Ballo della regina; Live Fire Exercise; DGV: Danse à grande vitesse

Choreography by George Balanchine, Wayne McGregor; Christopher Wheeldon
Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House
(2011)

Live Fire Exercise production photo

Three ballets spanning two generations, and a minimalist stage athrill with creation - an abundance of riches, classical and contemporary, and a veritable stable of thoroughbred dancers, for whom nothing seems impossible.

Balanchine's 1978 Ballo della regina is a premiere for the Royal Ballet, Wayne McGregor's Live Fire Exercise is a world premiere, and Christopher Wheeldon's clever 2006 ballet DGV is back on track - it was last performed here in February 2009.

Majestic elegance and explosive speed, intricate footwork and complex structure are the binding motifs of the programme. Balanchine's Imperial age Ballo opens the evening with dazzling jubilant dance without the distractions of glittering décor.

Joy and exuberance on a bare stage, the dancers themselves embellishment enough. A meteoric metaphor of dance: a nebulous sky backscreen and a stage teeming with eighteen dancers - a solitary prince amongst seventeen princesses.

Precision, strong technique and classical virtuosity the essentials for the lyrical, romantic, playful, staccato choreography Balanchine spun for their long legs and nimble feet.

Merrill Ashley, his last muse, takes the credit for restaging Ballo, helping the dancers scale its intricate peaks of timing, pace and panache, exertions concealed in a light and easy presentation. Marianela Nuñez and Sergei Polunin, so well-matched they look like siblings, are equal to the task, but no smiles can disguise the effort expended.

All the fireworks of an exhibitionist Grand Pas, the princely couple in white, the four soloists in lilac (Yuhui Choe stands out) and twelve corps de ballet in the palest of blue, fire on all cylinders for seventeen minutes to Giuseppe Verdi's music from Don Carlos.

Firing on all cylinders takes on a different meaning in Wayne McGregor's new nineteen-minute composition. Live Fire Exercise is exactly what it says on the box - this is dance as physical culture, fitness and circuit training.

In unisex khaki coloured pants and sheer vests three couples work out singly, in pairs, in trios, drill, peel away, stand like shadows in the penumbral light against John Gerrard's remarkable Realtime 3D virtual reality simulation of military hardware and a firestorm in the desert. Dance as performance art. In extremis.

Volatile, traumatised, dejected, in gymnastic contortions and punishing repetitions, Lauren Cuthbertson, Sarah Lamb, Akane Takada, Federico Bonelli, Ricardo Cervera, and Eric Underwood, go to the wire in this theatre of war. The stage stripped back to the bare walls, lighting towers at the sides, there is nowhere to hide.

McGregor is an original personality, a questing hyperactive intelligence who makes rare and unusual connections in jarring visual vocabulary between art, music, and the brain's capacity to process all this into dance. Interestingly he has chosen pacifist Michael Tippett's Fantasia concertante on a Theme of Corelli in counterpoint to his hard-hitting choreography of war.

Elegiac, it's almost as if the war poets of the First World War have been given voice - a call for harmony and peace in conflict with the manoeuvrings on the stage. 'All this intellectualism [in] English music' ought to be removed, Sir Malcolm Sargent once remarked outspokenly, but it is precisely this intellectualism that McGregor brings to his work.

Stimulating for the dancers testing their bodies, and for the audience, who are browbeaten into engaging with his vision. Balanchine's joy has dissipated to be replaced by a sombre unease.

In celebration of speed, time and energy a Balanchine-influenced Wheeldon lifts us up again on Michael Nyman's pulsating MGV, Musique à grande vitesse, written for the inauguration of the TGV north European line in 1993.

Five interconnected journeys, a core of four couples amongst a crowd of twenty-six dancers, stepping through, in and around, Jean-Marc Puissant's magnificent sculpture, an impressionistic high-speed train of very contemporary design, lying like a sleeping silver dragon across the stage.

Images of velocity and HG Wellsian time travel bring futuristic and constructivist visions to mind. Spinning bodies caught in the whirligig of time, driven by its compulsive propulsive drumbeat.

Twenty-nine minutes of compressed time, exhilarating, exhausting no time to stop. And stop they do not - Zenaida Yanowsky and Eric Underwood, Leanne Benjamin and Steven McRae, Melissa Hamilton and Gary Avis, Sarah Lamb and Federico Bonelli - metal made flesh.

In rep till 25th May 2011

Reviewer: Vera Liber