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Morphoses - The Wheeldon Company

'Commedia', 'Leaving Songs', 'Softly As I Leave You', and 'Boléro'

by David Mead

October 21, 2009 -- Sadler's Wells Theatre, London

The good news is that Christopher Wheeldon is back in town with Morphoses.  As always, he has brought together a group of exciting dancers well worth watching.  The evening did get off to an excellent start with a reprise of “Commedia”, his playful, contemporary, abstract take on commedia dell’arte.  The disappointment was that the rest of the programme rather drifted.

Unfortunately, Wheeldon felt the need to introduce the evening in person, giving a thankfully short speech during which he did little but thank the venue for having him, and preface each work with a film showing the company in rehearsal, having dinner, and the like at Martha’s Vineyard in the summer.  I assume this is all part of some grand idea for making ballet more accessible or user-friendly, and to be fair, the films were a distinct improvement on the pally, jokey efforts of the Balletboyz, but Wheeldon’s choreography in particular quite happily speaks for itself.  They really are not needed.

In a sense, “Commedia” reflects Morphoses status as a group of travelling players who have come together.  Danced primarily in Isabel Toledo’s gorgeous white unitards with variously spaced black diamonds that make the dancers look like Harlequins, and danced to Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella Suite”, the ballet remains an absolute delight.  Wheeldon’s unerring sense of choreographic shape and structure, his ability to create and break tableaux without making them look contrived, and his sensibility to the music, are evident throughout.  The highlight was the central duet between the effervescent, spiky Leanne Benjamin and her perfect partner, the rock solid Edward Watson, both on loan from The Royal Ballet and who managed to flirt with each other through a series of sometimes complex and difficult supports.

Australian choreographer Tim Harbour’s “Leaving Songs”, getting its world premiere, didn’t even come close.  Harbour told us on film that it was about the circularity of life and death, the ending of things and the beginning of something new.  Ross Edwards’ music certainly has a largely elegiac feel.  Danced mostly in shadowy light, with the men bare-chested in green-blue tights and the women in pink leotards, its series of overlapping duets and trios are pleasant enough.  Yet the most memorable thing about it is the large, clear balloons that are carried and swung round by the cast, and which I assume are supposed to represent tears.

It was just as well “Leaving Songs” was followed by an interval, because had it been followed immediately by Paul Lightfoot and Sol Léon’s “Softly As I Leave You”, a fair number of the audience would probably have been dozing nicely.  It starts with the tall, powerful Drew Jacoby apparently trapped inside a box, open to the audience.  She does a great deal of slamming, twisting, and thrashing about before simply stepping out to greet the arrival of the supremely lithe Rubinald Pronk.  Now dancing to Arvo Pärt’s beautiful but sleepy “Spiegel am Spiegel”, which features in Wheeldon’s own haunting “After the Rain”, the couple seem desperately troubled.  There is lots of athletic twisting and turning before they both get in the box, where they anguish more, before he kisses her on the cheek before she walks away.  It is impossible not to enjoy the athleticism of the two dancers, but there is definitely better material for it than this.

Made in Copenhagen in 2001, Alexei Ratmansky’s “Boléro” is yet another disappointing attempt at choreographing to the Ravel.  The cast of three men and three women with numbers on their chests, suggestive of a competition, shows lots of neat steps and lines, but the dance often seems at odds with the score.  The choreography fails to acknowledge its power, Ratmansky instead using conventional steps to search for a softer sense of beauty that quite simply is not there.  There are occasional moments when it seems a dramatic climax might be coming, but it never arrives, and the dance is ultimately drowned by the music.

The orchestra, like the dancers, assembled from various ensembles, was conducted by Paul Murphy.

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