Wayne McGregor’s Raven Girl is a brave experiment with narrative form, which springs from an exciting collaboration between author, designers, composer and choreographer.  Wonderful but subtle use of cinematic effect enhances the sepia-shaded set, and the choreography makes full use of the extraordinary technical capacity of the Royal Ballet’s principal dancers.

McGregor asked Audrey Niffenegger for a “new dark fairy tale”, and the result is a gloomy and sometimes macabre story, which includes a strong element of magic.  But magic does not make a fairy tale:  to be true to the genre, the story must, firstly, address what Bruno Bettelheim calls our “existential anxieties and dilemmas”, and, secondly, offer us a solution to them.  This, the ballet fails to do.  Plenty of big issues are there for the Raven Girl (identity, isolation, fear of abandonment …), but they are not developed or resolved through the dance.  McGregor successfully creates movement that suggests a bird (Olivia Cowley’s Raven was very convincing), but it is as if his concern to convey the narrative has partially eclipsed his gifts as a choreographer.   Images such as Edward Watson bicycling around the stage and delivering letters were neither realistic storytelling, or expressions of larger abstract ideas and emotion through dance.

McGregor says “one of the great things about a fairy tale is that there’s not a lot of explanation – it just happens … we’re not looking at motivation”, and Niffenegger adds “ I have no idea what I would say to Cinderella … but I could chat to the postman all day”.  This completely misses the point of a fairy tale:  we don’t need to talk to Cinderella or to have her motives explained because we ourselves are Cinderella and her inner conflicts are our own secret thoughts and desires made manifest and manageable through the story.

Brutal surgery gives the Raven Girl a pair of exquisitely elegant wings, and in the final lovely pas de deux, danced by Sarah Lamb and Eric Underwood, McGregor found his true narrative voice, as the dancers (conveniently wingless!) seemed to soar through the air like birds using lovely counterpoised lifts, at last conveying a story through dance.

Then on to the bright light of Balanchine’s Symphony in C:  a complete contrast from the American master of pure dance.  This beautifully structured ballet was a joy to watch, despite some ragged moments.  I saw Zenaida Yanowsky (substituting for Lauren Cuthbertson) and Laura Morera as the first and fourth ballerinas, respectively.  Roberta Marquez was the radiantly happy third ballerina, only put in the shade by the superb artistry of Marienela Nuñez as the second.  I shall never forget the emotional intensity of the moment when Nuñez stepped on stage to take her final reverence, her face turned away from the audience to her partner, and yet still drawing all eyes irresistibly towards her.

Maggie Watson

15 June 2013