Polyphonia/Sweet Violets/Carbon Life – Royal Opera House Ballet Triple

Rating: 4 stars


Last week I finally went to a ballet at the Royal Opera House (ROH). Since first arriving in London two years ago, I’ve been meaning to go, even if only to compare the ballet with what I’d grown up watching at the Bolshoi theatre back in Moscow (I acted as a space-filler when my mother failed to talk my father into going with her). This time I had purposely sought out some of the cheapest tickets (I am a student, after all) and grabbed a couple of studenty friends to share in the experience. What we lost out on with our noticeable ROH-virginity and lack of bourgeois lifestyle, we made up for with our blatant over-excitement at everything we saw (“Oh look, ice cream!”), and shouts for the ‘water-closet’. Because we were ladies, and ladies do not refer to the bathroom as a ‘toilet’, for that would be vulgar and common, and for one night at least, we were definitely not common.

An added bonus to this review is of course my own masterful photography – I like to think of myself as a semi-professional, and like to use different mediums of film to capture the essence of the moment. For this particular outing I chose to use my crappy Blackberry phone camera to cut across class divides, and to leave the viewer with the raw image of our experience…

No, it’s because I only had my shitty phone camera with me. Enjoy. And be grateful there are no finger blurs over the edge of the photos, you stuck up pricks.

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The first of the three ballets was the half-hour Polyphonia, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. To my knowledge this was a reappearance for the ballet, having first been presented at the ROH back in 2006. This contemporary piece was at times very dynamic and intense, performed to Ligeti’s virtuoso piano music. However, when it wasn’t intense and dynamic, it was confusing and over-worked, with some moves resembling a dance I would have invented if I were on mushrooms with my friends in my bathroom (hypothetical scenario). Or if I were a toddler at a yoga class, bustin’ a move. Some dance moves were so ostentatious, there were awkward laughs from the audience (not knowing if laughter is allowed is a big problem for the upper class, it seems). Having read other reviews of the ballet, I find myself in the minority of the slightly confused and at times, falling asleep spectators. Think of that what you will; maybe I’m simply a philistine who failed to see the true meaning and story behind this mysterious choreography; maybe I’m too spoiled with Bolshoi Ballet performances (I did notice some slip-ups in technique, something which was not present, or not as visible, in the other two ballets, although maybe due to the fact that neither were quite as stripped-down as Polyphonia was); or maybe it just wasn’t as good as everyone said it would be, and that ultimately it was trying too hard to defy the norm. I’ll side with the latter.

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The slightly longer, but definitively more enjoyable and captivating ballet that followed was Sweet Violets, choreographed by Liam Scarlett and based on Walter Sickert’s famously gruesome series of paintings. The Camden Town Murders. Complete with a brilliant score including Rachmaninoff’s Trio élégiaque No. 1, stunning costumes and performances from the dancers, this dark tragedy both shocks in its vulgarity and harsh tones and evokes sorrow and despair at the fate of its characters (disclaimer: the paintings are based on a 1907 Camden Town murder, where a painter was tried and acquitted of murdering his then lover and prostitute. There are lots of prostitutes involved in this ballet in general). My only regret was that our seats were quite far away (Amphitheatre, row E), which led to some confusion with the introduction of new characters; all dancers had very similar costumes (being all hookers, I imagine there wasn’t much of a choice of wardrobe, even if they were based in trendy Camden) and dark hair. Eventually I managed to unpick the complications in the story, but I do wish I was sitting close enough to see the faces of the dances. There’s a solo number where one of the ballerinas dances around a bed and it’s so moving, I teared up a little. But it was dark, so no one noticed.

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Last but not least, was the long-awaited and highly acclaimed Carbon Life, the star-studded miracle lovebaby of Stockport-born (big up Stockport) choreographer Wayne McGregor CBE, and producers Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt (also a member of the Swedish band, Miike Snow). When I first heard that the score would be co-written by Mark Ronson, I immediately jumped at the idea of going – Ronson peaked back in 2008 when I was still at school, listening to Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black on loop (which is what won him at least one of the three Grammy’s, I think. Wiki it if you’re interested, you lazy sods) and his own album of collaborations, Version (also played on loop, except the Kenna track because that made me feel unsafe in my own home. Serious stalker vibes, that one). Upon further research I discovered that up-and-coming young designer, Gareth Pugh, will be doing the costumes, and the band will include vocals from Alison Mosshart of The Kills, Jonathan Pierce of The Drums, and even 80s all-around cool kid, Boy George. The line-up just shot up from plain ‘great’ to extraterrestrial amounts of ‘great’. This assortment of magical talent could be otherwise possible only under one condition – if Michael Jackson and Dumbledore had a lovechild…which is impossible. So this is the next best thing, really.

Unfortunately, as is always the case with extremely high expectations, the actual result never really lives up to them. McGregor’s choreography was out of this world, as per usual (I caught Chroma last year at the Bolshoi, and yet am still short for words when describing his work). I actually preferred the numbers with the fewer dancers in them, simply because there were often six or more on stage at one time, all clad in Pugh’s pure and streamlined creations (and often just plain weird, see image below), all performing the most beautiful dances I’d ever seen; thus making it difficult to pay the desired attention to all the couples.

Just like the dancing, the music was, as was expected, phenomenal. I never thought it would be possible to convey the true passion behind a ballet with a rock song or even a rap (yes, one of the numbers was a rap), but this was a rare moment where I was proved wrong, and I enjoyed the feeling. The final number of the ballet deserves a special mention – it’s not often that the audience is literally left on the edge of their seats, waiting for more. This, if anything, highlights the intensity and beauty of the piece. The only thing which makes it a close tie with its predecessor, Sweet Violets, is that I sometimes felt that the music was overpowering the ballet, especially in moments when the vocalists were seen walking amongst the dancers. As much as I hate to say this (because I enjoyed the music so much, both in composition and its immaculate performance on the night), I wish some of the arrangements were simpler, if only so that the dancers had more room to breathe. I suppose you really canhave too much of a good thing. In spite of that comment however, this is definitely a one-of-a-kind experience, one which has left me unable to make up my mind and pick a favourite between Sweet Violets and Carbon Life.

A photo my friend took with her shitty Blackberry camera; I was too distracted/furious that the ballet was really ending to keep up with my arty photography ambitions. The musicians are the tiny blobs at the front, the dancers are the ones dressed in black at the back.

I couldn’t resist – this is a close-up I got off the Internet. If you’ve been living under a rock for the past 10 years, Andrew Wyatt is the one on the left, Mark Ronson on the right; the filling to this musical genius sandwich is (I THINK) Edward Watson, dancer extraordinaire. His solo was crazy good, as was his number with Olivia Cowley. All sporting Gareth Pugh’s crazy Carbon Life inspired gear.