Bernstein Centenary: ROH Live

The great American composer Leonard Bernstein would have been 100 this year, and to celebrate his centenary the Royal Ballet perform a trio of contemporary works set to his music. Choreographed by three collaborators who have worked with the company most often in recent years – Wayne McGregor, Liam Scarlett and Christopher Wheeldon – the pieces reflect both the range of Bernstein’s musical talents and the different styles of the choreographers. (Diversity gripe: all three choreographers are white and male. Step it up ROH!)

First up is McGregor’s Yugen, set to Bernstein’s haunting and unusual Chichester Psalms, sung live from the orchestra pit by the Royal Opera Chorus. A cast of 11 dancers clad in gender neutral red costumes move from chaotic exhortations, all beaten jumps and rapid turns, to tranquil duets and solos. A lot is packed into just 19 minutes, and it feels so fragmented that I struggled to get a real sense of what Yugen is.

Edmund de Waal’s minimalist set design complements both choreography and music: a series of tall boxes that appear lit from within, providing spaces for the dancers to occupy. It’s an interesting concept, but could have been used more.

Unlike the other two works in the programme, The Age of Anxiety was not created specifically for the centenary. It is also set in an identifiable historical period, has a clear and compelling narrative and defined characters. John Macfarlane’s incredible design aesthetic extends from fabulous 1940s costumes to detailed sets – the final Manhattan skyline, lit in a blazing sunrise yellow, is truly spectacular.

Bernstein’s dramatic music must have been a challenge to choreograph to, combining rapid piano, jazzy rhythms, mournful solo clarinet and more. As hinted by its title, the story encompasses many changing moods: the group of four strangers who meet in a New York bar begin in isolation, but soon form friendships and indulge in increasingly raucous behaviour. Although light-hearted, these antics are punctuated with sexual tension and overshadowed by the war.

The main cast – Sarah Lamb, Bennet Gartside, Alexander Campbell and Tristan Dyer – put in excellent performances, crafting believable characters and an electric dynamic. Dyer in particular is outstanding as the thwarted Malin, hopelessly in love with Campbell’s callous Emble. His final solo appears powerful and life-affirming, but the moving vulnerability in his eyes is a contradiction.

Christophe Wheeldon’s Corybantic Games concludes the triple bill. Inspired by the ancient Olympic games, this work has definite echoes of Frederick Ashton – like Symphonic Variations, but on speed. The dancers wear chic, stunning costumes by the designer Erdem: long, pleated tulle skirts cover white satin two pieces reminiscent of retro underwear, with black detailing for contrast.

As with the other works in the programme, Bernstein’s work – here a violin concerto – is full of contrast and provides ample opportunity to ring the changes. Quirky Wheeldon touches – dancers jogging across the stage or lying down in a line, legs in the air; Mayara Magri being literally thrown into the wings – sit side by side with an elegaic pas de six, in which three pairs (including the ever lovely Lauren Cuthbertson) duet side by side, and some fierce solo work from a blazing-eyed Tierney Heap.

All in all, it’s an interesting programme and I would definitely like to see all three works again.

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