Limen / Marguerite and Armand / Requiem

Choreography by Wayne McGregor / Frederick Ashton / Kenneth MacMillan

Royal Ballet

Royal Opera House

(2011)

Review by Vera Liber

Interesting programming by Monica Mason showcasing not only the Royal Ballet dancers' versatility but also the evolution of its ethos in three ballets that encapsulate different eras, different styles, different attitudes.

A late Ashton, a moving MacMillan, and McGregor impassive as ever - 1963, 1976, and 2009 - ballet proving that it is a broad church. In essence all three are about the dying of the light.

Limen, the threshold between light and dark, opens the programme with thirty minutes of concentrated gymnastic exertion, dislocating hyperextensions, geometric and random like Tatsuo Miyajima's floating numbers in a timeless cosmos, or atoms and molecules of a bigger mysterious whole.

Lucy Carter's lighting, strips of colour and pools of light, around which the dancers gather, aliens from a Starship Enterprise, complements Miyajima's artistry and emphasises McGregor's kinetic riffs.

Kaija Saariaho's music, Notes on Light, is as abstract as the dance; one's thoughts drift on its elegiac, ethereal wings. In Moritz Junge's fizzy sherbet coloured tops the dancers could be birds of paradise in brilliant display. Or part of some eclipse ritual, lunar and solar powers in conflict.

Or robots at the mercy of a choreographer's ego on parade. McGregor's signature style of avian strut, and pipe-cleaner legs, of angular origami shapes, tests the dancers to the limits of manipulation and elastic tension.

Pale white Sarah Lamb curves into a pretzel shape on ebony Eric Underwood's offertory arms - darkness playing with a ball of light, an image that stays in the mind's eye.

Backs to the audience, dancers in self-effacing flesh-coloured leotards face Miyajima's midnight blue LED display, dance their brief starlight span and then extinguish in the darkness of the backboard - light absorbed by dark night, its energy exploited for a mathematical electronic grid. Cold, impersonal, heartless, soulless like the universe.

From one extreme to another - to Franz Liszt's B minor piano sonata Ashton's compressed narrative essence of Alexandre Dumas fils' La Dame aux camélias, created exclusively for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev, is the height of Romanticism in a gilded cage.

Even Marguerite's suitors are Liszt clones - a touch of tongue-in-cheek from Cecil Beaton, who designed the ballet, giving Marguerite first a red dress of the courtesan, then a white gown for pure love, a black gown for worldly elegance, and a pale shift for her dying scenes.

Tamara Rojo and Sergei Polunin replicate that famous pairing vividly, she with her jet-black hair mirrors Fonteyn, he Nureyev's youthful impetuosity and Slavic intensity, the age difference maybe not as pronounced as Fonteyn's and Nureyev's, but clever casting nevertheless.

A crowd pleaser, Marguerite and Armand had the audience erupt in applause, or was it relief after the cerebral Limen? More emoting than complex steps or dancing, Marguerite and Armand makes other demands on its dancer actors. They must convince. No abstractions or ambiguities, this one is from the sentimental heart.

MacMillan's Requiem, a tribute to his friend John Cranko who died too young at forty-five, fellow dancer, choreographer and director of Stuttgart Ballet, with a similar career trajectory, is from the heart and soul, Fauré's majestic Requiem the frame. Anna Devin and Daniel Grice from the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme give it splendid voice.

Ecclesiastical aura, celestial lighting (John B. Read), pietà and crucifix imagery - bodies poised, arms outstretched, groups shouldering lifts like heavy crosses - and William Blake.

The Lamb of God and the Holy Spirit conveyed in challenging choreography and interesting costume designs by Yolanda Sonnabend. Shiny silver body leotards with veins and musculature etched on them - raw anatomy and flayed carcasses.

From fists to heaven and mouths in open cry, Requiem moves through to a peace of understanding. The rite of spring here becomes the rite of passage to the eternal light. Arms reach for the Holy Spirit, given maiden angel form. Leanne Benjamin is carried, standing on Rupert Pennefather's shoulder, in Virgin Mary procession.

The souls move towards the light. Earth and air, forty minutes of ecstatic solemn dance - what a tribute, what a choreographic titan! Benjamin is as perfect as ever. The huge cast, principals Carlos Acosta and Marianela Nuñez amongst them, fill the stage with their physical presence and their sombre souls.

In rep till 20th October 2011

Vera reviewed the first performance of Limen in 2009