The Royal Ballet’s 2009/2010 season is coming to a close. In the first of two final mixed bills audiences had the opportunity to see a new work by an exciting young choreographer. Bookended by Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet-meets-art-installation Electric Counterpoint and Mats Ek’s irreverent Carmen was Asphodel Meadows, Liam Scarlett’s first ballet for the ROH main stage. After critically acclaimed pieces for the Linbury Studio and Royal Ballet School, we were rather curious to see what Scarlett would create in a big space. Here are our collective thoughts:
Balanchine may have said “You put a man and a girl on stage and there is already a story” but nowadays this maxim often reads like “You put a man and a girl on stage and there is already a cliché”. In modern ballets, the liberal use of Pas de Deux language (preferably full of pashmina lifts and pretzel shapes) to convey emotion has invariably led to the opposite of the intended effect, diluting and making the dance feel empty. I don’t mean to imply that in a post-Balanchine world the “Pas de Deux is passé” but I do question whether modern ballets over-egg the concept with dances that are more intricate than memorable.
As the curtain fell on Liam Scarlett’s new ballet, Asphodel Meadows I found myself smiling despite the piece’s inner sense of melancholy. In a bid to extend the reach of ballet, modern choreographers often make use of big productions, stretching classical dance and bodies to extremes. Many of these are remarkable pieces but I often find myself wishing they could be more visibly influenced by the great 20th century choreographers (Ashton, Balanchine, MacMillan and Tudor). This has often led me to question whether these days it is still possible to be fresh and find new uses for traditional ballet vocabulary.
It is no coincidence that my favorite living choreographers are the ones who have tried to steer away from this formula, putting man and girl on stage in other creative ways. For instance, Jonathan Watkins’s recent As One spoke of the fragmentation of a couple with hardly any partnering involved. So maybe these prejudices & preferences are what keep me from unreservedly loving a Pas de Deux-focused piece such as Asphodel Meadows. I went prepared to admire it and I do think Scarlett has a knack for creating eloquent dances with a MacMillanesque streak: the Bennet Gartside/Tamara Rojo Pas de Deux from Liebestraum and Consolations lingers in my memory as a favorite and amongst a handful of recent duets that do seem emotionally authentic.
Scarlett seems to understand that. This 24 year-old choreographer has created a compelling piece which is plotless, minimalist yet bursting with emotion. He instinctively fills Poulenc’s sumptuous score with beautiful choreography and has an envy-inducing grasp on how to effectively employ a corps de ballet, making the most of pauses in the music; fragmenting the ensemble so as to mirror the main couple. The corps are not a mere background, they act as the lead dancers’ spirit-doubles. I also admire the way Scarlett uses space, the positioning of the leading couples vs. the corps, notably in the second movement where Tamara Rojo and Bennet Gartside are surrounded by two lines of men, their sudden exit adding to the tension already present in the harrowing adagio passage of the music.
Asphodel Meadows is a well-crafted ballet, danced to a beautiful score. But I found its duets complex, with partnering occasionally so intricate as to detract from the dance. In particular, during the first movement (danced by Marianela Nuñez/Rupert Pennefather or Sarah Lamb/Johannes Stepanek in the alternate cast) I worried about how the couples would safely get through all the lifts and turns the choreography kept throwing at them.
Though I preferred the third allegro movement which gave the leading couple an opportunity to disengage, I was more impressed with the overall inventiveness of the corps patterns than with the central dances. Scarlett sets interesting structures for his corps de ballet and his excellent taste in music is also a great advantage (Poulenc’s double piano concerto is heavenly, a fantastic choice for group dances).
In Greek mythology Asphodel Meadows is the place in afterlife where souls flounder forever. Here the concept is translated into three movements danced by three principal couples and a corps de ballet of 14 clad in admittedly dull and unremarkable costumes (think corseted getups).
Each couple responds to Poulenc’s music with suggestions of a backstory while the corps seamlessly move and shift through delightful choreographic phrases which more than once reminded me of MacMillan’s abstract works (in particular Concerto as it was still fresh in our minds from this earlier triple bill).
It is not often that choreographers can so confidently work with a large ensemble and here I echo the sentiments of Mr. Clement Crisp: “what they do is what the music does”. This happy marriage between music and dance is what makes Asphodel Meadows stand out as a tribute to the Royal Ballet’s choreographic roots and its creator, Liam Scarlett, as a choreographer to watch.
The company should be happy with Scarlett, there is plenty of promise in the young choreographer. Perhaps they have in their hands a new heir to the tradition of Ashton and MacMillan; someone whose work may keep classical dance fresh and relevant.