Theatre du Châtelet, Paris, France; July 16, 2014

David Mead

Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham in Liam Scarlett's 'Hummingbird'.  Photo © Erik Tomasson

Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham in Liam Scarlett’s ‘Hummingbird’.
Photo © Erik Tomasson

There wasn’t much doubt what everyone was waiting for: the arrival in Paris of Liam Scarlett’s “Hummingbird”. Still only 28, the young choreographer has already established quite a reputation as an outstanding dance maker with a string of impressive ballets. The Châtelet audience were not disappointed: “Hummingbird” is one of the best yet.

Quite where the title comes from is unclear. It certainly seems to have nothing to do with Philip Glass’ “Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra”, to which it is set, or John Macfarlane’s fabulous set – a canopy that looks like a huge scroll of grey, deep blue and black ink-stained paper (matching the colours of his costumes – simple dresses for the women, slacks and open-necked shirts for the men) above a steep ramp that’s used for many of the entrances and exits. But who cares, because in this landscape, Scarlett has created a compelling and, at times, deeply emotional ballet.

There is no narrative as such, although the three pas de deux, and the second in particular, are writ through with personal stories and memories.

Frances Chung and Gennadi Nedvigin in 'Hummingbird'.  Photo © Erik Tomasson

Frances Chung and Gennadi Nedvigin in ‘Hummingbird’.
Photo © Erik Tomasson

In the first movement, Frances Chung seemed to be playing with Gennadi Nedvigin. She danced with quite a glint in her eye, as if leading him on. The dance is energetic with lots of extending limbs, precarious lifts and floor work. It’s physical and fast-moving stuff, although there’s still time for moments of intimacy. The corps, who slip onto the stage via the ramp echo their mood.

The heart of the ballet comes with the arrival of a haunting Yuan Yuan Tan. She arrives almost unnoticed, but when Chung and Nedvigin and their music fade away, she is left alone, her white dress standing out starkly against the blues and greys. The music in the adagio second movement references that of the first, but is full of yearning. Scarlett picks up that on in his choreography, although even before Tan moves, an air of deep melancholy sweeps across the stage.

Tan’s whole pas de deux with Luke Ingham was mesmerising. If you thought Wheeldon created the perfect duet for her in “After the Rain”, watch this. She starts with lots of expressive use of the arms. Elbows jut out and shoulders hunch. She is all anguish and loss as she often just stands and looks into the far distance.
She looks terribly vulnerable.

As their dance develops, Ingham seems to be both the cause of her suffering and provider of comfort. The level of detail in the movement needs to be seen to be believed. Nothing, it seems, is without meaning. At one point, after he has flung her around, Tan runs away from an embrace, and stands, visibly shaking, before he goes to her and oh so tenderly runs his forehead down her back as if in apology. He may have caused her pain, but he, it seems, is wounded too – and full of remorse.Later, the couple are echoed by an equally beautiful male duet, the men’s pairing sometimes following the leads precisely, at other times echoing them. David Finn’s lighting skills are to the fore here. Shadow is important throughout the piece, but the way he and Scarlett place Tan and Ingham in near-darkness, while the two men dance behind them as if in another world is genius.

San Francisco Ballet in 'Hummingbird'.  Photo © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet in ‘Hummingbird’.
Photo © Erik Tomasson

The final movement danced here by Maria Kochetkova and Jamie Garcia Castillas is different again. Following a change in the score, it’s lighter, upbeat and full of more conventional neoclassical dance. The tension doesn’t fade away, it’s more like someone has thrown a switch. The sudden brightness comes as quite a jolt. Kochetkova, Castilla, four soloists and the corps provided a feast of leaps and lifts.

The ballet raced by – always a good sign. At the end, the audience roared even more than usual, bringing the dancers and pianist Natalya Feygina, who played superbly, back again and again – and quite rightly too.

Opening the evening, Helgi Tomasson’s “Caprice” was again enjoyable. True, it’s not what you would call a ‘firework ballet’. But the choreography that edges towards the neoclassical is lyrical and easy on the eye, and there is much to keep one interested. Add to that Holly Hynes’ gorgeous, flowing costumes, Alexander Nichol’s attractive shifting backdrop, and Saint-Saens’ more than listenable to music, and you have a mix that’s bound to succeed.

Stealing the honours on this occasion were Sarah Van Patten and Tiit Helimets in the Second Movement pas de deux, which includes some unusual lifts – all completed rock solidly and smoothly; and then with Mathilde Froustey and Vitor Luiz in the Fourth, which unusually features two pas de deux in one, one couple taking over from the other now and again, before both come together.

Sarah Van Patten and Anthony Spaulding in Edwaard Liang's 'Symphonic Dances'.  Photo © Erik Tomasson

Sarah Van Patten and Anthony Spaulding in ‘Symphonic Dances’.
Photo © Erik Tomasson

Unfortunately, Edwaard Liang’s “Symphonic Dances” doesn’t improve with repeated viewings. The choreography, a mix of the traditional and attempts at the modern, rarely gets close to the lush music. Attempts, by the way are just what they are, because all Liang gives us is things that were being seen decades ago. Putting it up against “Hummingbird” just made it seem even more doze inducing that a couple of evenings previously.

At least it is mostly pleasant, although the second pas de deux in particular includes some awkward and aesthetically unpleasing lifts. Even Van Patten couldn’t make being hauled onto Anthony Spaulding’s right shoulder like a sack of potatoes look good, especially when she then has to hang there slumped. And the more you see the ballet, the more you realised just how much wafting fabric there is. It seems like the women are forever flicking and giving air to their long golden skirts. And as for those tight fitting gold and sparkly tops for the men…

Fortunately, the memory was still rolling back an hour to that fabulous, fabulous “Hummingbird”, and especially to Yuan Yuan Tan.