‘Chroma,' 'A Month in the Country' and 'DGV: Danse À Grand Vitesse'
by Carmel Morgan
June 23, 2009 -- The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Opera House, Washington, DC
There was definitely something different about the Royal Ballet’s visit to Washington, DC, beginning with the announcement to turn off cell phones just prior to the performance, which was delivered in an attractive British accent. Next, Dame Monica Mason, the company’s director, took to the stage and mentioned the fatal subway crash that occurred the day before in the nation’s capital. She dedicated the performance to those who lost their lives in the accident. This was a classy move, as one would expect from those well-mannered people from across the pond.
And then came Wayne McGregor’s “Chroma.” The audience sat back in stunned silence for several minutes. “Chroma” is shockingly un-mannered, and it hit us with a smack. One could almost hear people thinking, “What is this?” Dancers, clad in shoulder and leg baring outfits by Moritz Junge, slithered, bent, dipped, and kicked in entirely new, warped ways. They certainly did not move like most ballet dancers. Indeed, they seemed more alien than human with their hyperextended limbs, rippling chests, and snaky head nods. At times it seemed as if we were watching some sort of post-modern sideshow burlesque. The movement was both melty and sharp. Legs arched over heads and arms twisted behind backs, often in fast, ripping movements. It was difficult to distinguish the men from the women. The hair of the males was elegantly swept off of their faces, and the men partnered one another, pumping their long legs high into the air like women would more typically do.
The set design for “Chroma,” by minimalist architect John Pawson, added to the work’s striking nature. Dancers became bizarre figures in a modern painting. In the middle of the stage was a large cut-away box, first appearing like a block of creamy butter. With lighting, expertly designed by Lucy Carter, the landscape transformed. The dancers, outlined in black against the white set, threw tall gray shadows on the walls. They moved in and out of the carved space. Their bodies glistened, their legs like shiny scissor blades. The music reminded one of a James Bond score. Arranged by Jody Talbot and orchestrated by Christopher Austin, it included tunes by Jack White III of the rock band the White Stripes.
One need not have understood the lengthy program notes, which spoke, among other things, about “Chroma” being “freedom from white,” to have appreciated the work. Whatever the deeper meaning, the dancers in “Chroma” clearly journeyed to unusual places, and witnessing that journey was intriguing. Yet “Chroma” seemed more like a daring experiment in form than a successful choreographic work. The dancers, however, attacked their task with such steely resolve that their fearlessness made “Chroma” enthralling.
In addition to “Chroma,” the company performed “DGV: Danse À Grand Vitesse,” the work of another young British choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon. “DGV” and “Chroma” share similar elements: compelling contemporary music, dramatic design, and excellent lighting. The music for “DGV” by Michael Nyman – MGV (Musique à Grande Vitesse), written in 1993 for the inauguration of the French TGV (train à grande vitesse) – was appealing. Pulsing and brassy, it sung triumphant notes. The décor by Jean-Marc Puissant consisted of an awe-inspiring wavy sculpture that created an ever-changing landscape behind which dancers could hide or creep through. Finally, the lighting by renowned lighting designer Jennifer Tipton was superb. Dancers literally disappeared and the décor continually morphed. Depending on the lighting, the décor looked like metal wreckage, an iceberg, or rocks on the moon, in the desert, or at the beach.
In “DGV” the weakest element, unfortunately, was the choreography. In contrast to many Wheeldon works, clumps of dancers garnered more interest than partnered pairs. A crowd bobbled. Among the group, a single dancer at a time would pop up with one arm raised, slightly curved at the wrist, above his or her head. A line of dancers created a spidery wave, splitting and returning to the linear formation. One oft-repeated movement was a deep swan dive. Heads fell toward the floor while one back leg extended straight behind. Lifted and spun in this position, women became pinwheels. At one point, dancers joined hands like cheerleaders or members of a Broadway teen chorus and formed Vs between them across the back of the stage, distracting from a duet in the foreground. The arm movements of those at the back resembled inane smoke signals. While the music soared, the dancing seemed tinged with darkness, rather than being celebratory.
Frederick Ashton’s “A Month in the Country,” a 1976 Royal Ballet original production based loosely on a play of the same name by Ivan Turgenev and set to music by Frédéric Chopin, was sandwiched between the two recent British works. Frequently oldies are goodies, and “A Month in the Country” was the prize of the evening. Julia Trevelyan Oman’s set and costumes conjured a Victorian era drawing room and its conniving inhabitants. In this interior drama, Zenaida Yanowsky as Natalia Petrovna and Rupert Pennefather as Beliaev, her son’s tutor, were each terrific, as were the rest of the cast, in particular Bethany Keating as Vera, Natalia’s ward and romantic rival, whose child-like round face is perfect for the role. Ashton included humor in his piece (for example, the family comically scrambled on the floor for a lost set of keys), and this lightness provided a welcome reprieve from the serious tension between the various figures and their battle for love.
“A Month in the Country” did not display fancy tricks, but instead presented beautifully nuanced dancing. The choreography blends formality with freedom and demands considerable acting skill. Thankfully, the Royal Ballet’s dancers have some serious acting chops, and they truly brought “A Month in the Country” to life. The dancers gave rich, complex performances. One could sense the feelings of each character. Each interaction brought forth a conversation. Keating as Vera danced innocently, her back foot vibrating in anticipation of a first kiss, and later, she danced with childish rage. Yanowsky as Petrovna commanded the stage, her selfish calculations finally backfiring into a poignant duet with Pennefather. When he lightly pushed her away, we felt her heart breaking as the reality of their parting sank in, and our hearts broke again when Pennefather snuck back into the country house and kissed the trailing silk ribbon of Yanowsky’s dress without her noticing him there.
The Royal Ballet’s mixed program might have benefitted from taking either “DGV” or “Chroma” off the bill and adding something else to generate a better balance. The dancers, however, danced extremely well in all of the works. They transported the audience to another world, where we temporarily forgot the trauma of the subway crash that prompted the performance’s special dedication.