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The Royal Ballet is literally losing the plot

Liam Scarlett's Frankenstein is yet another luxurious but botched dramatic ballet. To prevent another expensive cock-up, they should look to the Rambert's triple bill at Sadler's Wells

21 May 2016

9:00 AM

21 May 2016

9:00 AM

Frankenstein

Royal Ballet, in rep until 27 May, Rambert, Sadler’s Wells

If a football manager produces a string of losses, the writing is on the wall and out he goes. He’s accountable — to shareholders, to the fans. The director of the Royal Ballet is not a football manager.

Nor is it easy to see to whom he would account for his plans and outcomes. The Royal Ballet governors are not like MotD panels unleashing Gary Nevilles and Alan Shearers on the play, or select committees foaming with Tom Watsons and John Whittingdales demanding explanations for the cultural strategy. They are a group of veteran ballet chums, and it appears to be inconceivable that it is their business to turn round and see if the latest Royal Ballet production scored or not. Let alone to sack the manager.

But really something has to be said after this frightful season, and given the ROH’s fondness for digital communication with the masses it would be a jolly good thing to have a live-streamed governors session where Kevin O’Hare is asked to explain why the Royal Ballet has so copiously lost the plot.

Lost the plot, literally. For the company that brought British ballet a worldwide reputation for dramatic storytelling seems mystifyingly incapable these days of producing a ballet of competent emotional narrative. This season has reached a nadir: Carlos Acosta’s Carmen last autumn, Christopher Wheeldon’s Strapless in the spring, and now Liam Scarlett’s Frankenstein; all of them luxuriously mounted and extensively botched.


Successful dramatic ballets always have a scene or two where you feel the choreographer’s heart quickening with excitement: the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, the trio in Manon, the Shades in La Bayadère. But nowhere in Scarlett’s flat Mary Shelley transliteration is there a dramatic sweet spot. The Creature vanishes disappointingly quickly after surgery before we can get a good look at him and he dances no more or less gracefully than anyone else (though Nehemiah Kish, being less gifted a mover than Steven McRae, inhabits it with more pathos). His maker’s unnatural ambitiousness doesn’t register at all in the conventional Des Grieux-lookalike provided by Scarlett. Far too many characters — eight corpses by the end, did you notice? A seven-year time gap in which no costumes change. In the enervating logistical process of mounting a full-lengther, Scarlett seems to have suffered not just a failure of imagination but a failure of relish for his creation; the heart of the fanciful horror story never starts beating.

What Frankenstein does have is astounding stage design. John Macfarlane’s marvellous paintings sweeping over huge cloths emit clammy mists and apocalyptic fires; his sets are creepily meticulous, particularly the anatomy theatre, and the Creature is made a perfectly horrid cadaver, with thick red seams over a naked body. Macfarlane’s head is full of visions obedient to 19th-century romanticism, offering maximum ignition to all manner of dancing forces, from abstract mass effect to detailed character. The sets deserve better choreography.

Lowell Liebermann’s commissioned score generates plenty of film-score energy, but again talent seems mischannelled. While showing the melodious orchestral expertise of his First Piano Concerto, well used by Scarlett in his fluidly inventive abstract ballet, Viscera, at this 140-minute length the American’s score runs out of originality, if not stamina, and riffs far too readily for comfort on Prokofiev and Stravinsky ballets.

There are executive questions. Should the talent be more carefully mentored? Kenneth MacMillan, Javier De Frutos, Matthew Hart are three examples of rare choreographic talents broken by a bad experience. And young Scarlett needs something in the confidence bank if he’s going to do himself, the Royal Ballet and Swan Lake credit in the forthcoming new production.

Secondly, all three flops this season are co-productions — Acosta’s with Queensland Ballet and Texas Ballet, Wheeldon’s with the Bolshoi, Frankenstein with San Francisco Ballet. Is this strategy feeding expense and neutering the outcomes? Those who should be sleepless sit in the offices over Scarlett’s head, the non-directing director, the non-governing governors of the Royal Ballet’s increasing reputation for expensive cock-up.

That there are smarter, more stimulating ways to do plot, character and consequence is demonstrated all over the contemporary world. On Rambert’s entertaining new triple bill there’s a take on Macbeth that is a deliberate brainteaser. Lucy Guerin’s Tomorrow splits the stage in two for a right brain-left brain experiment. Seven dancers in white hippie dresses on the right swoop and flock like the witches, seven dancers in black suits on the left mime the Macbeth plot — backwards.

Scanner’s score, both electronic and played live, lulls and buzzes while your wits are in a spin. How concise yet ambiguous the movements of action are; and how strangely eloquent a group can be made to be in signalling the gradual forming of intention or emotion. Tomorrow is a tricky pleasure in the same way that Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s silent As You Like It was last month, and sits happily between Shobana Jeyasingh’s lyrical, Asia-nostalgic Terra Incognita and the giddy Brazilian beach-party of Itzik Galili’s A Linha Curva.

I’m not saying Scarlett should have turned Frankenstein into a brainteaser — or am I? Isn’t that what the story is?


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