Liam Scarlett's Sweet Violets was the second premiere on the Royal Ballet's Thursday night triple bill (Carbon Life post here). Scarlett didn't make his first narrative ballet easy for himself, devising own subject matter and fitting it to Rachmaninov's unprunable Trio élégiaque (beautifully played) . His main character is Walter Sickert, an artist and therefore an observer - not so easy to express in movement.
What he comes up with is not a conventional linear story but a series of atmospheric vignettes, based on Sickert's Camden Town paintings (studiously evoked in John Macfarlane's sets). They provide the visual framework; the artist's fascination with London's lowlife, Jack the Ripper in particular, the dramatic stimulus.
The gruesome murder of a prostitute in a tatty Victorian bedroom sets the scene. From then on, things get a bit confusing. Tamara Rojo rolls around half-dressed on a bed. We watch a music hall show from the wings. Some top-hatted gents bust into the artist's studio and cart off his companions. A demonic figure lurking in the background (Steven McRae) appears to be Sickert's alter ego.
Until you read the programme notes, which I didn't do until afterwards, it's hard to follow. There are too many characters, too many events and too many blokes walking across a room: Scarlett's preference for naturalism limits the amount of dance. What there is often has a frantic, compelling quality that brings the erotic and morbid elements of Sickert's paintings to thrilling life. Somewhere within the fifty minutes a taut, exciting forty minute piece is hidden.
All performances were superb on opening night - Laura Morera's madhouse scene deserves singling out.
*more photos below*