Twyla Tharp’s The Illustrated Farewell is an extension of her earlier work, ‘As Time Goes By’, yoking a protracted duet from Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb in front of the original choreography. After this new addition, the ballet seems to fade, lacking in central motivation or innovation, only to mildly pick up at the end, when the leading duo appear on a raised stage, dancing behind the corps de ballet like an ethereal couple; what they could have been.
The duet itself is elegant and coquettish in equal measure, much like Elite Syncopations in its choreographic whimsy. Yet it feels anachronistic, or at least mismatched, to be paired with Haydn’s Farewell Symphony – while I generally appreciate the modernisation, or rejuvenation, of classical works, this reminded me of when the teacher would let us do our barre work to pop songs in ballet class as a Christmas treat. It doesn’t really work.
The second act, Arthur Pita’s The Wind, managed the feat of both unusual – a ballet-Western, set in the windy Texan wilds – and uncreative. Three huge fans were blowing throughout the whole ballet; a staging decision that was as gimmicky as it was distracting. Yet without these props (and there were many more props besides, including a railway track, flagpole, suitcases and an entire bedroom, levered on wires) the ballet itself would have been unremarkable. There was little actual dancing, more pacing around on stage – the choreography was more theatrical than balletic, easily believable to have been created by a dramaturg rather than a dancer. The use of billowing fabric echoed dance-school summer shows, where props were used to distract from less-than flawless technique.
The protagonist, who is raped, abused and eventually driven to breakdown after moving to the barren Texan desert, was played by Natalia Osipova. The principal has recently danced in a series of roles which explore and test the limits of the human capacity for sanity – or abuse – as the grieving Mrs. Dalloway in Woolf Works, and the titular princess-come-asylum patient in Anastasia. The trend of mental instability and violation continues in Pita’s work, a fact that has been commented upon and criticised by audiences and critics alike, as the Royal Ballet at the moment appears to have a certain inclination towards portraying violence against women, at the hands of men.
In this case, it felt gratuitous and voyeuristically protracted - the abuse of women is not only made a plot device, gratuitously drawn out in prolonged – and often clunky – choreography, but is the plot. It is the only ballet which I have actively wanted to leave part-way through. I couldn’t, because I was sat in between two very elderly ladies in the cheapest seats in the house, and I don’t think they’d have appreciated me falling over their arthritic knees - but the desire to walk out surprised me.
In contrast, the gender neutrality of Hofesh Schechter’s Untouchable contrasts the sexual violence which dominates Pita’s piece. Returning to the Royal Opera House after its 2015 premiere, Untouchable is one of the most urgent and innovative works I have seen since Alexander Ekmann’s Midsommaranattsdröm at the Kungliga Operan, Stockholm. A 20-dancer strong production, there are no primas involved, no senior dancers elevated above the others.
The corps-de-ballet is formed from the junior ranks of the company, and its entirety remains on stage for nearly the whole piece. The patterning is initially vehemently precise, in formations evocative of military regimentation, only to disintegrate through the work, an animalistic urgency overpowering any allusions of order. The work has no narrative but is exceptionally articulate, an evident examination of conflict and nationhood, on identity and alienation.
Born in Israel, Schchter’s dance vocabulary is inextricably linked to his sense of identity and military background. Conscripted to the Israeli Defence Force while still in training, he moved to the Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv while completing his military service. Though dance and the military are perhaps in teleological opposition, it is this conflict which makes this incompatible yoking so emphatic, so vital.
Ballet cannot merely articulate beautiful but threadbare 18th-century tales any longer. If is to express anything, if it is to be worthwhile and claim its space as a necessary art form, it must be observant. It must hear. Of course there is a case for art which takes us outside of ourselves, which distracts from the winter of the world. But we need these works, fraught with anger and a manic kind of defiance, these works which break apart the medium and articulate the message. In its apocalyptic aesthetic, channelling the bleakness of Blade Runner, and its Middle-Eastern / electronic inspired soundtrack (also composed by Schechter) the Royal Opera House became, for half an hour, far larger than a place of elevated performance.
It became a platform for politics, interrogating issues that are too easy to ignore when caught up in London. The corps danced with a compulsive collective energy, the staccato strobe lighting echoing ‘Orlando’ in Woolf Works. Yet unlike the latter, in Untouchable this sole staging device makes sense – it is narratorial, rather than merely atmospheric. This is a work you feel in the cavities of your own chest, catching the pulsing strobes and the sweat between breaths.