WHY do we call afternoon shows matinees ? Probably too late to change it now; but wouldn't apres-midiens be more accurate? Anyway I went on Saturday 6 February to the Royal Ballet performance in Covent Garden which began at 12.30 pm and it was absolutely packed, lots of children. What the little dears made of a tough programme I would like to know; they probably found it easier to take than some of the older ones.
The first item was only the sixth performance of the sensation of 2006: Chroma, choreography by Wayne McGregor, sets by the architect John Pawson, lighting by Lucy Carter - all three need to be mentioned as highly commended. The set was described as "in a sense, charged limbo", a rectangle with another one, raised, towards the back, excitingly lit and frequently metamorphosed.
The choreography, ah!, difficult to describe. It is classical dancing thrust forward in language, legs, arms, neck, head and trunk move in wave not seen before; fluid, rippling, bending, curving, twining, but you really have to see it and I sincerely hope you do, for this is something new and exciting, an extension of the ballet language. What that language is saying is not quite clear but perhaps that is not so important as the sensation of seeing it.
There are ten dancers involved, dancers but here also super athletes too. Twenty minutes is the duration, most of it quick and strenuous almost to the point of violence at times. But there are two brief pas de deux, the first of which I found as unutterably beautiful and rivetting as anything I ever saw on a stage, limbs twined, ravishingly lovely human bodies in motion.
Joby Talbot's music, with some extra settings by Jack White, is up to date, stretched tonality, with hints of minimalism, orientalism and other isms, snappy, strident, plenty to assault the ears but not 'frighten the horses'; not great music but strikingly effective.
Different Drummer is one of MacMillan's troubled pieces, telling the story inside-out fashion of Berg's opera Wozzeck but, weirdly, using not Berg's music but early, stretched, tonal music by Berg's colleagues, Webern (Passacaglia, opus 1) and Schoenberg (the gorgeous string sextet Verklaerte Nacht, an aural counterpart of Klimt?). We see all Buchner's characters as in the opera and the choreography gives ample roles for Marie (Leanne Benjamin) and Wozzeck (Edward Watson) - fine performances both.
The last ballet was Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. I know the generally accepted cliche is that the music is just too powerful for any choreographer to match. But MacMillan gives Stravinsky almost as good as it deserves. The rounds and tribal dances do go on perhaps a bit too long but MacMillan's half-a-hundred corps de ballet (the most numerous in any ballet ?) do wonders and at the end are quite terrifying. And the Sidney Nolan sets and costumes are mightily impressive to look at. Tamara Rojo had recovered sufficiently from her efforts in Chroma to be a vibrant and pulsating sacrificial Chosen One.
Barry Wordsworth celebrated his return to the post of the Royal Ballet's Music Director to conduct thoroughly lively and convincing performances with a responsive Covent Garden Orchestra.