An interesting mix of performances in the flesh and on the screen last week with two cinema visits for 20th century classics and new works transmitted by the Bolshoi and the Royal Ballet framing live performance of German contemporary dance from Sasha Waltz and Guests at Sadler’s Wells. If I dislike the cinema transmissions’ overhyped introductory promos and some excessively effusive commentary, I do enjoy seeing the interiors of other theatres, and some of the informative interview and documentary material provided. Close-ups highlight intriguing details of the dance, although sometimes at a price of losing their relationship with the wider stage environment; differing camera angles risk obscuring spatial design and choreographic architecture.

The Royal Ballet’s first transmission of a mixed bill marked the final farewell of much loved Carlos Acosta from the Covent Garden main stage starring as Don Jose in his own new version of Carmen. Carmen has attracted a succession of skilled and successful choreographers, not least Roland Petit’s stylish version with Zizi Jeanmaire’s iconic portrayal of the heroine, Matthew Bourne’s updated and steamy Carman very recently packing them in up the road at Sadler’s Wells, and Mats Ek’s idiosyncratic take already in the Royal Ballet’s recent repertoire. The box office and marketing draw of Carlos Acosta and the familiar brand and music seems to have overridden any possible directorial qualms about duplication and the need to encourage more original and imaginative choices of thematic source material in Royal Ballet choreographers, and must have been seen to justify the throwing of resources at this new version, which involved not only a specially commissioned musical arrangement involving substantial editing, recombining and re-orchestration, but also the inclusion of a flamenco ensemble, plus opera chorus and soloists in on stage performance.

In the moving after show tributes to the magnificent Cuban dancer Kevin O’Hare talked of Acosta’s importance as a role model for male dancing; but his choreographic stature is very questionable. He has a facility for gutsy folkloric ensemble vigour; but movement ideas seem short-winded, here giving way too quickly to reliance on props and scenic effects. He has yet to find a way coherently to integrate the different performance genres that he has wished to bring together in this multimedia work.  Federico Bonelli’s solo as Escamillo begins to show where dance material might become expressive of character and emotion, but more often naturalistic gesture and histrionic acting frame outbursts of anachronistic balletic virtuosity (what do you do on discovering your lover kissing another man? A double tour with the arms in 5th).

Acosta’s desire to strip the story down to its essential love triangle has removed nuance, social context and three-dimensionality from the characters, despite the committed performances of its three principal dancers. No longer established as an anarchic factory girl Carmen is presented simply as a sexually voracious whore in a tavern, losing her dress within minutes to reveal undies from the Victoria’s Secret catwalk and enthusiastically indulging in a succession of over-literal soft porn grapplings with Acosta and Bonelli, endless splayed legs, fondlings, snogging and whirling lifts. Cinema close-ups allowed one at least to enjoy Marianela Nuñez’s animated face, but I don’t ever wish to see so much of her crotch again. This was the reduction of ballerina to Playboy centrefold suggesting the uses to which that has traditionally been put. Even the ensemble dancers dutifully milling animatedly behind the central characters were compelled to strip – the men losing their trousers in the first scene – why? – and the women in natty black trousers later removing their waistcoats to reveal black lace bras – why am I not surprised? Contrast with the final raw and total nudity of the chosen victim in Sasha Waltz’s Sacre at Sadler’s Wells the night before; here stripping had a more primal reason than momentary audience titillation, and was followed through in urgent driven dancing.

Like Acosta with Carmen, Sasha Waltz in her Sacre cannot escape being measured against a list of illustrious predecessors who have taken on Stravinsky’s beast of a score. The empty darkness with a central pile of gravel progressively scattered and women in fluttering shifts inevitably called up memories of Pina Bausch’s powerful version, and it felt as though this recent homage, made in the ballet’s centenary year 2013, had little to add in terms of an original perception or movement language. I found it predictable in the way that its shudderings, running and thumpings followed the surface swell and momentum of the music, yet without illuminating its inner structure and changes of mood or environment. One of the companion pieces of the evening was the choreographer’s response to another ground-breaking score used by Nijinsky, Debussy’s lusciously impressionistic L’Après-midi d’un faune, and in this too I found the relationship of dance and music unsatisfying. Bounded on two sides by vibrant screens with blocks of primary colours like a giant Matisse cut-out, the dancers in colour block sawn-off unitards softly and capriciously wafted in shifting groups, evanescent moments culminating in the mysterious image of a tattooed man drawing in lipstick on the legs of a fastidiously reclining female dancer. I felt renewed respect for Nijinsky’s decision to use minimal angular defined movement with sudden stops against Debussy’s shimmering and languid musical colour, drawing attention to both music and dance through enriching contrast.

