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Posted on March 27, 2018

In 1947, having hit the big time only three years earlier with his first ballet, Fancy Free, Jerome Robbins began choreographing his fourth Broadway musical. A satire about a touring Russian ballet company and the stage-struck heiress who keeps it afloat, the show, which lasted for 188 performances, was called Look Ma, I’m Dancin’!

That’s the phrase that popped into my mind at Covent Garden as The Royal Ballet celebrated the centenary of Robbins’ renowned collaborator, the composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein. Why not mark Robbins’ 100th birthday, as will English National Ballet, New York City Ballet, the Paris Opéra Ballet and companies all over the world this year? I have no idea.

In any case, the occasion brought to London a revival of The Age of Anxiety, Liam Scarlett’s swinging evocation of 1940s New York, and new work from Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon, both of them slightly overshadowed, at least in anticipation, by their collaborators. McGregor enlisted the ceramicist Edmund de Waal to design his scenery; Wheeldon invited the fashion designer Erdem Moralioglu to provide his costumes.

As it happened, neither designer created anything memorable. For McGregor’s Yugen, De Waal lined the stage with tall steel frames, like boxes of light closed only at the back. For Wheeldon’s Corybantic Games, Moralioglu dressed the company in white tights or underclothes and neutral tops draped with fluttering black ribbon.

What does “yugen” mean? I read the transliteration of the Hebrew text for Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, to which the ballet is set, and couldn’t find the word there or anywhere in the programme notes. The internet informed me that it’s a Japanese concept concerning a profound sense of the universe’s beauty, but that didn’t help me connect the movement to the psalms or to Bernstein’s history or interests or to the musical atmosphere. So as a title, without explanation, the word is perfect for a ballet that delivers plenty of steps but keeps their meaning to itself.

According to the dictionary (where I also searched for “yugen”), “corybantic” derives from the Latin name for Phrygian priests who performed wild dances. Covent Garden’s programme notes don’t tell you that either, and the credits provided free of charge don’t identify the violin concerto, Serenade, after Plato: Symposium, that Wheeldon chose to interpret.

What are we supposed to make of these two ballets? Their titles, settings and costumes give nothing away, and their speed and intricacy stretch the dancers, who attack the choreography fiercely and present it meticulously, without stretching our imagination. Scarlett’s Age of Anxiety involves four humans, interacting in a particular time and place; the movement comes from and also defines each character’s perspective. McGregor and Wheeldon opted to shape abstract movement as musical response, bypassing the cast’s individual qualities so they wouldn’t detract from the result.

McGregor produced hectic activity, often barely visible because of the lighting, punctuated with casual entrances and exits – the dancers walk on and off as they would in rehearsal – and lacking any discernible aspect of the universe’s beauty or the score’s spirituality. Wheeldon caught Bernstein’s jazzy tone with greater success, acknowledging Plato by arranging flexed limbs in angular hieroglyphs and sprinkling jaunty structural games with nods to Agon, Serenade, Les Noces, The Four Temperaments and Afternoon of a Faun.

Ballet British Columbia arrived at Sadler’s Wells for its UK debut with a triple bill along the same lines. The company’s director, Emily Molnar, opened the evening with 16+ a room; the Israeli choreographer Sharon Eyal closed it with Bill; and 14 terrific dancers plus four apprentices knocked themselves out to realise the steps – mechanised steps, ritualistic steps, interlaced, overlapping, in unison, in canon, every which way.

Consistently surprising, unfailingly intelligent, Crystal Pite explored something more intriguing in Solo Echo, particularly in the mysterious middle section where sculptural friezes formed, melted like wax and reformed, breaking and gathering in waves. Perhaps it was easier to absorb individual phrases because of the music, Brahms’ cello sonatas rather than the electronic humming and skittering that accompanied the other two works. Perhaps her images made a stronger impact because she gave us enough time to appreciate them as they coalesced.

Abstract works that don’t even illuminate their music seem to unfold like experiences shared privately by the choreographer and the dancers. I’m fascinated that theatrical dance is evolving into a self-referential art, and I’m a bit discouraged by the cheers that greet pure energy and impersonal physicality. Are dancers satisfied to show off their athleticism alone? If Roger Federer played tennis for 30 minutes, memorised all his moves in order and then repeated them on demand, would he be dancing?

Pictured: Ballet British Columbia in Crystal Pite’s Solo Echo. Photographs by Wendy D Photography.

Barbara Newman is dance critic for Country Life, a frequent contributor to numerous periodicals and reference works, and the author of a number of books about ballet which include a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance; a children’s book, The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories; and Grace Under Pressure.

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