One of last year's non-Covent Garden ballet events was seeing Christopher Wheeldon's CINDERELLA at the Coliseum which was a good introduction to his choreographic style but here we were, back in the impossibly glamorous Royal Opera House, to see a triple bill of his more challenging pieces.
The programme included a world premiere bracketed by two works Wheeldon choreographed for American companies which have now been added to the Royal Ballet's repertoire. AFTER THE RAIN from 2005 was an abstract sliver of elegant loveliness danced to an achingly spare score by Arvo Part. It started with two male and female dancers in grey/black costumes suggesting the swirling relentlessness of a rain storm but were wiped out of mind by the simple delicacy of Marianella Nunez and Thiago Soares in a glorious pas de deux seemingly welcoming the sun after the deluge, it, and they, were spellbinding.
I was excited to see the world premiere as it dealt with a favourite subject: John Singer Sargent's MADAME X, his infamous 1884 portrait of society beauty Amélie Gautreau. American-born, Amélie married well in Paris and hired Sargent, the artist-of-the-moment, to immortalise her imperious beauty. Sargent had her model in a black evening dress and painted her with one of the golden straps slipped off her shoulder.
The result was an instant scandal when the painting was displayed at that year's Salon - her imperious air and the suggestion of abandonment in her pose was deemed too shocking for the Parisians and their opprobrium was turned on both Sargent and Amélie. Sargent heard that the Gautreau family wanted to buy the painting at the end of the Salon to destroy it so Sargent removed it and kept it in his studio, eventually repainting the offending shoulder strap to look more normal. Sargent was too great an artist to be ostracised for long but Amélie's reputation was permanently ruined and she became a recluse in a house with no mirrors. The reaction always struck me as bizarre when one assumes that the Salon also had it's usual number of artistic nudes which were deemed okay - but a misplaced shoulder strap....!
Ultimately I think STRAPLESS slightly missed it's target as the narrative had to put over too much through pure dance but the I enjoyed the fluidity of Wheeldon's choreography and in particular Bob Crowley's beautiful set and costume design which suggested the Belle Époque very well. I particularly loved Crowley's version of the infamous black dress which swirled and whirled behind the ever-moving Amélie, restlessly pursuing Sargent until she was immortalised.
The main three performances were also excellent: Natalia Osipova was an imperious Amélie, spoilt and capricious until she is shunned by her peers, and she managed the final moments well, stripped and standing in front of her portrait, now surrounded by a 21st Century audience, but the woman herself is invisible to them. Edward Watson gave us a suitably grave and haughty John Singer Sargent fascinated by the glamour of Amélie but drawn to a younger man, and Federico Bonelli was very seductive as Dr Pozzi, first seen in the pose that Sargent painted him, who is the conduit for Amélie to her painter. I hope they stage it again in the future...
The last act was Wheeldon's 2008 ballet WITHIN THE GOLDEN HOUR which was an excellent showcase for his abstract choreography, his fourteen dancers seemingly floating, sliding, rising and falling again and again, and as the curtain slowly fell, they were circling and weaving, circling and weaving, movement flowing for ever... It was a particular joy to see the male dancer we seemed to always see last year, Steven McRae, having the most extended pas de deux with Sarah Lamb.
It was another great evening at the Royal Opera House and I am looking forward to seeing Wheeldon's version of THE WINTER'S TALE there soon. This triple bill - more than his CINDERELLA - has made me see what a fine choreographer he is.
Oh and by the way, what was my reaction to MADAME X? Click here for my blog about the 2006 AMERICANS IN PARIS exhibition at the National Gallery to find out!