Monday, April 16, 2018

Bernstein Triple Bill: YUGEN, THE AGE OF ANXIETY, CORYBANTIC GAMES at Covent Garden

Sometimes the Royal Ballet triple-bills can be a curate's egg but, every so often, all the pieces fall together and, while the individual one-acts dazzle, together they form a cohesive whole.  The Royal Ballet's recent celebration of Leonard Bernstein's centenary did just that.


Bernstein was such a giant of American music that it has taken three RB-favourite choreographers to stage this tribute: in tandem with Liam Scarlett's existing THE AGE OF ANXIETY, Wayne McGregor devised YUGEN and Christopher Wheeldon was given the final ballet CORYBANTIC GAMES.  All in their own way were exciting and Bernstein's soaring music sounded wonderful thanks to the Royal Opera House Orchestra.

Moving effortlessly between the classical and Broadway stages, Leonard Bernstein never forgot either as essential outlets for his creativity - indeed when a musical adaptation of THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH was abandoned because of creative differences, Bernstein reworked parts of the score to become a 1965 symphonic work which had been requested by the Dean of Chichester Cathedral two years earlier, waste not want not...  THE CHICHESTER PSALMS have been used by McGregor for his ballet YUGEN.


Utilizing his signature moves, McGregor had his dancers moving with vigour and astonishing physicality but also complementing the singing of the psalms in Hebrew.  The stark but intriguing design by Edmund De Waal of tall moving white light-boxes concentrated you on the remarkable dancers, as fluid as the red and purple costumes they wore.

I am sure it was just because it is the Bernstein score I know the most but I occasionally picked up the odd phrase that sounded straight out of WEST SIDE STORY in all three pieces.  I also saw a possible Matthew Bourne moment when a dancer did very noticeable swan-like swooping movements over three other crouching dancers.  McGregor can sometimes be all cerebral movement and little emotional involvement but here the lush musicality of Bernstein brought out the best in him, very much like Max Richter's music for WOOLF WORKS.


The second was a revival of Liam Scarlett's 2014 ballet THE AGE OF ANXIETY, written by Bernstein in 1949 and based on WH Auden's epic poem.  Bernstein's symphony throbs with the post-war feeling in New York of possible new beginnings under an air of lonely city living, Scarlett vividly moves his four lonely drinkers from a corner bar - an excellent design by John MacFarlane - to an apartment where they continue their drinking in the hope of making a connection.

They pal around, they flirt, they come together then break up leaving one of them, Malin, staring at the New York skyline at sunrise, eventually rushing towards it, ready to take up the challenge of another day, another possibility...  Sadly injury meant the wonderful Steven McRae had to pull out of the production and was replaced by fellow Aussie Alexander Campbell, but the lead quartet of Campbell, Sarah Lamb, Edward Gartside and Tristan Dyer were excellent, and Kevin Emerton was equally fine as the bartender.


After that blast of narrative, it was back to abstract for the last piece which was choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon.  He has set his ballet to Bernstein's Serenade after Plato's 'Symposium' - excuse me people - and the theme was carried through in Erdem Moralioglu's Hellenic-style costumes.  Through the five movements the constant theme seemed to be harking back to athletic running and leaping movement. 

I would love to see this again; Wheeldon's choreography was wonderfully alive, especially the 4th movement where a man and a woman, two men and two women danced variations to the same movements, perfectly embodying Bernstein's flowing music, before the whole ensemble at the end came together in kinetic, perfect fluidity.


As I said, the Royal Ballet triple bills may sometimes be unbalanced but in their tribute to Bernstein they triumphed.

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