Sex, violence, partial nudity, loud rock music, bad language – this new triple bill from the Royal Ballet has got it all. Perhaps as a result the audience age had dipped by a decade and there was an excitable buzz around the place as they settled down to watch two world premieres.
Your reaction to Wayne McGregor’s Carbon Life will, I suspect, be conditioned by how much you like Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt’s score, performed live on stage by an oddly-dressed band led by Ronson on bass guitar, and accompanied by singers including Boy George, Hero Fisher, and Alison Mosshart of The Kills.
I thought it was a blast, though I am not entirely sure that the piece - which recalls both the days of disco and the slinky shapes of Michael Clark - will have that long a shelf life. It looks lovely, though. with Lucy Carter’s lighting initially enclosing the dancers in bubbles of soft light, then switching with the mood.
I was less keen on Gareth Pugh’s angular costumes - fins, spiky tutus and even thigh high boots for me. The choreography is energetically inventive (playing with the contrast between slouchy rock attitudes and classical poise) without ever being quite as memorable as McGregor at his best. There are exciting massed ranks, a stand-out pas de deux for Edward Watson and Olivia Cowley, and a Saturday Night fever routine for Steven McRae. The whole thing has a visceral energy that shoots out through the stalls.
Liam Scarlett's Sweet Violets, on the other hand, is strangely old-fashioned for a 25 year old. He is obviously in debt to Kenneth MacMillan and Roland Petit as he unfolds the story of the painter Walter Sickert, a man obsessed with murder, and accused by some of being Jack the Ripper himself.
It’s a good idea and it has the advantage of a lustrous setting by John MacFarlane which evokes Sickert’s murky, impressionistic world, full of tarnished mirrors, rickety bedspreads, and splashes of sudden, brilliant colour. At its best - as when you are magically transported to the wings of a theatre, gazing with the dancers out at another audience - it exactly captures the tawdry glamour of the canvases, drawing you into a demi-monde of models and prostitutes, where artists find their inspiration, killers lurk and royals come to slum it.
To begin with Scarlett presents this vision with admirable fluency, setting his top-class cast twisting and turning in the throes of sexual passion and sudden death. When Tamara Rojo stretches out langourously on the artist’s bed, erotic but wary, an entire world comes to life. Ultimately, the choreographer and the ballet both get too bogged down in an over-complicated plot, over-simplistic psychology and the over-insistent Rachmaninoff score. But that doesn’t stop the dancers giving performances of heart-felt brilliance, notably Johan Kobborg all repressed anguish as Sickert, Steven McRae as his ferocious alter-ego Jack, Alina Cojocaru squirming in terror as the Ripper’s final victim, and Laura Morera as poor mad Annie Crook. It feels like a young man’s ballet, but the talent shown within in it is seriously mature.
But it is Christopher Wheeldon’s revived Polyphonia which provides the most throughtful and refined treat of the evening. It takes eight dancers and a series of variations by Ligeti and propels them across the stage in steps of wit, emotion and insight which exactly conjure the music’s many moods. A master class in elegant neo-classicism, with a modern twist.