Like musical supergroups and Olympic basketball teams, ballet galas tend to prize individual gifts over group cohesion. A recent one produced by dramaturg Olga Danylyuk and Royal Ballet alumni Ivan Putrov gathers Ukrainian dancers stationed at companies around America and Europe, plus soloists from the Ukrainian National Ballet, for a showcase of homeland talent. There’s definite star power on show — the cast is rounded off with leads from the Royal Ballet and English National Ballet, and Putrov himself was set to perform before an injury sidelined him — but with it some contrasting and occasionally competing performance styles.
These come to bear in System A/I, a new ensemble piece from Ludovic Ondiviela about androids powered by artificial intelligence. The choreography is sharp and mechanical, a bionic facsimile that plays on the idea of supplanting passion with precision; but where some dancers relish the simulation, others look plain robotic. Ironically, it’s a Brit who takes the limelight: the Royal’s Matthew Ball, sporting an air of creepy serenity as he ramrods his limbs into position. He emotes, but does he feel? The question lingers over his relationship with a pair of humans who purchase him for ambiguous reasons. (Butler? Bouncer? Third party in an ethically questionable throuple?) Like the androids themselves, the story is intriguing but not fully fleshed out.
The second half of the evening brings bold, showboating variations that capitalise on the performers’ classical training. Despite some wobbles between dancers not usually paired, it’s a bracing procession that works in regional colour, winking flamboyance and pincer-like pointework. Christine Shevchenko nails the shivering central to ‘The Dying Swan’, while Natalia de Froberville strikes up a tingling chemistry with Francesco Gabriele Frola in the grand pas de deux from Diana & Actaeon. Skirt-swishing scenes from Don Quixote make for a big-bang finale, with another rousing turn from Shevchenko, though it was Le Corsaire — and Leo Dixon’s cantilevered scissor leaps in particular — that brought me to the edge of my seat. Swarthy in his pirate garb, he snags some serious airtime with his stomach-dropping one-twos.
Things take a shadowy turn in Hofesh Shechter’s Double Murder, which pairs two contemporary works with dark inflections. Clowns is ablaze with some of the Israeli choreographer’s signature motifs: vice, mania and politics. A rowdy, chest-thumping intro sets the scene for this 2016 number, which slates the entertainment landscape and its unholy swirl of violence and comedy. Ruffles, festoon lights and a rat-a-tat soundtrack conjure a carnival feel, with chaotic dancing revealing a spectacle that’s more freak show than funfair. The troupe bob their heads and hunch their spines, loping like busted marionettes. Tension thrums as they face us head-on, lips twisted, arms limp, a stance perfected by Mickaël Frappat, the ringleader of this sinister circus.
Shechter’s company is deliciously crisp, moving deftly between nimble high kicks and furious, writhing throngs. They radiate manic energy, even as phrases slow, leaning so hard into the hideous that it becomes an attraction itself. Shout-out to Emma Farnell-Watson’s hair-raising struts, which are as sexy as they are unnerving. Violent punctuations, like mimed snuff jobs, intensify as the work approaches its Tarantino-esque climax, a danse macabre of gunshots, electrocution and other gruesome deaths. No props necessary; the carnage is palpable.
The simian stoops and slack limbs of Clowns also crop up in The Fix — conceived pre-Covid, revised during lockdown and finally receiving its première here — though they evoke something way more tender. Seven dancers flock together seeking camaraderie; they cast their eyes to the audience, less confrontationally this time, more a plea for recognition. The title has connotations of resolution, but also deception and addiction. The phrasing is likewise layered, full of languid pauses and drifting interludes. Deep, lyrical clutches sit alongside thrashing jigs and folksy skips. Where Clowns races, this wanders, its meditations lively though lacking in urgency.
Inconsistencies aside, The Fix sings with warmth. Losing myself in Yeji Kim’s beaming, statuesque poise feels borderline spiritual. Any lingering flickers of Shechter’s characteristic cynicism are extinguished when the dancers descend into the stalls and start doling out hugs to their viewers. I usually dread audience participation — what happens on stage stays on stage — but after the interminable tyranny of social distancing, to hold and be held doesn’t seem like too much to ask for.