Louise Levene

Scarlet women

An exhilarating two-martini opening, and a meaty, devastating finale, were let down by Christopher Wheeldon’s stodgy ponderings

Scarlet women
Text settings

The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude/ Tarantella/ Strapless/ Symphonic Dances

Royal Opera House

A Covent Garden barfly was scanning her programme during the first interval: ‘Oh yes, the one about the gynaecologist.’ She meant Strapless, of course, an attempt to tell the back story to John Singer Sargent’s ‘Portrait of Madame X’, which scandalised the Paris Salon of 1884.

‘Madame X’ was Amélie Gautreau, a Creole beauty who became the trophy wife of a Paris banker (and bat-guano importer). Impressed by Sargent’s striking portrait of her lover, the surgeon and saloniste Samuel-Jean Pozzi, Mme Gautreau agreed to let the fashionable young artist immortalise her own cadaverous allure. Bad idea. Her brazen pose and the fallen strap of her low-cut gown caused lasting damage to her reputation.

Strapless has been overpainted since last year’s première but remains resolutely uninvolving thanks to a thin plot and cardboard characters. Christopher Wheeldon tries to embody the contradictions of fin-de-siècle French society, a world at once sensuous and censorious, but takes refuge in cliché. The beau monde bustle about in black barathea (or possibly bombazine) like the cast of Renoir’s ‘Les Parapluies’ on a dry day. Meanwhile, Gay Paree dances the can-can (naturellement) in a scene eerily reminiscent of Kenneth MacMillan’s tarty parties. Keen, clean courtesans hop about, stockinged legs tucked behind their ears in a half-arsed port d’armes, but their moves have none of the sluttish, Dionysian abandon of the real thing.

Wheeldon struggles to create believable protagonists or a compelling narrative — despite having a dramaturg on the payroll. The underwritten secondary characters barely register but the big set-pieces fall just as flat. The crucial establishing pas de deux between the heroine and Dr Pozzi is a sexless sequence of lifts and locks with no sense of heat or urgency and is given little nourishment by Mark-Anthony Turnage’s shrill and bloodless score. The ballet’s epilogue — 21st-century tourists admiring ‘Madame X’ at the Met — still feels trite, but Natalia Osipova makes the most of her closing solo, backed by the masterpiece that guaranteed her immortality.

Wheeldon’s languid ponderings on art and celebrity seemed all the stodgier after the evening’s exhilarating two-martini opening.

Using only five dancers, William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, set to Schubert’s Ninth, floods the bare black stage with kinetic energy and more steps than an Escher staircase. The relentless, CGI-like virtuosity reads like a pastiche of a classical showpiece but without any of the usual punctuation: no pauses, no applause,   just a breathless display of virtuosity.

Luxury casting offered a rare chance to savour the contrasting styles of Vadim Muntagirov and Steven McRae. The free-spinning Marianela Nuñez and her two sidekicks sport slim, Pringle-like tutus whose black undersides merge with the darkness around them creating a curious disconnect between legs and torso and heightening the sense of unreality.

George Balanchine’s 1964 gala duet to Gottschalk’s Tarantella makes a splendid vehicle for neat, fleet Francesca Hayward and Marcelino Sambé. Sambé bounces through his solos with an easy elevation that gives him time to play in the air like a stunt kite. What a glorious Bournonville dancer he would make, so full of that choreographer’s ‘manly joie de vivre’.

The evening’s meaty finale was a new Liam Scarlett danced to Rachmaninov’s 1940 Symphonic Dances stirringly played by Koen Kessels and the orchestra. The production is boldly set and dressed in scarlet and black by Jon Morrell and lit by David Finn, whose sly sidelights hit the dancers like moonbeams through a lancet window.

Scarlett, the Royal Opera House’s artist in residence since 2012, seemed to have lost his way after a long flirtation with story ballet (his Jack the Ripper piece, Sweet Violets, featured a walk-on part for Lord Salisbury) but Symphonic Dances is an emphatic return to form.

No narrative is specified but Scarlett’s writing responds so intelligently to the changing moods within the music that every exit, every shift in scale is rich in dramatic possibilities.

The mysterious female at the ballet’s heart was created as a parting gift for Zenaida Yanowsky whose instinctive musicality lends emotional colour to every phrase.

In the jazz-minded opening movement, Morrell’s fabulous crimson gown spirals around her Loie Fuller-style, suffusing the stage with heat and light and reducingthe mercurial James Hay to a supplicant at her feet.

For the doomy, minor-key waltz of the second movement Yanowsky is recast as dominatrix flanked by a chorus line of bare-chested studs in skirts. By the time tall, handsome Reece Clarke arrives to sweep her off her feet in a long, tender duet we begin to suspect that the whole ballet is taking place in the ballerina’s head, a headlong rush of false memories and broken dreams. Her final collapse, with its conscious echoes of The Rite of Spring, is devastating.