Speed of Light - Royal New Zealand Ballet
27 February, St James Theatre - Wellington
Reviewed by Jan Bolwell
During the early decades of the twentieth century George Balanchine began revolutionising classical ballet and in the last decades of the century William Forsythe continued where Balanchine had left off. Rudolph Nureyev commissioned Forsythe in 1987 to create a work for some exceptional young dancers at the Paris Opera Ballet, including the remarkable Sylvie Guillem. The result was In the Middle Somewhat Elevated a 28-minute work that makes supreme demands of the dancers. This is ballet – with attitude. It speaks danger as the dancers push conventional ballet poses to the extreme in a taut and highly percussive display of virtuosic dancing imbued with a mesmerising mix of solo, duet and ensemble choreography. Looking at the Saturday afternoon cast of nine dancers that includes standout performers Lucy Green and Shane Urton, it is inconceivable that the RNZB could have performed this work back in 1987. However such is the development of the company over the past two decades in terms of both technical skills and repertoire that the dancers are able to carry off this signature contemporary ballet with style and aplomb. The performers present themselves on a cavernous stage and command it completely. Forsythe designed the staging, lighting and costumes working alongside long-time music collaborator Thom Willems. The result is a wholly cohesive masterwork that we have been blessed to see for a second time in New Zealand.
Preceding the Forsythe work in this triple bill programme is Andonis Foniadakis’ Selon désir that the RNZB performed on their recent tour to the UK and Italy. Warning bells ring when I read that the choreographer is intent on tapping into the structures of the opening choruses of Bach’s St Matthew and St John Passions. What suits the ear is not necessarily suitable for the eye. The men and women, dressed alike in skirts in a wonderful palette of colours suggestive of Renaissance paintings, dance with great energy and with a fluid understanding of complex timing in space. Performed to a stunningly clear sound rendered by large speakers that are lowered and raised intermittently above the stage space, the dancers embark on an inexorable 25-minute marathon as they hurl themselves endlessly about the stage in a variety of pairing, intertwining and grouping. The movement is relentless and repetitive with no suggestion of light and shade, no suggestion of the movement being in counterpoint to the music. You get the impression that the dancers are simply slaves to the music. Magisterial though Bach’s music is, the choreography only permits the dancers to resemble a colony of demented ants high on ‘P’.
The final work Cacti by Alexander Ekman is a delicious send up of the pretentiousness of contemporary dance. All the elements are there – ridiculous and meaningless dialogue both within and about dance, abstruse connections, clichéd street costuming, and the overuse of props in the form of oversized Scrabble tiles. Wandering through all this ostentatious mayhem is the brilliant string quartet playing Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert. It fizzes with fun and the dancers seem to be having a ball as they finally appear on stage triumphantly carrying their own cactus plant. The meaning of which is……….? Triple bills are difficult to design. On this occasion the RNZB got the balance and the mix absolutely right, and the dancers look fantastic.