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Morphoses - The Wheeldon Company

'Continuum', 'Softly as I Leave You' and 'Rhapsody Fantaisie'

by David Mead

October 24, 2009 -- Sadler's Wells Theatre, London

Morphoses’ second London programme once again got underway with the now obligatory personal introduction by Christopher Wheeldon.  This one was rather more engaging than that earlier in the week though.  Wheeldon seemed rather more relaxed, probably because he had got the premiere his new ballet “Rhapsody Fantaisie” over and done with the previous evening.  He also included some insight into the thoughts and inspiration behind the works on show that were not in the programme – much more the sort of thing he needs to do.

Of course we still had the videos.  I understand they might be interesting for those not familiar with what it is like to rehearse and be away with a company, but Wheeldon also needs to be careful they do not pad out the show unnecessarily.  And, if there are two programmes, as in London, it would be a good idea to have two sets of films.  I would guess that most people in for programme 2 had already sat through the films when in for programme 1, and I am sure there was sufficient footage to put together some more. 

As in programme one, the best work of the evening came first.  Created for San Francisco Ballet in 2002, “Continuum” is Wheeldon’s second work to the piano music of Gyorgy Ligeti, and clearly comes from the same stable as his first, “Polyphonia”.  The opening is deceptively simple.  The dancers walk in patterns, but they quickly become ever more complex, lines and groups forming and reforming so fluidly you wonder where they came from.

As the ballet moves into a series of pas de deux, Ligeti’s sometimes discordant music provides an interesting counterpoint to the dance.  There appears to be more than a hint of Wheeldon’s New York City Ballet background, and in particular Balanchine’s black and white ballets, in the way the men carefully and precisely manipulate the women.  They are folded and twisted into endless beautiful and inventive poses as if they were pieces of paper being used for origami.  There is a calmness to proceedings even when there is a sense of competition or aggression, as in the one Harpsichord section, which Wheeldon had earlier explained was partly inspired by watching what happened when his cat and dog fell out.  That calmness, even at times meditative feel, persists to the end, when he presents a beautiful final image, with all the dancers in silhouette in yoga poses.

Lightfoot-Léon’s “Softly As I Leave You” held the attention much better than when seen earlier in the week, which suggests the problem may have been primarily one of programming, rather than with the ballet itself.  On this evening much greater intensity flowed from both Drew Jacoby and Rubinald Pronk, although during the first minutes of the section danced to Arvo Part, the choreography and performance did start to seem to be more about steps than any deep relationship between them.  The audience loved it all the same, and it got easily the best reception of the week.

The first thing that strikes you with Wheeldon’s new “Rhapsody Fantaisie” is the dramatic bright red colour of the costumes, designed by Francisco Costa, Women’s Creative Director of Calvin Klein Collection.  The second thing to hit you is how completely unflattering they are.  The voluminous trousers worn by the men looked a little like Cossack trousers, but with three times the material, and the dresses merely succeeded in making the women look frumpy, which is quite an achievement given how Morphoses’ fabulous dancers really look.

In the choreography, Wheeldon tries to show us he can do more conventionally romantic, emotional dance too.  And “Rhapsody Fantaisie” is a long way from “Continuum” in music and dance.  Set to selections from Rachmaninov piano suites, it is full of regular steps and the sort of pas de deux more familiar to the audience; one reason, I’m sure, why it got such a good reception.  And it most certainly has its moments.  Highlights are a nicely understated duet for Wendy Whelan and Matthew Prescott, and a lengthy dance for all six men that, although full of all the requisite strong movement, I suspect would look equally good danced by women.

All this was accompanied by the outstanding playing of Cameron Grant and Jonathan Higgins on piano, and Hugo Dalton’s neon-looking designs.  At different times the latter were projected on to various parts of the stage and auditorium.  Best of all were a series of scribble-like squiggles that reflected the choreography at that point and its circling wrists and elbows.  It was an idea worth trying, but overdone, unnecessary, and at times out of keeping with the dance.

If Wheeldon has a problem, it is that he has set the bar so high and raised expectations so much, that it comes as a big disappointment when, as here, he falls even a little short.  But not everything can be outstanding, and he most certainly should not stop trying new things, new collaborations, and new approaches.

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