|Zenaida Yanowsky in Symphonic Dances: angels, demons and revolution? |
Photo: (c) Emma Kauldhar courtesy of Royal Opera House
I've been away for a bit, but before I went I hot-footed it to Covent Garden to see Liam Scarlett's new ballet, set to the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances. How many times have I sat in concerts, listening to this piece and quietly imagining a dream-ballet of my own to it, while the orchestra creates a choreography too, breathing together as if formed into a single coiled dragon? Finally someone got round to making it real.
Zenaida Yanowsky is a towering presence in more than one way. This creation is in some ways a farewell tribute to her, making the most of her unique qualities. The tallest, most commanding of the Royal Ballet's prima ballerinas - and sadly for us, about to retire - she can hold the stage with nothing more than a turn of the head or an implacable gaze. And, in this case, a billowing red skirt, designed by Jon Morrell. Whirling its scarlet wings, alone in what looks like a dimly lit warehouse with iron grill over the window, she conjures the ballet into life. It is all scarlet and black - how could this music be anything else? - and supposedly abstract.
What is abstract ballet, anyway? Balanchine is the epitome of it, as is Ashton's Symphonic Variations: music made visible, perhaps. The body is stripped not of its soul, but of its independence: physicality and sound merge into one expressive whole. There is no human tale to tell. The dancers become the choreographer's tool, nothing more. I remember interviewing one leading dancer who seemed almost horrified at the idea that he might have any input of his own into the work the choreographer created upon him; I also recall taking to Manon an American friend who had grown up on Balanchine and the NYCB and was aghast at the notion that a ballet could be about drama and not purely dancing.
|Zenaida Yanowsky and James Hay. |
Photo: (c) Bill Cooper
Therefore, when you see Yanowsky amid her red cloud, ferocity blazing out in the music, the image matches the sound to perfection. But what does it mean? Does it mean anything? Can it not mean something? Another kind of Zen would suggest "Don't think of a monkey"... So don't think of a story for this Zen. But how can we not?
Rachmaninoff, 1940. America. The emigré, the refugee, the exile. Remembering. Transforming. New attitudes, new worlds, chaotic memories. Old worlds, gone forever. In the first movement, energy explodes: figures run, groups form and shatter. There's athleticism, with an undertow of alarm. It's 2017, the anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution: hard not to remember that when faced with this music by one who fled. So is this revolution? Yanowsky settles from her demonic scarlet flight into a serene, almost immobile presence, to whom a young man (the excellently expressive James Hay) shrugs up and expounds idea upon idea as the saxophone melody unfurls. Is That Skirt a symbol of her status, her past, her separateness? Is she remembering, living or anticipating? Is she the spirit of revolution itself, inspiring them? Slowly she begins to engage with Hay; the dialogue becomes a duet. The meaning is in the eye of the beholder, but the images trigger free association. Grand skirt - aristocracy? Old Russia faced with violent transformation? One world meets another?
Waltz. What's happened to the skirt? Yanowsky is in something that looks like a tuxedo redux. She is surrounded by an all-male corps de ballets, and guess who's wearing derivatives of the skirt? If it's startling for a moment, we soon get used to it - the imagery is striking, groups massing and splitting and breathing together like that orchestra, the whirls of material enhanced by the visceral power of their wearers. The iron grill has been replaced by a giant screen on which images from those red swirls are sampled and projected. Is the skirt a symbol of power, transferred from princess to the people? Is Yanowsky, the sole woman, under threat here? Or is she, skirt-free, liberated, in command of them?
|Yanowsky and Reece Clarke. |
Photo: (c) Emma Kauldhar, courtesy of ROH
Rachmaninoff wrote the Symphonic Dances in the US in 1940: it was his last work. He corresponded with the choreographer Mikhail Fokine about turning it into a ballet (a thrilling prospect later scuppered by the choreographer's death in 1942). The Second World War was underway, though the US had not yet joined it and Russia would only be invaded the following year. Rachmaninoff, having lived for a while in Switzerland, had left Europe on the outbreak of war and was now in exile in Long Island. He drew on his deeply Russian nature, which had always infused every dimension of his music, but the energy of the US and the pent-up creativity that he had had to subordinate to his performing duties seem to have thrown a bolt of electricity into his orchestral writing. The last movement can be a cataclysm that leaves you hanging over the abyss.
But here, has our princess moved to America? Costumes are reduced to swimsuit size; the men and the women share and share alike; there's a thrill of athleticism and slightly Olympian poses here and there - shades of the Olympic games, Leni Riefensthal, Soviet parades? And Yanowsky has found a third partner who now suits her seemingly to perfection (he is the splendid Reece Clarke). Yet not all is resolved in this new world, for at the end, a peculiar coup de théatre involves a final escape, at least one hopes it does.
We all make our own stories, quietly, observing a creation like this. More than fifteen hundred of them a night in a theatre the size of the ROH. It's part of the joy of it that we don't know exactly what is going on, that perhaps nothing is, that perhaps all these processes are within ourselves, sparked by the images, the synergy of music, movement and aesthetics. So try the "don't think of a monkey" trick and see if you can treat this ballet as what it supposedly is: abstract.
The new Scarlett was part of a singularly satisfying quadruple bill at the Royal Ballet. The evening opened with William Forsythe's The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. Five dancers and one very brave orchestra tackle the finale of Schubert's Symphony No.9 in movement that lives up to its impressive title. Basically, they don't stop. The movement is hyperactive, but each switch as clear as spring water; the glorious Marianela Nuñez in particular deserves every gold medal in town for making it look spacious and unhurried despite all. (It's only a pity that they are clad in eye-aching lime green and purple, which reminded me of a faulty colour TV my parents had in the 1970s). The tempo is fast. Very fast. The orchestra, plunging straight in, should probably get a medal too, along with their splendid conductor, Koen Kessels.
|Francesca Hayward in Tarantella.|
Photo: (c) Emma Kauldhar, courtesy of ROH
The one explicitly narrative ballet in the programme was Christopher Wheeldon's Strapless, an intriguing idea indeed. It tells the story of how one of John Singer Sargent's society models, Amélie, was shamed and ruined by a portrait which depicted her clad in an exquisite black evening dress with one glittery strap slipping loose down one shoulder. The hypocrisy of a society that could destroy a woman for such a gesture, while simultaneously enjoying the spectacle of the can-can or indulging in extra-marital affairs both straight and gay, is much to the fore and has resonances aplenty for our own Age of Twits. Natalia Osipova brought the full force of her dramatic powers to bear on the unfortunate society beauty, but what a pity there was not more for Edward Watson to do as Sargent: presented with a dancer of such phenomenal abilities, you'd like him to be asked to use more of them. The storytelling is fine and convincingly worked, but the whole falls a little short of one's hopes. Mark-Anthony Turnage's score is full of excellent things: rich orchestration resonant with percussion and fine perspective. Yet the clash of modern music and the period piece on stage can raise some questions: supposing Wheeldon had used music of the time and place instead, say a spot of Chausson, Fauré and/or Debussy? This is a tale for today, he seems to say - but the score bops us on the head with that idea one time too many.
And that's where the abstract wins. If there's a story, it will speak to each of us in its own way. We'll find it for ourselves.
Last performance tomorrow: http://www.roh.org.uk/mixed-programmes/the-vertiginous-thrill-of-exactitude-tarantella-strapless-symphonic-dances