“Obsidian Tear” / “The Invitation” / “Within the Golden Hour”
The Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House, London, UK, May 28 – June 11, 2016

 

The Royal Ballet’s mixed programme for the 2015/16 season combines a selection of three very different works. Resident choreographer Wayne McGregor’s new one-act ballet, “Obsidian Tear, sits alongside a revival of Kenneth MacMillan’s “The Invitation” and the return of Associate Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s “Within The Golden Hour.”

McGregor’s“Obsidian Tear opens the bill. A duet between two men, both dressed in wide skirt-like trousers—one red and one black—moves across the bare, wing-less stage. The abstract, articulated movement rolls through the joints and muscles of its dancers’ bodies as, in rippling sequence, they shift between classical shapes.

“Obsidian Tear” marks a step away from McGregor’s usually abstract work towards something a little more narrative. Set to Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Lachen verlernt for violin and his symphonic poem Nyx, McGregor’s latest work draws inspiration from the Greek goddess that Salonen’s score pays homage to.

While the costumes in this work revolve around variations on the skirt-like theme, giving the all-male cast an appearance simultaneously Greco-Roman and feminine, just one dancer is dressed in red. At times he seems submissive, wary of the others clothed in black, but why this is remains uncertain and it’s only as the second movement begins, and the remaining dancers join, that the presence of an underlying story begins to emerge.

As he dances centre-stage, a sequence of intricate, fluid movement, the dancers at his periphery switch straight armed through precise, angular positions. It’s an image that feels as if it must have an intention but without anything to convey what this is, the two appear oddly disconnected.

As the work continues a sense of aggression and danger begins to build. The low glow of a red light pervades the space as the dancers connect with one another, the powerful surge of their movement battle-like, a company of warriors engaged in a ritualistic ceremony. The notion that the dancer in red is marked for death begins to dawn, but why he is chosen is anyone’s guess.

The vague idea of a narrative fills the movement of “Obsidian Tear” with an energy and excitement and, as the music of Salonen’s score crashes like a breaking storm, it’s easy to become caught by the fluctuating dynamic of McGregor’s choreography. You feel that something more than movement is going on, that the dancers have a connection with what they are doing, and this gives the piece an edge. Yet, the challenge of understanding what this story is becomes somewhat distracting especially when this semi-narrative work is billed against a master of storytelling like Kenneth MacMillan. That’s not to say it’s not a good work.“Obsidian Tear” is a focused and powerful piece and, while its narrative may be open to interpretation, it’s a work of maturity and depth.

A slow, brooding work, MacMillan’s “The Invitation” explores the tender point of a young girl’s coming of age. The Victorian setting instructs an appearance of propriety which MacMillan creates with a light, comical touch. In the opening garden scene two girls, accompanied by their guardian, innocently giggle at the naked forms of the surrounding Roman statues. Prudishly, their stone bodies are quickly covered by sheets—a futile act as the schoolchildren, once left to their own devices, pull them away.

As they leave, a girl (Francesca Hayward) dressed in white enters, her light, skipping movements carefree and innocent. She is joined by her cousin (Vadim Muntagirov), their ensuing duet suggestive of a tentative, youthful courtship. Yet beneath the playful innocence runs a dark undercurrent and MacMillan quickly begins to leave hints of the girl’s coming fall.

The youthful promise of their courtship is set against the disintegrating relationship of an older couple (in this performance the roles are danced by Zenaida Yanowsky and Gary Avis). Their movement has a tense, argumentative dynamic, MacMillan’s choreography evoking the image of a relationship held together for appearances. Yanowsky is refined and proud in her role as the neglected wife slowly losing her grip on her bored husband. In one moment she is resistant, the next she melts in Avis’ arms, her anger fuelled by the dying embers of their passion.

Teased by her classmates, it’s not long before the girl, eager to test the power of her newly discovered allure, catches the husband’s wandering eye. Hayward is perfectly cast in this role. A petite, expressive dancer, her girlishness is emphasised by Avis’ tall refinement, as is the impropriety of their burgeoning situation.

Yet MacMillan is never one to rush to his conclusion. He takes time to build his characters and their relationships, to draw his audience into his story. Nothing is without reason—even the seemingly futile act of covering the statues’ modesty is a clue left upon the winding trail MacMillan weaves through his narrative. It may progress slowly, but in the final scenes “The Invitation” comes together with such delicate balance that you can’t help but admit the genius of MacMillan.

An evening party is heralded by a divertissement featuring two cockerels and a hen—a dance imbibed with images of male desire and the attraction of the female body. As the revelry ends, propriety gives way and the simmering danger of MacMillan’s narrative finally breaks. The garden setting becomes a scene for farcical midnight forays as couples dash across the stage in pursuit of each other, like the misguided loves of some Shakespearean comedy.

The climax of MacMillan’s work is a dark, disquieting scene, Hayward’s girlish coquettishness gone as her body, rag-doll like, is thrown around at Avis’ mercy. Here is a scene of violence so delicately choreographed that, while it never slips into the vulgar, it remains as tense and uncomfortable all the same. In his closing moments MacMillan masterfully draws in every element that has gone before—the youthful awakening and curiosity of the opening, the conflicting emotions of fascination and repulsion invoked by the statues, have all led to this dramatic conclusion. “The Invitation” is a lesson in narrative dance, a playful but quietly dangerous work that deftly captures the loss of childhood’s fleeting innocence.

Christopher Wheeldon’s “Within The Golden Hour” provides an uplifting conclusion to this diverse selection of works and, despite its inclusion in one of the company’s recent triple bills, it’s a welcomed return.

An elegant piece of pure, uninhibited movement, Wheeldon’s choreography soars in perfect accordance with the cascading strings of Ezio Bosso’s score. “Within the Golden Hour” revolves around a series of variations which switch between duet and group work and for a piece of perpetual motion there’s never a dull moment. It’s a work of arcing lifts, floating leaps and soft, unending extensions and the grace and ease with which the cast dance Wheeldon’s fluent choreography is captivating.

Each variation brings the changing movements of the score to life, Wheeldon’s choreography a careful reflection of its subtly shifting dynamics. As the tempo picks up a brief male duet flits across the stage in a burst of masculine energy before the soft strains of the music return, the couples re-enter, and the piece melts once more.

The earthy tones of the costumes and flickering patterns of the backdrop lend to the sensation that you have stepped into a forest glade to watch the life of that hidden world settle with the closing light of the day. “Within The Golden Hour” shimmers with delicacy and charm, providing a stunning and indulgent close to a strong triple bill.

 

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