I had not expected to see Lord Salisbury, our Victorian prime minister, summoned up in ballet. Nor had I expected to find Rakhmaninov’s elegiac piano trio used as doormat for a study in murder and speculation surrounding Walter Sickert as an artist fixated on Jack the Ripper. But the Royal Ballet has no fear, and its new triple bill provides us with the allusive mastery of Wheeldon’s Polyphonia; Wayne McGregor’s contorted dances, here set to pop music in Carbon Life; and Liam Scarlett’s second creation for Covent Garden, Sweet Violets.
I greatly admire Scarlett’s earlier Fields of Asphodel but the new work is a miscalculation of subject – Sickert’s dark portrayal of sexuality – and of score. The music’s drenched manner – it was composed in the shadow of Tchaikovsky’s death – is denied by Scarlett’ s luridly energetic evocation of London low-life and Sickert’s obsessions in an erotic narrative that resembles pastiche MacMillan. Fine dancers are involved in this long-winded event, and John Macfarlane’s designs of sordid bedrooms, back streets and a Victorian music hall, are powerful. Characters, including Lord Salisbury, one of Queen Victoria’s grandsons and even the Ripper’s spectre, semaphore angst, encounter razors and drabs, and Scarlett’s choreography beavers on. To no avail. These are cyphers; narrative and dance are emotionally clogged.
McGregor’s new Carbon Life, with music composed by producer-turned-pop-star Mark Ronson, finds the Royal Opera House trying to ingratiate itself with a younger audience (a trick Roland Petit pulled off dazzlingly in his Pink Floyd Ballet). The public that enjoys the urgent racket of rock and rap is not going to sit happily through the generalities of Covent Garden’s repertory. McGregor’s language seeks again to re-align the academic rule. There results a rupture between the innate classicism of his dancers and the tics of his mannerisms, which distorts but does not illuminate the qualities of his cast. Carbon Life, with its rock band at the back of the stage and Lucy Carter’s superb lighting, is more of the same in its robotic, black and white activities.
The true importance of this programme came with Polyphonia, Ligeti’s vivid music given vivid form in Wheeldon’s dances, vividly performed by eight magnificent dancers. Ballet for and about our time.