As a farewell gesture to mark the end of her decade as director of the Royal Ballet, Monica Mason decided on an enterprise that would involve the choreographic roster of her company. So, seven choreographers were to make dances to new scores, with new design, all inspired by three of Titian’s grandest works – the Ovidian Metamorphoses commissioned by Phillip II of Spain and now on view at the National Gallery. These are among the most erotically charged paintings in western art: Diana, the chaste huntress, surprised by Actaeon while bathing; Diana’s revenge by turning Actaeon into a stag to be killed by his own hounds; Diana reproaching the pregnant nymph Callisto. Rich food for dance; ripe recipe for faux pas, in every sense of the words.
In the event, as Saturday night’s triple bill showed, bright success. The scores from Nico Muhly, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Jonathan Dove were vividly dramatic, dance-encouraging. Fascinating design: from Conrad Shawcross a machine (a stage-struck moon probe?) that responded to dance; from Mark Wallinger a voyeur’s dream-bathroom that reflected every anatomical moment to chrome-bright effect; from Chris Ofili, Matisse brought to Trinidad. Superlative dramatic lighting, as ever, from Lucy Carter.
And the dances? Handsome, assured, and intriguing as examples of shotgun marriage as artistic policy. The most adventurous piece, Machina (from Kim Brandstrup and Wayne McGregor, with Shawcross and Muhly), proposed emotionally-charged duets between Edward Watson (movement flooding through his frame) and Leanne Benjamin, Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta, which inspire the machine to imitative action in what seems a curious, haunting commentary.
Trespass, owed to Alastair Marriott and Christopher Wheeldon, Turnage and Wallinger, is lighter in mood, a capriccio about bodies half-glimpsed in mirrors, voyeurism as sex. It is stunningly danced by Beatriz Stix-Brunell (the movement warm, eloquent ), by Sarah Lamb and Melissa Hamilton, both ravishing, by Steven McRae and Nehemiah Kish.
The closing Diana and Actaeon has a boisterously colourful Caribbean setting, a score luscious, vivid, and an action that would have been vastly more telling had it been cut by half. The admirable Marianela Nuñez and Federico Bonelli play out the tale with studious inevitability, attendant dancers do their stuff as huntresses and hounds, and I cared not a damn. But hurrahs for Dame Monica who made these valuable collaborations happen. She shows us ballet alive, and not drowning in that damned lake.