The Royal Ballet’s latest works are very busy. Wayne McGregor’s glossy Carbon Life is a pop-fashion collaboration with Mark Ronson, Gareth Pugh and a great many pop stars. Liam Scarlett’s Sweet Violets is a mess of bad and good ideas about Walter Sickert, Jack the Ripper and an artist at work. Christopher Wheeldon’s 2001 Polyphonia, which opens the evening, is sleek and just right.
Danced to a Rachmaninoff trio, Sweet Violets concerns the artist Walter Sickert, his paintings and his fascination with the Ripper murders. Scarlett throws in characters from various late-Victorian conspiracies, with Queen Victoria’s grandson Eddy and the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury alongside artist’s models, prostitutes and the stylised figure of the Ripper. The plot isn’t remotely clear, on stage or in Scarlett’s own synopsis.
Yet the ballet does have a sense of atmosphere. John Macfarlane’s brilliant designs evoke the smudgy world of Sickert’s paintings, from music hall to cheap bedrooms. In the painter’s studio, his employees Alina Cojocaru and Laura Morera flirt with Sickert and his friends. The interactions are teasing and socially precise. Both women freeze when Sickert’s paints get knocked over: this is a Bohemian world, but there’s no doubt who’s in charge. Scarlett’s women, unlike most balletic prostitutes, are insistent about being paid in advance.
Scarlett has a superb cast. Johan Kobborg is a driven, nervy Sickert, with Leanne Cope vivid as one of the victims. Tamara Rojo is sensational as a model, slouching and challenging as she poses. Sitting on the bed, weighted and weary, she evokes a whole world.
McGregor’s Carbon Life has a glowing, gorgeous beginning. Mark Ronson’s opening song, orchestrated by Rufus Wainwright, twinkles softly. Lucy Carter's lighting, bright lights behind a gauze screen, gives the dancers haloes. They look like heavenly bodies, floating and turning through their orbits. It’s shamelessly pretty.
Once the gauze rises, the focus shifts to Ronson’s starry lineup of singers: Boy George, Alison Mosshart of The Kills, Hero Fisher, Jonathan Pierce of The Drums. The dancers, who start in plain underwear, add layers of stiff black costume (tutu skirts, shoulder-pads, impossible boots) created by fashion designer Gareth Pugh.
McGregor’s choreography is full of twists, arched spines and upflung legs. Music and dancing both get repetitive, but there are charismatic performances. Marianela Nuñez stands out in a trio with two masked men, while Mosshart prowls the stage, stalking into the dancers’ territory.
In repertory until 23 April. Box office 020 7304 4000.