February 10, 2014 5:53 pm

Tetractys, Royal Opera House, London – review

Wayne McGregor’s latest dance-work is a predictably cussed response to Bach’s ‘Art of Fugue’
Natalia Osipova and Steven McRae in 'Tetractys'©Simon Tomkinson

Natalia Osipova and Steven McRae in 'Tetractys'

Steven McRae is the most dazzling virtuoso dancer the Royal Ballet has ever shown us. For his clarity of statement, muscular resource, insouciant brilliancy – steps polished to highest gloss, speediest utterance; choreography shaped to a musical nicety – there is no national precedent. In Ashton’s Rhapsody, opening a triple bill on Friday night, he was a meteor in the role made for Baryshnikov, blazing, marvellous. He had a worthy partner in Laura Morera, as musically apt as he, as acute in shaping her choreography. Ravishing performances, well supported by the ensemble, though Rachmaninov’s Paganini Variations would benefit from a comparable musical verve.

McRae then found himself involved in Tetractys, the evening’s novelty and Wayne McGregor’s response to sections of Bach’s Art of Fugue. This late score is the composer’s contemplation of fugal form, and it has inspired massive musical and philosophic studies. Among which, McGregor’s predictable activities, set to Michael Berkeley’s careful orchestration of seven sections, and burdened with tedious little neon signs and bi-coloured leotards for its cast from the American graphic artist Tauba Auerbach, need not feature.


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Programme notes present so generous an amount of self-justifying baggage that one might wonder how the cast of 12 could find their way on to the stage. The fugues emerge, slightly soft round the edges, from the orchestra pit. Auerbach’s dully geometric neon flashes busily, signalling that something is to happen in score and choreography. The cast, in and out of different – but always predictable – tights like models at a fashion show, includes Edward Watson and Natalia Osipova, and they bend and stretch in predictably cussed McGregor mode, amid music that fascinates the ear, but which the dance burdens with muscle-wrenching tedium. And at last, gasping for air, for choreographic clarity, we see the curtain fall. Tetractys is garrulous, old-fashioned, a neon-lit cliché, and should lie unregretted where it falls.

The concluding Gloria, Kenneth MacMillan’s contemplation of soldier-revenants of the first world war and their womenfolk, has an awful added relevance this year. Under-cast, with only Sarah Lamb fully to reveal its anguish, the dance nevertheless speaks with haunted eloquence. MacMillan’s father served and suffered through the conflict. Filial understanding here becomes penetrating art.

As an unhappy postscript, Osipova was slightly concussed during a Saturday matinee of Tetractys and was advised not to perform, so that the evening performance had to be cancelled – an event unprecedented on this stage in my experience.


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