David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY
June 28 (m & e), 2015

Jerry Hochman

Sarah Lamb and Alexander Campbell in The Age of Anxiety Photo ROH/Bill Cooper

Sarah Lamb and Alexander Campbell in
The Age of Anxiety
Photo ROH/Bill Cooper

The Royal Ballet concluded its all too brief first visit to New York in eleven years with a superb program including ballets by Wayne McGregor and Liam Scarlett that although totally different, share a measure of common ground. These sandwiched a series of divertissements representing a broad range of styles and choreographic eras.

Scarlett’s The Age of Anxiety, the final piece on the program, is the most difficult to evaluate and appreciate. It’s an interesting, at times extraordinary work, skillfully executed in all respects, but Scarlett hones too closely to the 1947 poem of the same title by W.H. Auden on which it’s based, and with which few are familiar. People are, though, very familiar with the phrase ‘age of anxiety’, to which they attach their own interpretations and expectations, but which don’t necessarily jibe with the temporal setting of the poem and Scarlett’s ballet.

Choreographed to Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra (itself inspired by Auden’s poem), the ballet inevitably awakens memories of Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free, also danced to a Bernstein score. Aside from the setting, the time period is essentially the same, the music repeats at many points phrases that Bernstein used in Fancy Free, there are individual ‘personality’ solos for the featured dancers, and the lead characters are three men and a woman who they share an interest in, one way or another.

But The Age of Anxiety is Fancy Free through a looking glass after the innocence, the elation and the parade passed by, leaving the survivors with nothing to look forward to except getting through the day. In their despair these domestic war veterans allow themselves to think about things kept hidden – like their sexuality. The alcohol they consume releases thoughts much like bleach releases long embedded stains, which like bleach can be toxic. Until the final, incongruous scene that undercuts the ballet (‘the sun will come out, tomorrow…’), this is not so much the age of anxiety, as of alienation and anonymity: an age of ennui. Reportedly, Robbins created a ballet to
the same score in 1950, but it has disappeared. Maybe there’s a reason.

But the largest problem with The Age of Anxiety is that it’s a depressing piece to watch, filled with characters about whom no one really cares.

Scarlett’s ballet opens, as does the Auden poem, in a New York bar – three people alone, drinking and brooding. In the poem, Rosetta is a department store buyer, but here could be the bored wife of successful businessman; Quant, Auden’s ageing businessman, here is a run of the mill failed Madman, and Malin, a retired Canadian airman in the poem, looks like a weary blue collar worker wrapped in a rumpled leather jacket. The scene resembles the diner in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, and has the same impact.

Federico Bonelli, Sarah Lamb, Johannes Stepanek and Alexander Campbell in The Age of Anxiety Photo ROH/Bill Cooper

Federico Bonelli, Sarah Lamb, Johannes Stepanek and Alexander Campbell in
The Age of Anxiety
Photo ROH/Bill Cooper

The catalyst for action is Emble, who is dressed like the naval recruit he is in the poem, who flirts with Rosetta, and annoys Quant and Malin. Having partied and then been evicted from the bar, the foursome unburden themselves in Rosetta’s swank, skyline view apartment. After the other two men call it a night and leave, Rosetta celebrates finally being able to spend time alone with Emble, but he passes out on her couch, much to her frustration. Outside, Quant and Malin meet briefly on the street, the latter being left alone to look at the sun rising over the city skyscrapers, and celebrate the brand new day.

John Macfarlane’s set dramatically and seamlessly segues from location to another throughout.

Separated from the characters and the theme, Scarlett’s choreography is brilliant. There’s enough movement variety to maintain interest even when the mind would prefer to bury this in a time capsule. But by limiting himself to the parameters of the poem, Scarlett limits the impact of his ballet that presents a slice of life that no one particularly cares to see, and which teaches us nothing.

At both performances on 28th, the piece was given thrilling renditions by Sarah Lamb (Rosetta), Alexander Campbell (Emble), Johannes Stepanek (Quant), and Federico Bonelli (Malin); and in the evening, for the same characters, by Laura Morera, Steven McRae, Bennet Gartside, and Tristan Dyer. My preference was for the afternoon cast: Lamb is an extraordinarily vivacious personality, while Morera appears less of an extrovert, although perhaps that is more in keeping with Auden’s intent. Campbell set the stage on fire as soon as he walked in the door, playing Emble as the cock-sure character one loves to hate (and who one can’t understand why women find him attractive), who took charge and went for the jugular at every opportunity. As extraordinary dancer as he is, McRae’s portrayal wasn’t nearly as obnoxious or interesting. Both Bonelli and Dyer did excellent jobs as Malin, as did Stepanek and Gartside as the lower-key Quant.