The Royal Ballet programme fortuitously provided a reminder of another choreographic interpretation of the Debussy, a masterclass in dance making craft and the theatrical alchemy that arises from a subtly judged combination of ingredients. The gauzy white screens of Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun define an intimate dancers’ world into which the viewer is drawn through the imagined mirror. Here every movement is scrutinised by the protagonists, every exquisite detail of pose and relationship is pregnant with meaning, and two beautiful dancers (Vadim Muntagirov and Sarah Lamb) are revealed in their sensitivity as artists. The ballet works on many different levels, its fleeting references to the Nijinsky version inviting connection to its archaic and poetic origins and by extension to ballet’s own evolving history; its narrative progression opening ears to the phrasing and development of the music; and its gestural use of dance vocabulary confirming the expressive potential of balletic movement.

Thanks to this the Debussy took over as my current earworm, replacing the Fauré of Balanchine’s Emeralds, seen a few days previously as part of the Bolshoi Ballet’s transmission of last year’s recording of Jewels. In comparison with the depressingly limited range of female expressivity on show in Acosta’s Carmen Balanchine offers great opportunities for women to reveal themselves through their dancing. The sophistication of Balanchine’s choreography shone even in those sections where etiolated Bolshoi dancers hinted at ungainliness, and prompted me to seek out YouTube clips to study the detail of his combinations of academic vocabulary and musical phrasing. Two contrasting but equally captivating and conversational performances of the first Emeralds solo, by Jurgita Dronina of Dutch National Ballet and Laetitia Pujol of the Paris Opera Ballet, demonstrate how much room for personal interpretation, stylistic variance and vibrant expression of feeling can exist even within choreographic texts under the exacting protection of the Balanchine Trust.   My resulting eager anticipation of the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux which followed the Robbins in the Royal Ballet programme was somewhat deflated by a workaday rendition from Iana Salenko and Steven McRae.   I longed for these physically well-suited and technically impeccable dancers to transcend the undoubted virtuosity of this romantically inflected showpiece and embody Tchaikovsky’s melodies. What was Salenko feeling behind that fixed glassy smile?

A contemporary take on the romance of the pas de deux formed the centrepiece of Sasha Waltz’s programme. Scène d’Amour is set to the dreamy slow movement of Hector Berlioz’ dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette. As in Sacre the movement language shifted between naturalistic spontaneous movement and gesture and more conventional dance phrases, where a relaxed physical aesthetic seemed at odds with a more formal conception. But it was touchingly performed by Lorena Justribó Manion and Ygal Tsur, capturing at times a very real sense of adolescent awkwardness, uncertain tenderness and mutual fascination.

In a week of pieces full of backward glances to historic masterpieces of dance and music perhaps the work most of now was Liam Scarlett’s Viscera. Set to Lowell Liebermann’s First Piano Concerto and made originally for Miami City Ballet even this could not escape strong echoes of Balanchinian neo-classicism, although refracted through Scarlett’s Royal Ballet training and cast. Energetically led by Laura Morera, the ensemble of young dancers were crisp and dynamic. The central pas de deux, in which a contemplative Nuñez was sensitively partnered by the soberly elegant Ryoichi Hirano, showcased Scarlett’s capacity for technical invention, yet its meandering stream of consciousness left me wondering what it was ultimately saying. Scarlett is making a full-length narrative Frankenstein for the Royal Ballet to premiere in May 2016. Here’s hoping he receives more constructive critical feedback in the process of choreographing his well known narrative than Acosta seems to have done.

Susie Crow

17th November 2015

You can read Maggie Watson’s review of the original live transmission in January 2014 of the Bolshoi Ballet’s production of Balanchine’s Jewels  here