Think of The Royal Ballet and you probably will think of the artistry of classical ballet - a heroine in white tulle, an athletic leading man to support her and a full corps in attitudes around them. But there is another Royal Ballet and it's gaining ground in the repertoire...
Contemporary Dance has always been vital to the company in helping establish new choreographers and allowing established ones to experiment with new forms and also for the dancers in the company to explore new ways of - literally - stretching their talents. The Royal Ballet's resident choreographer Wayne McGregor is constantly finding new ways for Contemporary Dance to connect with the Opera House's audience and last week we saw their latest triple bill of one-act ballets which showcase the work of three fellow contemporary choreographers.
The first was THE HUMAN SEASONS choreographed by David Dawson and based on a poem of the same name by John Keats. To be honest I didn't get that coming through, Dawson's piece purportedly charts the four seasons of man's life and while it had a spare elegance - with an ever-changing set of black and gold panels and neon straight-line lighting - and standout work from Eric Underwood, Marcelino Sambé and Sarah Lamb, it also was the one that I could skate over the most. Speaking of which, I noticed a distinct trend across all three choreographers which was to get the dancers to slide across the stage... it gets noticeable after a while.
Christopher Wheeldon's AFTER THE RAIN was next and although I had seen it last year in a Wheeldon triple bill, it's elegant simplicity was a joy to see again. Danced to the hauntingly sparse music of Arvo Part initially by four dancers as embodiments of skittish rain drops, the piece is made truly memorable by the end pas de deux, a mesmerizing combination of delicacy and concentrated energy which is the perfect length to leave you wanting more. This wonderful showcase for two dancers was danced beautifully by Zenaida Yankowsky and Reece Clarke.
The crowning achievement of the evening was the final ballet, Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite's FLIGHT PATTERN which featured a large ensemble of 36 dancers. This was Pite's first work for The Royal Ballet and was danced to Henryk Górecki's Third Symphony.
This astonishingly sombre work is Pite's response to the eternal dilemma of displaced people: three rows of muted, cowed dancers slowly surge onto the stage from stage left, suggesting waves of people moving as a mass but made up of individuals. They slowly move across the stage but as they do some of them break away, to fight among themselves, to seek support.
They reach a place to rest and while doing so, a man and woman break free and while mourning a lost child they are again on the move, towards a slowly closing door with gently falling snow beyond it. The couple are left alone but this time it is the man who explodes into a violent solo as his wife sits slumped with her back to him, broken.
Crystal Pite's remarkable choreography was tensely hypnotic - only when the curtain fell could I exhale loudly - and it perfectly mirrored Górecki's haunting music. There were such wonderful moments within the choreography that you left knowing it had to be seen again; the constant surging movements within the company - suggestive of both a death marches and mass exodus - the amazing moment when the rippling forms made a heaving wave which supported the grieving woman, the exhilarating movement of the ensemble's arms to almost suggest the wings of birds flying...
The dancing was stupendous from the whole ensemble with remarkable vignettes from Kristen McNally and Marcellino Sambé as the suffering couple. Jan Gower Taylor's set design was hauntingly lit by Tom Visser and it was wonderful to see it on that stage, in that theatre.
A perfect evening within which to explore and experience the possibilities of contemporary dance - I would love to see them all again.