Describing what has happened to the performing arts as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic is difficult and upsetting. In a time when the arts were needed more than ever, stages were emptied and orchestras were silenced for the sake of safety. Royal Opera Houses’ ‘Royal Ballet: Back on Stage’, is more than just a selection of ballet excerpts, but a battle cry on behalf of artists up and down the nation who work on and off stage. It urges us to dream of a future when the arts will be safe and possible again.
As the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House begins the Overture from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake under the baton of Jonathan Lo, one could be forgiven for thinking the mess was all over-that we were once again back to normal. At this moment, the orchestra, the dancers, and the theatre itself are roused from their long slumber. Throughout, the orchestra excel and hearing them is a treat. Playing for dancers, as the pieces were composed or arranged, we hear these works in the purest form. Here, Lo is a guide and translator for the dancers, and not the commanding oracle of purely orchestral performances. It is so good to hear some of the better-known pieces at the tempo they were intended.
Director Kevin O’Hare’s vision is spectacularly fantastic. Sleeping Beauty isn’t the only item in the programme loaded with metaphor- metaphors that all lead us back to dance, an art form now hanging from a thread in many regions as theatres and dance studios cling onto their futures. Depictions of love are not just merely romantic; but also reflect a love of dance. Loss is not just about lost love or grief, but a reflection of the fear of losing this special art form in financial downturn. Dance for dance’s sake, as seen in Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations aren’t just spectacles, but show the prowess of the dancers and celebrate dance’s power.
Contrasting Sleeping Beauty, Hofesh Schechter’s Untouchable is one of many contemporary performances of the evening. It celebrates unbridled and rebellious movement that screams for attention and urges that the dance will come out of this crisis, victorious. Diamonds, similarly from George Balanchine’s abstract ballet Jewels is the perfect excerpt, celebrating original choreography, the music of Tchaikovsky and of course, metaphorically celebrating The Royal Ballet and its work as diamonds. Not only are these excellent sections for this programme, but also provide a subtle well-crafted narrative arc.
Developing on the theme of touch, Frederico Bonelli and Akane Takenda present an incomparably emotionally charged Gran Pas De Deux from Act II of Swan Lake. Social distancing and infection has rendered touch unsanitary, unsightly and taboo. The context of Covid intensifies Lev Ivanov’s choreography, which revels in the anticipation of touch. Witnessing the sight of Prince Siegfried cradling Odette in his arms, the audience are presented with something that is so human and yet so alien. As we watch the characters, we share the emotional strength of their narrative and as we watch the dancers, we steal ourselves for the rare sight of touch in this Covid era. It is immeasurably moving.
But of course, while there are tremendous renderings of well-known classical work, it’s also a celebration of contemporary work. Wayne McGregor’s ‘I Now, I Then’ from Woolf Works illuminates the work of Virginia Wolf against Max Richter’s Score. From Swan Lake, to here, we see the trajectory of ballet as revelling in its contemporary state, of being able to articulate and create unconventionally non-linear yet compelling narratives, and the braveness to create works that encapsulate and reflect emotions. These firmly state the artistic present and future of dance is fortuitous.
Yes, there are contemporary performances and classical ballet to tantalise any performing arts lover. But the Royal Opera House makes it clear they are more than just opera singers and dancers. Royal Opera House’s Learning and Participation film, Doncaster Dances shows the power and reach of the traffic of the Royal Opera House stage. Taking us back stage we see the army of artists who not only work round the clock to bring productions to life but preserve the skills of these industries, from stage managers to costumiers and ballet shoe makers as some of the last producing houses in the UK.
Royal Ballet, thank you. Yes, you are needed more than ever; we’ve missed you.
Available online until the 8th November 2020, buy tickets at https://www.roh.org.uk/tickets-and-events/the-royal-ballet-back-on-stage-details
Reviewer: Melissa Jones
Reviewed: 10th October 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★