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Requisite Passion by Barbara Newman

Posted on November 2, 2017

Kevin O’Hare’s brainwave of bringing the UK’s leading ballet companies together to celebrate Kenneth MacMillan’s work has paid off handsomely. Roaming over the choreographer’s exceptional range of dramatic subjects and musical inspiration, the season has filled the Royal Opera House and pleased the public.

Comprising four troupes, the two performances I saw at Covent Garden seemed meticulously rehearsed but short on emotional resonance. Birmingham Royal Ballet took the honours on the first night, lifting Concerto above perky jollity to reveal its elegant structure. Scottish Ballet worked devotedly to enliven Le Baiser de la fée, a period piece that bloomed later into more interesting work, but neither the choreography nor Gary Harris’ new costumes did the dancers any favours.

The Royal Ballet’s performance of Elite Syncopations started on the wrong foot – heard before it’s seen, the onstage band is now amplified, so it sounds recorded rather than physically distant – and it got worse when the company attacked the moves and music indifferently, as if their full attention lay somewhere else. Ninette de Valois used to complain that the moment boys graduated from The Royal Ballet School into the company, they stopped picking up their knees. Years of sword dancing and Irish jigs had paid off with contracts, so why should they bother? I thought of her as Elite unspooled minus its screwball fun and tart energy. Who could imagine that Precious Adams, a guest from English National Ballet, would steal the show simply by flaunting the sauciness in the Calliope Rag?

Though the men jumped on The Judas Tree, opening the second programme, with energy to spare, their anger and violence came across like soundless thunder, recognisable but strangely incomplete. Against their mindless muscularity, Lauren Cuthbertson artfully connected the dots of her mysterious character by creating a singular personality to define it.

English National Ballet had first performed Song of the Earth only two weeks earlier, so it’s understandable that the dancers couldn’t yet expose its emotional depths. Magnificently supported by Rhonda Browne’s rich contralto, at Covent Garden the company sustained the ballet’s lean austerity while struggling to capture its haunting atmosphere. Erina Takahashi, Jeffrey Cirio (a guest from American Ballet Theatre) as the Messenger and Tiffany Hedman in the Fourth Song led the ensemble nobly; lacking in confidence, technical security, and theatrical presence, Isaac Hernández left a gaping void where the second featured male role should have been.

Strange, isn’t it, for a major occasion to make such a minor impact when barely a mile away, six astonishing Korean dancers were raising the roof and every pulse in The Place thanks to the Korean choreographer Eun-Me Ahn. Never heard of her? That’s exactly what Dance Umbrella is for: to introduce you to dance you might never discover otherwise.

Let Me Change Your Name is an 80-minute controlled explosion of slow motion pacing, sideways slides, flying angular jumps, bone-crunching landings and dizzying Day-Glo colours. As far as I could tell, nothing separates its shape from its content. Clothed in identical dresses – floor-length, long-sleeved and undecorated – three men and three women nullify their identity and gender by swapping steps, leadership roles, costumes.

They strip to their knickers – yes, women too – and flip their skirts jauntily and toss their shirts in the air. They play games, hurling themselves at each other with reckless abandon, trampoline champions without trampolines. They pivot, impersonal as pistons, in rigorous unison and different directions. They stand side by side, arms wide, stretching their dark dresses across their bodies like a row of Peter Pans exhibiting their shadows.

No sentiment, no sensuality, no narrative. In two mesmerising solos, Ahn’s focused intensity carved private rituals from intricate mosaics of tiny steps, stoops and fractional twists. For the rest of the piece, slightly too long but never dull, the company ricocheted like pinballs against the underlying techno beat and the disciplined grip of split-second organisation. And surprisingly, the more neutral their expression and behaviour, the better you knew them as individuals.

Pictured: Top Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Jenna Roberts and Tyrone Singleton in Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto. Photograph by Andrew Ross. Above Eun-Me Ahn’s Let Me Change Your Name. Photograph by Eunji Park.

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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