Both Wayne McGergor’s Infra and The Age of Anxiety show urban alienation, but while the latter is time-bound, McGregor’s ballet displays it in a more cosmic age of anxiety in which the characters’ individual expressiveness is subsumed within a behavioral norm, but from which they ultimately, if perhaps only temporarily, break free. It is a piece with a point, and for that reason, and because the choreography eschews rigid orthodoxy, it’s my favorite McGregor ballet.

Eric Underwood and Melissa Hamilton in Infra.  Photo ROH/Andrej Uspenski

Eric Underwood and Melissa Hamilton in Infra
Photo ROH/Andrej Uspenski

The ballet is backed by a stream of digital figures created by Julian Opie that move horizontally across the back stage wall, like a pedestrian bridge that connects two buildings, but that is more likely symbolic of people walking to or from work on city streets. The number of figures varies according to the musical thrust of Max Richter’s accompanying score (which, rather than simply being repetitive or throbbing, has an urban pulse to it) and the number of dancers on the stage below.

After brief introductory solos for three male dancers, the ballet transitions into duets for six male-female couples, each of which is different, and each of which is brilliant. The first two are more angular and sexually explicit than the others (the second was presented standalone at the recent Youth America Grand Prix gala, where it seemed annoyingly contorted and needlessly explicit, but as part of a whole, it works very well), but the duets become more lyrical and fluid as the ballet progresses.

I could do without McGregor’s constant visualizations of the women’s legs as hyperextended wishbones pushed to within a fraction of snapping in two, but the ballet is, both conceptually and choreographically, a fascinating
and intelligent piece of work, superbly danced by the two different casts.

In between The Age of Anxiety and Infra were a series of divertissements that were extraordinary in their choreographic diversity. The most classical was Sir Frederick Ashton’s always delightful (in small doses) Voices of Spring, which was danced well by Akane Takada and Valentino Zucchetti in the afternoon, and superbly by Yuhui Choe and Campbell in the evening. Perhaps the most contemporary looking was the icy pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s Aeternum, which was giving a strong performance by Claire Calvert and Ryoichi Hirano in the afternoon, but that was danced with particular drama and intensity by Marianela Nunez and Bonelli in the evening.

Le Beau Gosse from Nijinska’s 1924 ballet Le Train Bleu is a choreographic curiosity, a gymnastic and acrobatic solo that in the performances by James Hay in the afternoon and Vadim Muntagirov in the evening was simultaneously extraordinarily skillful and hilariously self-deprecating.

Ryoichi Hirano and Claire Calvert in Aeternum Photo ROH/Bill Cooper

Ryoichi Hirano and Claire Calvert in Aeternum
Photo ROH/Bill Cooper

Le Train Bleu couldn’t be more different from the other two male solos, Borrowed Light, by Principal Character Artist Alastair Marriott to music by Philip Glass, and Calvin Richardson’s The Dying Swan. Both resemble pieces that might have initially been experiments for a junior company or graduation exercise, but that proved good enough and different enough to merit a place in a full company program.

Borrowed Light is an ‘awakening’ type of piece that displays the soloists’ technical prowess well. It was performed with extraordinary fervor in the afternoon by Luca Acri, and by Marcelino Sambe in the evening. The Dying Swan is a contemporary and different take on Fokine’s 1905 solo for Anna Pavlova. Richardson’s choreography is unusually inventive – beyond what might exemplify a bird’s death throes. Although the character is dying and may be a swan, the dance is surprisingly varied throughout. It was given outstanding performances by Matthew Ball in the afternoon, and particularly by Richardson himself in the evening.

The last of the divertissements, Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Carousel pas de deux, is a choreographic synopsis of the Rogers and Hammerstein musical. Wheeldon’s Carousel: A Dance for New York City Ballet is similar, although perhaps better modulated. But MacMillan’s ballet is fantastic theater, with all the energy, passion, and some of the choreography of his Romeo and Juliet, which makes it both fun to watch and emotionally draining. It was given superb performances by Lauren Cuthbertson and Matthew Golding in the afternoon, and Lamb and Carolos Acosta in the evening.

The New York City Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Barry Wordsworth (and by Matthew Scott Rogers for Infra), played with its usual brilliance throughout.

The Royal Ballet deserves credit not just for coming to New York, but for presenting two programs that sampled the company’s repertory from legacy to contemporary, provided a showcase for its choreographers, and gave audiences an opportunity to see a large number of the company’s dancers in pieces that allowed them to display their skills, versatility, and charisma. I may not have loved every piece, but every piece was worth seeing.