The Royal Ballet is marking the Leonard Bernstein centenary with a 21st-century triple bill which opened at Covent Garden on Thursday night: two world premieres, plus a revival of 2014’s sleek, shallow The Age of Anxiety by Liam Scarlett. All three works were handsomely staged and superlatively danced and there was strong (if uneven) playing from the orchestra but, despite the first-night buzz, it was an oddly underwhelming evening. Ballet needs composers but composers don’t always need ballets.
Yugen, by Wayne McGregor, is set to Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and features a set by the ceramicist Edmund de Waal whose tall, narrow vitrines hover tastefully upstage, displaying the dancers and providing a new playground for Lucy Carter’s sculptural lighting.
As always, McGregor showcases the company’s hottest talents. Joseph Sissens was outstanding and there was a deliciously mercurial solo for Calvin Richardson, but it was an oddly subdued piece. De Waal’s empty boxes and Shirin Guild’s ill-fitting crimson playsuits are all achingly 2018 but McGregor’s writing looks bland — even faintly retro — when stripped of its usual gymnastic flourishes and adds little to its chosen score.
Christopher Wheeldon’s Corybantic Games, set to the jazzy Serenade after Plato’s Symposium, provides an upbeat finale in which the 26-strong ensemble ebb and flow in a series of mildly Grecian frolics marshalled by a dauntless Tierney Heap.
There are black-trimmed outfits (unitards for the men, vintage undies for the women) by fashion’s Erdem Moralioglu and a screen-like backdrop by Jean-Marc Puissant transformed into fuzzy, Rothko-ish rectangles by Peter Mumford’s prismatic lighting.
Bernstein’s five movements impose a tight, ready-made structure but although Wheeldon nods to Plato — a recurring motif has the dancers huddle together like figures from a lost pediment — he doesn’t seem over-concerned with acting out the Symposium’s text.
There is much studied avoidance of boy-girl partnership but Wheeldon is probably at his best in traditional pairwork. Lauren Cuthbertson’s switchblade limbs and fearless attack are gleefully exploited in the duets with Ryoichi Hirano but Bernstein’s music is made most visible in the dazzling, Balinchinean third movement danced by Mayara Magri and Marcelino Sambé, whose skittering footwork and witty rapport seem beamed in from another, much more musical evening.
To April 9, roh.org.uk