Review of ‘ Polyphonia’, ‘Sweet Violets’ and ‘Carbon Life’, Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, 13 April 2012

This was one of the most exciting evenings at the Royal Ballet.  Three quite different ballets were presented, but each stood alone in its own excellence and originality. Members of the audience were saying , ‘Three very different  pieces, but each one powerful.’ Polyphonia’ and ‘Carbon Life’ were pure dance, ‘Sweet Violets’ held one in the grip of two dramatic stories. For each ballet, the music, the set design, the costumes, were integral to the dance while being works of art in themselves, which brought to mind Diaghilev’s philosophy. Diaghilev also wanted to engage young and radical talent such as Stravinsky and Picasso, while at the same time being part of a nationalist art movement in Russia for all things Russian- Goncharova’s set design for ‘Petruchka’ or Nijinska’s ‘Les Noce’, depicting the peasant wedding.

I shall begin with ‘Sweet Violets’ which was inspired by painter Walter  Sickert (1860-1942) who was fascinated by two murders: ‘The Camden Town Murder’ in September 1907 of a prostitute, Emily Dimmock, and the murders by Jack the Ripper in 1888. Victorians were spell-bound with murder, and no less a person than Charles Dickens used to attend executions. Two paintings by Sickert reflect his interest:

‘Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom’ (1907):

‘The Camden Town Murder or What Shall we do for the Rent?’ (1908-9)

Sickert used to visit The Old Bedford Music Hall in London, and this provided another inspiration for a John Macfarlane set. Prostitution and crime were subjects taken up by Degas and his circle. Toulouse- Lautrec , a follower of Degas, made brothels, dancers and the Moulin Rouge his subject matter:

Camden Town in Sickert’s day could be referred to as ‘that sleazy area north of King’s Cross station’ . Until quite recent redevelopment, King’s Cross still had a reputation for cheap prostitution.

The costumes were inspired by the art and dresses from this period . The deep scarlet attire for the dancers at the Old Bedford was reminiscent of CanCan dancers at the Moulin Rouge.  Sickert was influenced by these French Impressionists but painted in more sombre tones. London was in reality a muted and dank place. My grandfather described walking the streets as a child of the East End in the early 1900’s, holding a lantern in front of his face as he disappeared into the fog. Dickens describes the labyrinth of tiny streets and twisted alleys which was a no- go area for the police.The one-act ballet is set to Rachmaninoff’s ‘Trio elegiaque’ composed after the death of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff’s mentor. The music reflects the composer’s turmoil and depression.

The work opens with a dance depicting the Camden Town murder. This role was movingly created by Meaghan Grace Hinkis. The sense of  impending doom dominates the atmosphere. Murder performed, we are foist into the second plot involving a theory that went the rounds about Walter Sickert himself.  Sickert supposedly was introduced to Queen Victoria’s ‘reckless’ grandson , Prince Eddy. What ensued from Eddy’s secret and ‘unsuitable’ marriage to  Sickert’s sometimes model, Annie Crook, is a reflection on how women were perceived. After the marriage, Prince Eddy  disappeared into the woodwork of the Palace and poor Annie was institutionalised in a madhouse. Her girlfriend, who was a witness at the marriage ceremony, was brutally murdered.

As the audience watched in silence, Scarlett’s beautiful lifts took on the anguish of these shadowy women pursued by predatory males. Scarlett has a rare talent for dramatic dance expression which captures the interior qualities of the characters.  He knows that it is not the dancer’s face but the entire body which is needed to harness the emotional tension. The choreography was poignant, tender and cruel. The performances of the dancers were evenly matched at a standard of excellence. Scarlett has more than one style, but he does call to mind Frederick Ashton in his ability to make beautiful and emotional work.

