To hijack the words of Mark Twain, reports of the death of ballet have been greatly exaggerated. True, at the turn of the present century the art form was in a critical state of health. The past couldn't be recycled indefinitely. New work lacked direction and audience appeal.
Now, though, thanks to careful nurturing of talent (as well as some welcome adjusting of ticket prices) there is cause for optimism. The proof is in the Royal Ballet's latest triple bill, a hat-trick of thrilling, forward-looking works by three home-grown choreographers.
First up is the youngest, Liam Scarlett, who at 25 displays a precocious command of large human forces and even vaster space. Viscera is his first international commission, made early this year for Miami City Ballet but already sitting comfortably on the athletic bodies of his Royal Ballet colleagues.
Visceral by name, visceral by nature, this 20-minute sprint takes its cue from a crazily energetic piano concerto by the American Lowell Liebermann. Blindfold, you might have put it at the door of Shostakovich, with its stabbing strings, driving brass and tumbling piano clusters. Scarlett matches it with ferocious pirouettes, flashing six-o-clock legs and lifts that drop like a stomach in a lift. This is abstract ballet that would rather be an action movie.
True to form, though, it has a melting middle (think of the stilled heart of Kenneth MacMillan's Concerto, or Balanchine's Symphony in Three Movements, both to Shostakovich – it's clear that the choreographer did). Here Marianela Nunez, handsomely supported by Ryoichi Hirano, displays the extremes of muscular control she has made a specialism, extending her limbs slowly like tendrils, and spending half the time upside down. In the final part, speed-queen Laura Morera leads the charge, redressing the dynamic balance with a heat that could strip paint.
The work of Christopher Wheeldon has often sailed daringly close to pretty, and in Fool's Paradise he seems to be testing the limits of that currently unfashionable quality. Set to Joby Talbot's plush score, replete with swooning harp, all the allusions point to early Hollywood. Gilded confetti drifts down as the nine-strong cast unfurl in eerily symmetrical duets and trios, like decorative features on an embossed party invite, or sculpted caryatids on a movie set, glamorously bathed in a golden haze. It's exquisite, but unnerving. Who are the fools of the title – the gilded ones who believe their own cinematic hype, or the gawping, earth-bound masses? The final tableau, a veritable four-storey tower of glowing bodies, shimmers like a dangerous mirage.
Sandwiched between the two imports comes a revival of house choreographer Wayne McGregor's Infra, a piece whose raw edges have smoothed with each revival (perhaps as the dancers adapt to its demands, which once seemed skeletally unfeasible). With its mesmerising digital design by the artist Julian Opie – a stream of strolling neon figures on a raised walkway – the ballet's intent is clear, as the flesh-and-blood dancers below express inner-city angst, and loneliness, even when together.
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The Lock In is an unlikely face-off between English folk dance (clogging, morris, etc) and street dance (hip-hop, b-boy, popping, krump) in the setting of a village pub. The tour takes in The Plowright, Scunthorpe (tonight); Artrix, Bromsgrove (Mon); Severn Theatre, Shrewsbury (Tue); Buxton Opera House (Wed); Rose Theatre, Kingston (Thu); and more.Reuse content