As One; Rushes - Fragments of a Lost Story; Infra

Choreographed by Jonathan Watkins; Kim Brandstrup; Wayne McGregor
Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House

O lucky young man, 25-year-old Jonathan Watkins, with all the resources of the Royal Opera House at his service. His heart and his influences on his sleeve, Watkins is making his choreographic debut with As One, marshalling sixteen dancers on the main stage, to a fully orchestrated new jazzy score by Graham Fitkin. He is nothing if not ambitious and what he lacks in experience and depth, he makes up in verve and optimism.

In our fast-paced, individualistic way of life, he is making a plea for togetherness. Young upwardly mobile beautiful people live sterile separate lives, watching TV, watching others, each in their stacked high-rise well-lit little boxes, stylised lives seen through plate glass, and the screen that involves but divides a sort of Rear Window or reality show snooping curiosity.

Five chapters, their titles spelling out Watkins's narrative intentions - A House Party, Channel Surfing, Urban Youth, What Are We Waiting For?, and Blinkered Living - expose the shallowness of modern culture.

Simon Daw's set design (Joseph Albers / Mondrian Modernist inspired grid framed back panels), flooded by fast changing video images (Simon Daw and Tim Reid), beautifully lit by Neil Austin in cold greys and sharp reds, is complemented by Vicki Mortimer's costumes in varying mixes of grey and orange - a stylish clash of reds and oranges in 'cool' retro fashion. Is this the 30s, the 50s, or now? But white trainers hanging off a wire stretched across the stage are a contemporary urban phenomenon that sits awkwardly with the rest.

As with the uncertain period, so with the choreography, which shows the influence of Wayne McGregor, recalls Jerome Robbins, and a sort of Brave New World Chorus Line when all sixteen dancers are on the stage. But, the dancers are great.

Red-haired Steven McRae in an orange suit straight from the trading floor of the stock exchange buzzes hyperactively in Blinkered Living, a solo of fast leaps and turns which he attacks with panache, lightness and speed, racing against time. Yuhui Choe is a delightful hostess in House Party, long-legged Edward Watson and Laura Morera the irritable couple not connecting on a white sofa, but of the five urban 'bad' boys in hooded track suits only Eric Underwood has the right hip hop swagger.

Dissonance and harmony, the music sketching the narrative, a clash of interests, but it all comes together behind a large grey frame that descends to embrace them all. Clichéd, lightweight, it is not easy to find one's own voice, but the daring is all.

Watkins shares his debut with the 'revival' of two pieces from 2008, those of his mentor Wayne McGregor, whose Infra ends the evening, and Kim Brandstrup's Rushes - Fragments Of a Lost Story, for me the most interesting of the evening, and the one I'd like to see again, not just for the exceptional casting and music.

Brandstrup is drawn to the Russians and to film (he studied film before moving to dance). With Rushes, the rushes one sees at the end of a day's filming, he combines the two: Prokofiev's patchy score for the Mikhail Romm's film of The Queen of Spades that was never seen, and Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, whose early drafts provided Brandstrup with the fragments concept, fragments into which we can insert our imaginations: the best art allows the reader, viewer, or listener space to insert themselves.

A dramatic pulse drives this brief 'simple' tale of unrequited love, a classic tragic triangle, and a battle between the good and the bad in oneself - complex beings brought vividly to life by dancing that conveys inner turmoil and heartbreak to music that speaks louder than words. Laura Morera in red dress is the confident scarlet woman (Nastasya Filipovna), and Alina Cojocaru in convent grey is the invisible anguished grey mouse (Aglaya) pining for the man, who doesn't even notice her existence.

Carlos Acosta (in every day Russian working class hero clothes and mode) is the man (more Rogozhin than Myshkin) desperate for Morera with a violent love that drives her away. Cojocaru is there to pick up the pieces. He lays his heavy head on her fragile shoulders, but he doesn't really see her. Light as air, effortlessly lifted by Acosta, she dances like a dream. A lyrical pas de deux ends the piece. The casting is perfect.

A lost love, a cinematic 'lost' score 'arranged and elaborated' by Michael Berkeley, and dancers that lose themselves in the story, emerging from and disappearing back into the grainy texture of an old film. Tantalising.

Richard Hudson's clever overall design (together with Dick Straker's video and Jean Kalman's lighting designs) - a simple bead curtain, that ripples as Cojocaru runs her hand along it, a screen (in several senses) that absorbs the light, and on to which are cast grey shadows of constructivist monolithic edifices, the shades of a park, and the numbers from a film reel, a curtain behind which six anonymous grey suited couples dance. Are they the secret observers, or a world the self-absorbed trio are oblivious to? A bell tolls at the start and at the end. It tolls for thee.

Watching McGregors's Infra again, now the novelty of Julian Opie's mesmerising LED frieze is not so distracting, one is struck by the extent to which the dancers are stretched by his choreography, and how much they enjoy being stretched. Hyperextensions, once so frowned upon, now everyone is a Sylvie Guillem, angular gymnastics and restless action - constantly moving particles in space.

But there's also a sympathetic romantic lyricism not usually associated with McGregor. Lucy Carter's lighting frames the narrative, and Max Richter's ambient electronic music, and soulful cellos, is out of the Gavin Bryars mould. There's a tension between the music and the choreography, which captures human longings and desires.

Melissa Hamilton and Eric Underwood are still memorable - as he folds her up into his body, and drapes her like a scarf over his arm, one fears for the long-term damage to her joints.

Sinews and steel; softness and speed; urban grit and fake reality; idealism and dreams; interesting music and good performances; and realistic prices - not a bad mix for an evening at the Royal Opera House.

In rep till 4 March 2010

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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