In one of their riskiest and most exciting ventures, The Royal Ballet wrapped up for summer with MacMillan’s blockbuster Romeo & Juliet staged for an audience of 40,000 (split over 4 performances). The so-hashtagged #RomeO2 event was the surprise hit in a season more memorable for the hasty return of works like Ashton’s Cinderella (4 separate runs in 2 years), Sylvia or Swan Lake.
While some loved watching ballet at the O2 arena, those sitting very high up found the format more difficult to adapt to. I thought it a refreshing experience, as my £10 floor ticket allowed me to be closer than I have ever been to the stage. The catch? I couldn’t see the dancers’ feet, but screens allowed me to transport myself to Verona. This was a special production that challenged performers and ballet goers alike: gone were the proscenium arch, the set changes, the intimacy of the theatre. In their place, the giant screens and HD close-ups, video extras, hot-dogs and beer. On the Saturday evening performance – led by Alina Cojocaru & Johan Kobborg – if there was popcorn flying around me, I hardly noticed.
Arena productions are not the only way to widen the reach of ballet. Smaller in scale but equally exciting was The Royal Ballet Creates, an initiative we mentioned when compiling our list of “Ten Things we love about British Ballet” for the blog “Behind Ballet”. Royal Ballet soloist Kristen McNally choreographed a new work set to Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in the middle of a busy Apple Store on a Saturday afternoon. Sessions were interactive and people who were probably there to test drive the latest iPad model were given the opportunity to sample classical dance and to win free tickets for The Royal Opera House.
The other big event of the season was the premiere of Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a visual feast with the potential to draw families for many seasons to come (a Nutcracker for the Easter season perhaps?). Alice may not be Wheeldon’s most original piece, but it is undeniably a fun evening out. An entertaining ballet, with themes that are relevant to our times. Plus the work’s production budget, its scale and the buzz it generated made the other two new additions to the repertory – Kim Brandstrup’s Invitus Invitam and Wayne McGregor’s Live Fire Exercise – seem muted affairs by comparison.
Audiences grow to love a company in part because of its dancers, and The Royal Ballet has unique artists who continue to capture the imagination of regulars. And when it comes to star power few companies can boast partnerships similar to Rojo/Acosta’s and Cojocaru/Kobborg’s.
The company also has many talented individual performers and I can only thank my lucky stars for being able to watch dancers like these work their magic so often:
- Tamara Rojo’s Manon & Juliet – you can count on marveling at the detailed interpretations Tamara gives to some of ballet’s most complex characters.
- Zenaida Yanowsky’s Swan Lake – her Swan Queen made me forget about the production’s dated designs. Here was the most elegant Odette, with beautiful phrasing and port de bras and an intoxicating Odile who had thrilling rapport with Will Tuckett’s Von Rothbart.
- Edward Watson’s “Chosen One” in MacMillan’s Rite of Spring. His dance to death was piercing. We could see the panic in his eyes and the despair in his steps.
- Steven McRae’s Rhapsody. Mr. Clement Crisp said it best; we were “dazzled, bowled over, knocked sideways, blown away“.
- Alina Cojocaru / Johan Kobborg. A partnership for the ages. I am keeping their performances in Onegin, Giselle, Manon and Romeo and Juliet this season as souvenirs and pining over the fact they are not scheduled to dance together anytime soon. And that with every season, Kobborg gets closer to hanging up his ballet shoes.
The Royal Ballet currently finds itself in a period of transition. Monica Mason retires next year and the Company has recently announced the appointment of Kevin O’Hare to succeed her, a choice that suggests continuity. At a time when ballet companies are struggling to strike the right balance between “thinking globally and acting locally”, O’Hare will face the challenges of preserving the Ashton/MacMillan/Petipa/Balanchine canon while looking at opportunities to commission work from the best new choreographers out there. In that task he will be assisted by McGregor & Wheeldon. O’Hare will also face steep arts cuts, the fact that some of the Company’s box office-friendly works need to be rejuvenated asap, and, as Graham Watts notes, he will have the responsibility of nurturing the Company’s dancers. Expectations are high and right now we can’t wait to see what happens in the next chapter.