Metamorphosis Titian 2012 - Royal Opera House, 14 July 2012
In place of the customary gala, Dame Monica Mason has chosen to mark her retirement from the Royal Ballet by commissioning three new one-act ballets.
Stimulated by a timely request from the National Gallery, all three are inspired by three Titian paintings recently 'saved for the nation'. Their subject is the myth of Diana and the hunter Actaeon. He caught the goddess bathing naked; she punished him by turning him into a stag, to be eaten by his hounds. Not conventional ballet material perhaps, but neither is the approach.
Kim Brandstrup and Wayne McGregor form an uneasy alliance to create Machina (photos above by Johan Persson), which is basically a series of pas de deux in front of Conrad Shawcross's robotic potato picker.
It wasn't hard even for a dance nitwit like myself to tell which bits had sprung from McGregor's imagination and which from Brandstrup's very different style. Carlos Acosta, Ed Watson, Tamara Rojo and Leanne Benjamin were as accomplished as you'd expect. But the machine, which gradually emerged from the darkened background flailing a spotlight on its long arm, tended to dominate. Nico Muhly's score, two sections of medieval pastiche bookending a pulsing minimalist core, was tidy but uninspired, suggesting like most of his recent work a couple of decent ideas spun out way beyond their natural lifespan.
The second piece, Trespass (photos above by Johan Persson), was far more successful. Mark Wallinger's bathroomy scene featured a dappled cyclorama behind a mirrored shower stall, with the girls' rhinestoned leotards twinkling like water droplets.
Pushing their dancers into a series of ever more contorted pas de deux, Christopher Wheeldon and Alastair Marriott created some breathtakingly beautiful sequences, culminating in Sarah Lamb's acrobatically-reversed handstand on Steven McRae's bottom. Mark-Anthony Turnage's fantastically inventive score had enough ideas for a full-length ballet, but instead whizzed breathlessly from percussive clangour to hunting horns to smoky jazz and back. Barry Wordsworth and the ROH orchestra (especially the percussion section) deserve enormous credit for bringing off all its fiendish complications.
Trespass worked largely because all the disparate elements were pulled together with a unity of purpose. That was something sorely lacking in the final piece, a narrative ballet called Diana and Actaeon (photos above by Johan Persson).
Chris Ofili's bold tropical designs, Jonathan Dove's splashy, abrasive score with its look-at-me Latin vocals, and the three-headed choreographic team (Will Tuckett, Liam Scarlett and Jonathan Watkins) never seemed to be pulling in the same direction. Fewer ideas and more time might have improved it.
The story was clearly told but the steps were conventional, and only the wittily-characterised pack of hounds displayed anything we hadn't seen before. And someone should tell Chris Ofili that when Ovid (on whose poems Titian's paintings are based) said that Diana 'coloured like the sunset', he means that she blushed, not that she wore an orange frightwig and a matching leotard that made her bum look the size of a small planet. Poor Marianela Núñez.
There's an accompanying exhibition at the National Gallery which is well worth seeing whether you're interested in the ballet or not. In the Sainsbury Wing basement, the small exhibition area includes the three original Titian paintings (of course) plus costume designs, set design models and a looping rehearsal video. There's also a room each for the participating artists. Chris Ofili has provided a series of paintings, Conrad Shawcross a mini version of his robot arm machine, and Mark Wallinger a peepshow cabin containing a shower and a live naked lady (genuinely called Diana, apparently), who you can peek at through various apertures.
Sadly but predictably there's nothing whatsoever about the new music, which I would guess was as much of an inspiration for the choreography as the paintings were. Despite this glaring omission , the exhibition is free, compact and wasn't at all busy when I went round on Friday, so it's highly recommended. Photos below.