastonbury — have inadvertently exposed the troupe to a wider pool of racist commentary than ever, including demands that they justify their existence (and, for some reason, solve the issue of knife crime). Founder Cassa Pancho’s poise surges to the fore as she patiently explains why ‘Ballet White’ is not an initiative that’s needed. We also hear from budding choreographer Mthuthuzeli November, who discusses his enthusiasm for showcasing the human body in all its earthly, sweaty glory — a point duly underscored with footage of the BB ensemble bounding and chugging in rehearsals for his new ballet, The Waiting Game.

Politics rears its head again in the final episode, a look at flamenco veteran Maria Pages. Ode to Time is her biggest production after 40 years in the business, and seeks to transcribe the distinctive cadence of Hitler’s wartime speeches into a sort of choreographic commentary. The duende, or soul, of the dance bursts through the screen every time Pages whips out the footwork. More than any other episode, this one captures a dancemaker taking deep, unfiltered pleasure in her creations.

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