Ballet has its genres – cowboy, gothic, fairy-tale, pirate – but science fiction is not among them. The form tends to look to the past to describe the present. And it probes humanity not via political or social systems but intimately, within the circumference of the body.
But there is no reason why ballet could not swap the past for the future or why sci-fi could not replace macrocosmic with microcosmic. The rectilinear arms and the mind-boggling divisions of a single dancer into fast and slow zones in late Merce Cunningham point the way. So do such anatomical “enhancements” as Wayne McGregor’s squiggly torsos and hyperextended legs arcing 240 degrees, and hip-hop’s recent extreme double-jointedness. So I had high hopes for Benjamin Millepied’s Neverwhere (on a deliriously mixed programme with Balanchine and Robbins, until Sunday).
Dutch couturier Iris van Herpen set the perfect outlandish terms. Her black plastic get-ups for the six dancers threw light around the stage and emitted, on contact with floor or skin, the squelch of clingfilm being unpeeled from the roll. In a primal touch – sci-fi often travels full circle – the women’s pointes resembled hooves, their mini-dresses scalloped like tulips. Call it polyurethane pastoral.
Millepied began in a similar, primitive key. Standing in the round, the dancers touched palms like cult members before Mark Stanley’s pyramid of light. But variations on this huddle turned out to be the only motif to situate the piece beyond the neutrality of the stage. Indeed, despite a score by Nico Muhly made up of short, abrupt sections, Neverwhere proceeded as if by neoclassical manual: adagio pas de deux sandwiched between allegro group sections, all of it odourless. Certainly no fumes from the future wafted in.
Neverwhere may be more generic than most Millepied, but its promise and weaknesses are typical. On the one hand, the former New York City Ballet principal has shown strong experimental sympathies. On the other, he does not sufficiently trust them.
With his appointment as head of the Paris Opera Ballet taking effect this autumn, the question of Millepied’s taste – whether he favours the experimental, the conservative or the dull neverwhere in between – has acquired some urgency.
Meanwhile, the slot for first full-throttle sci-fi ballet remains open.