Review: Polyphonia/Sweet Violets/Carbon Life

I know this is now a little late but I’ve been pretty busy lately and so have only just gotten round to writing this:

I was lucky enough to have tickets for the opening night of the Royal Opera House’s new triple bill on Thursday last week, which consisted of Polyphonia/Sweet Violets/Carbon Life.

There had been quite a bit of buzz about the two new pieces in the programme, Sweet Violets and Carbon Life, and sneak previews shown on the day of live streaming on YouTube of a day with the Royal Ballet to whet every ones appetites. I was pretty interested in what this triple bill would offer, as it seemed to be taking a chance with some quite daring collaborations and a young choreographer in the mix.

Shall we start at the very beginning then?

Polyphonia was choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon and last shown here in 2006, making it the only old (comparatively speaking) piece in the bill. The format is is pretty standard, and the staging simple. The music (by Ligeti) was a bit too plinky plonkly for me to begin with, but otherwise I thought it was lovely, and wonderfully played. The dancers were uniformly good, standout performance for me was Beatriz Stix-Brunell, who I haven’t seen before, but I’ve heard about her debut in Alice, and was pleasantly surprised by the maturity of her performance, her arms were just divine! I enjoyed the choreography, and thought that it improved as it went on. It was great to see a plot-less Wheeldon piece to compare to Alice, and I thought it was a sophisticated and gently contemplative.

Sweet Violets was the second in the programme, and the one I knew the least about having missed the preview on the day of live streaming. I knew Liam Scarlett was choreographing, and that it had a pretty astounding cast, but that was pretty much it. The first thing I have to say is that the acting in this is fantastic, everyone put everything they had into their characters and it was amazing to see the serious skills these fine dancers have got going on. Johan Kobborg took the lead, and accompanied by Alina Cojocaru (heartbreaking), Thiago Soares (powerful), Steven McRae (increadible) and Laura Morera (unnerving madness) and more meant it was quite the blockbuster. The Rachmaninoff score was beautifully played, and the staging was fantastic. It was moody and haunting, moving from room to room, with long haunting shadows looming over the dancers. Possibly the best set piece was the view of a stage and performing dancers but seen from the back, allowing an insight into the mechanisms of their backstage world, and watching them perform with their backs to us for an audience  beyond. I got a little fuzzy on the actual story and what was happening at times, but the emotive choreography, and as I said before, the fantastic acting by all involved meant it was a great short pieces and all the elements came together really well. As it was the opening night we got to see the designer John Macfarlane and the rest of the creative team on stage along with the cast and an adorably emotional looking Liam Scarlett. I was impressed with Scarlett as I think he drew great performances out of the dancers, and I am continually impressed with his skills as a choreographer, he really managed to convey a story without it becoming “stagey”, and the combination of acting and dance that packed a real emotional punch. I wouldn’t necessarily say that the choreography was the best work I’d ever seen, but as a sum of it’s parts, Sweet Violets really was a great watch, and I’d be interested to see it performed again.

Carbon Life closed the programme, and having gotten a little excited by seeing designer Gareth Pugh outside the Royal Opera House beforehand, I was really curious to see what the collaboration of his designs, Wayne McGregor’s choreography and Mark Ronson masterminding the music would produce. I think it’s fair to say that this one probably won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I would urge not just the new younger crowd I saw on the opening night possibly attracted by the famous names involved to try it, but the stalwarts of ROH, who might be turned off by the rapping and swearing, to give it a go. Again I would say that this production works as a sum of it’s parts. The choreography is recognisably McGregor’s, though that isn’t a criticism, and the huge cast shows the Royal Ballet’s talent for modern dance that transcended typical ballet/contemporary boundaries. The lighting here was a revelation, Lucy Carter created some truly impressive effects while still in keeping with the style of the pieces. I have to admit to not paying a huge amount of attention to the lighting in other productions I have seen, unless it has been noticeably bad, but in this I really sat up and took notice. Having seen the picture above of a first glimpse of the Gareth Pugh costume designs, I was intrigued, but a bit concerned that the whole thing would look a bit gimmicky, but thankfully the more outlandish pieces were used sparingly, and as a result, effectively. I particularly liked the first moment with all the cast on stage, when male and female were almost indistinguishable in their simple outfits and slicked back hair, and the whole auditorium seemed to pulse with the energy from the stage. I think that was generally my overall impression of the ballet, the palpable energy that seemed to buzz through the audience, and the power and intensity of the performers on stage. The choreography had some great high points, including the first two pieces, and Steven McRae simply blew my mind, he is always fantastic to watch but I just couldn’t take my eyes off him all the way through. Other special mentions for Olivia Cowley, Lauren Cuthbertson, Sarah Lamb, Eric Underwood and the ever wonderful Edward Watson. Again here, the choreography wasn’t necessarily my favourite part (there were moments when too much was happening or it felt like a section or two were drawn out longer than needed), but the combination of staging, lighting, music, costumes and dance, and the intensity and power of the dancers came together to create something rather extraordinary.

I honestly really enjoyed this triple bill, it offered three different tastes of three current choreographers working now, from elegant classicism, to powerful narrative, to so-modern-it-hurts collaborations. It felt like the Royal Opera House really pushed the boat out with this triple, and I’m glad they took a chance, because I think they may have just won themselves a new audience, as well as proving that they can be just as bold an innovative as they can be refined and classical.

Right, so that was my attempt at a review, I hope it all made a sort of sense, and I’d love to hear from anyone else who’s seen it, it’s great to hear different opinions and impressions, so get in touch in the comments below!

Photo credits: Bill Cooper – Polyphonia, The Arts Desk – Sweet Violets, The Telegraph – Carbon Life

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3 thoughts on “Review: Polyphonia/Sweet Violets/Carbon Life

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