February 25, 2013 5:14 pm

Ratmansky and Wheeldon premieres, Royal Opera House, London

What’s not to like when two major choreographers create pieces for the Royal Ballet? The scores, alas
Aeternum World premiere of a new work by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon The Royal Ballet at The Royal Opera House, London, Great Britain 22nd February 2013 Choreography Christopher Wheeldon Music Benjamin Britten©Elliot Franks

Marianela Nuñez and Nehemiah Kish in Christopher Wheeldon’s ‘Aeternum’

The fact of two creations for the Royal Ballet in a new programme is cause for cheers. That they are from two major choreographers in the classic-academic manner is cause for even more plaudits. That I find that both variously misfire in realisation is my excuse for more muted pleasure than the eager reception given on Friday night. (That they were preceded by a lacklustre account of Balanchine’s Apollo is no reason for my lack of enthusiasm.)

It was good news that Alexei Ratmansky had been invited to work at Covent Garden: he is a creator of rare merits. But in his decision to choreograph Jean Françaix’s orchestration of Chopin’s piano preludes lie the seeds of misfortune. These preludes are miracles – of compositional genius, pianistic bravura and subtlety – and Françaix’s ham-fisted arrangements brutalise them and saddle Ratmansky’s cast of four couples (Leanne Benjamin and Valeri Hristov; Alina Cojocaru and Steven McRae; Sarah Lamb and Edward Watson; Zenaida Yanowsky and Rupert Pennefather) with an acreage of music by turns muddy or vehement.

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Placed against cloudy projections, very well lit by Neil Austin, the women in the obligatory dainty frocks, the men in curious silvery blousons, the cast dance through Ratmasky’s fluent and ingenious encounters, evoking sudden joys and mysterious despairs, and continue until there dawns the heretical thought that Chopin/Françaix is a damned bore, and that one more embrace, yet another fall to the ground with attendant moping, and enough is more than enough. Sixteen preludes: Da! Twenty-four preludes: Nyet! And to Siberia with the orchestration.

Christopher Wheeldon’s Aeternum is an even more difficult matter. The score is Britten’s tormented, angry Sinfonia da requiem, music sounding as resistant to dance as one might imagine. Against a handsome assemblage of curved forms by Jean-Marc Puissant which reveal themselves with increasing power as the work develops, Wheeldon’s cast (led by Marianela Nuñez, by turns anguished and then calm in the first and third movements, and by James Hay, brilliant in a taxing central section) are impelled, hard-driven by their choreography as the score takes its turbulent way.

I suspect that in its weight of grief the score is too harsh, its tensions and terrors intractable to physical expression, and its realisation here trapped in Britten’s agonised response to his theme. Good intentions, choreographic skill, are not enough.


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