Ballet would have been an obvious revenue stream for Sadler’s Wells when it reopened back in 1998 but straight-up classics have been few and far between over the past two decades — the Rothbart of the Royal Ballet of Flanders’ Swan Lake wore a live owl on his head. And yet, while the theatre’s programming fights shy of tutus and toe shoes, its fiercely contemporary output can sometimes bridge the notorious gulf that has traditionally divided classical and contemporary audiences.
Wayne McGregor has been resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet since 2006 but combines this role — and countless international projects — with his directorship of his own company, whose Autobiography premièred at the Wells earlier this month. It is not a straight narrative (perish the thought), but 23 distinct elements (one for each pair of chromosomes) delivered in an order that varied nightly thanks to an algorithm based on Mr McGregor’s genetic code.
The shuffled vignettes are performed (exquisitely) by ten dancers beneath a grid of wire pyramids and strafed by Lucy Carter’s foggy blades of light. McGregor has toned down his trademark hyperextensions and there is a whiff of the barre about the language with dancers zipping through beaten steps, pirouettes and pretty chains of turns.
Merce Cunningham was randomising dance back in the 1950s. It’s still a valid creative tool, but it is hard to sustain for 90 minutes. Fine as a promenade installation in the Tate’s Turbine Hall, but it makes for unsatisfying theatre.
Structure was only one of the weaknesses of Shobana Jeyasingh’s Bayadère — The Ninth Life, a contemporary Indian take on Marius Petipa’s cardamom-scented 1877 masterpiece. The 60-minute, ten-man show premièred at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio two years ago but has been pimped and revised for the 29-year-old company’s Sadler’s Wells debut. There is a new dramaturg (did they break the old one?) and handsome new designs. Sander Loonen’s ravishing video projections create vast dust storms, which crystallise into dancing figures, and Tom Piper furnishes great tangles of fairy-lit copper wire and a glass-sided box — part TV screen, part terrarium — in which Jeyasingh can unpick her vexed relationship with ballet’s orientalist love triangle.
It is a first-rate idea and the feather-footed Sooraj Subramaniam remains mesmerising as the modern-day man who drifts into a dream world in which ballet is trumped by bharatanatyam. But Jeyasingh’s thesis — a half-baked essay on colonialist misogyny — misfires. The choreography never delivers on the potentially fascinating disconnect between Petipa’s navel-jewelled pastiche and the authentic dances that inspired it. Even two dramaturgs can’t save the 60-minute piece from sagging in the middle and petering out at the end.
Royal Ballet old boys Michael Nunn and William Trevitt never wanted ‘ballet’ on their letterhead. They began life as ‘George Piper Dances’ but got stuck with the BalletBoyz handle, and the men-only line-up it implies, after a hit Channel 4 documentary of the same name.
Four of the numbers in Fourteen Days, their latest five-part touring programme, were premières, linked by a theme of ‘balance’ and composed within a strict, two-week timeframe. The dancers were on top form and the evening enjoyed the luxury of a 12-piece orchestra, but their material wasn’t always worthy of them.
Javier de Frutos, whose work on London Road recently beat La La Land to Broadway’s inaugural Chita Rivera award, takes the ‘balance’ brief completely literally for his opening ensemble, The Title is in the Text, which features ten men (down to nine on opening night) balancing on a giant seesaw.
As a display of trust and sheer concentration it is undeniably impressive but it starts to look gimmicky long before its 18 minutes are up. Things are not helped by a typically difficult soundtrack from Scott Walker played at brain-melting volume on the Wells’s atrocious sound system.
Ivan Perez’s Human Animal consisted of five men trotting in circles to some brass-bound Joby Talbot wearing big girls’ blouses and black underpants rather as if they were keeping warm while waiting for their trousers to dry.
Christopher Wheeldon supplied some pedigree pairwork for the well-matched Jordan Robson and Brad Waller in Us and the evening closed with a revival of 2013’s Fallen by long-time BalletBoyz collaborator Russell Maliphant, which scales up his trademark twosomes in a sustained display of counterweighted lifts and poses.
In between came The Indicator Line by TV ballroom bitch Craig Revel Horwood, a clog-dancing treatment of Australia’s Eureka stockade massacre. Revel Horwood has a long track record in stage musicals but his writing is too glib, too inexpressive to deal with a serious subject. The precise blend of ballet, tap and modern is not the issue here. As Martha Graham always insisted, there are only two kinds of dance: good and bad.