[I am reusing this as no other version of the work is available]

‘Poyphonia’  is a dance composition by Christopher Wheeldon which sensitively and brilliantly reflects the compositional forms in several selections of music by Gyorgy Ligeti , a Hungarian composer who celebrated his 80th birthday in 2003,  when this piece arrived at the Royal Ballet.

Wheeldon has described Ligeti’s music as a ‘complex, twisted layered world’.  ‘Beginning and ending with a full cast, most of ‘Polyphonia’ is given over to duets and solos which are individual although preserving a general unity of manner’. [programme note]  Some of the structural forms shared by both the music and the dance are the ritornella and the fugue. The ritornello brings back the subject or the main theme in fragments or in different keys. It is related to the rondo. Most fugues open with a short main theme, the subject which then sounds successively in each voice (after the first voice is finished stating the subject, a second voice repeats the subject at a different pitch, and other voices repeat in the same way); when each voice has entered, the exposition is complete.  I do not know very much about music, but it seems to me that the musical description above holds true in the choreographic structure. In these excerpts, are these forms recognisable?

There is a moment in ‘Polyphonia’ in which the music ceases but the couple dancing continues moving in silence. There is another moment when the dancers are moving to sound that isn’t music, as when dancers move to a recording of wind blowing. The lifts often fill a musical phrase.

‘Vivace Energico’ was danced by Dawid Trzensimiech and Ludovic Ondiviela with exciting precision.

Here is a moment of Dawid Trzensimiech which demonstrates the calibre of his dancing:

There was ‘Cantabile molto Legato’ featuring Sarah Lamb, Johannes Stepanek, Yuhui Choe and Ludovic Ondiviela  which was memorable.

Sarah Lamb and Johannes Stepanek  were elegant in ‘Mesto, Rigido e Cerimoniale’. Here Sarah Lamb dances in ‘Chroma’.

Sarah Lamb is a delicate and refined dancer, lyrical and expressive. She is beautiful to watch. ‘Polyphonia’ was an inspiring music and dance experience. Wheeldon is a true talent.

‘Carbon Life’ by Wayne  Mcgregor  was a tumultuous experience. This was  Opening Night for these dancers. The music by Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt was composed for singers, a rapper, keyboards, guitar and a bass guitar- all onstage. Many of the dancers who had appeared in the first two ballets, appeared in this one. For 38 minutes the stage was in unrelenting motion, requiring huge energy from the performers. Indeed, the dancing was a ‘tour de force’ for the ballet company. They danced their hearts out. There were almost throw-away 8 or 10 pirouettes performed by the men. And there was a standing ovation at the end.

The sets had an abstract, black and white barred, cage-like effect, with deliberately garish yellow lighting fixtures which dropped from the ceiling. Gareth Pugh’s costumes were ‘goth’ in extraordinary designs.They remained slightly rigid to the eye. Sometimes your eye was caught by the shape of the costume rather than the dancer.:

A taste of Gareth Pugh:

Mcgregor draws from jazz, disco, contemporary dance, ‘ intercut with the fractured angularity and radical isolations of hip-hop’. [programme notes] He  has described his choreography as ‘architectural’. I would describe it as ‘sculptural’. He moves the dancers within a compositional construct. He is concerned with how forms evolve and interact, for example, when dancers come together in a group (or sculpture) of four. Bodies displace space, but also give the empty space around them and between them a shape.


He is experimenting with different ways to use music: dancing in a different tempo from the beat, for example, half-timing the beat or double- timing it. This creates a kind of fusion between the music and the dance that is bigger than either alone.

‘Carbon Life’ is exhausting because the performance juxtaposes so many sensory experiences. I was trying to concentrate on the dance, but the set and the costumes made it difficult to focus. Occasionally the choreography deteriorates into cliche. I felt I could not catch my breath, and the work ended just before my mind collapsed from the effort of concentration.

The ballet was unisex, and often in contemporary ballets, the woman’s body  bears the brunt of physical distortion. Is this significant?

‘Chroma’ by Wayne Mcgregor:


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