When Philippe Decouflé first introduced the idea of sheer fun into the deadly serious business of postmodern dance-making, sceptics predicted that his comic strip and animated movie-like ideas would soon start to wear off. Almost 30 years later, his stuff is still as provocatively entertaining, and his work holds a special place in the history of choreography.
Panorama is a cleverly woven look at some of his past and much-acclaimed creations. Yet the performance has very little in common with trendy, pompously celebratory and unbearably lifeless choreographic retrospectives. Structured as a sort of music-hall review and compèred like one by the most unlikely of MCs, Panoroma is a kaleidoscope of choreographic and theatrical ideas that amuse, intrigue and captivate. True, nothing is terribly new, but it is the sparklingly humorous and tongue-in cheek way everything is presented that makes the evening flow and take off. Viewers are transported to a fantasy world where the quirkiness of a hilarious shadow play and of a dance-free rendition of ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’ combine with moments of lyrical inventiveness, as in the case of a splendid spiralling solo. A unique whiff of Frenchness lingers, and one expects a grotesque Toulouse-Lautrec cancan girl to appear at any moment (after all, Decouflé choreographed the current review at the Parisian Crazy Horse). Central to the success of the 90-minute-long performance is the bravura of the Compagnie DCA artists, in whose hands good old fun never ages.
Although ‘fun’ is not one of the qualities of the latest Royal Ballet triple bill, the programme is a damn good one, as it presents three different, though complementary, takes on modern ballet-making. I am glad to report that the much-awaited London première of Liam Scarlett’s Viscera is anything but a letdown, and confirms his rapid rise as a trendsetting dance-maker who is well worth seeing.
In Viscera, he manages to create new stuff by never moving too far away from the canons and the tenets of classical ballet. But there is more to the choreography than just good craftsmanship and/or clever manipulation of the old vocabulary. The work, to Lowell Liebermann’s enrapturing score, is seamlessly fluid and rich in ideas that are never trite; I could watch the duet, superbly danced by Marianela Nuñez and Ryoichi Hirano, again and again. Yet what I found truly noteworthy is the way Scarlett’s creativity draws on the well- and long-established British ballet tradition in a refreshingly creative and never constraining way. No wonder the company’s new director, Kevin O’Hare, decided to appoint Scarlett as the Royal Ballet’s first artist-in-residence — an excellent move.
For those wanting a more radical take on classical theatrical dancing, Wayne McGregor’s Infra makes a welcome comeback. It is a work that benefits from being seen more than once to appreciate the complexities of the physical phrasing and the multilayered interaction with Julian Opie’s art.
The other London première, that of Christopher Wheeldon’s Fool’s Paradise, brings the evening to a close on a lyrical high note. If Scarlett’s work looks at the glorious British past, Wheeldon refers more to North American neoclassicism — at times a tad too overtly for my taste. Still, there is plenty to keep any serious balletomane happy. Not least the fact that each of the three works benefited from being danced by some of the company’s brightest stars and by a corps de ballet on terrific form. Let’s hope such high standards will remain a constant of the forthcoming season.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 10 November 2012