Does the world need a ballet company that does only neo-classical? To judge by the reception of Christopher Wheeldon's classy, transatlantic venture, making its debut at a packed Sadler's Wells, the world thinks itprobably does.
Ten or 15 years ago, the question wasn't worth asking. The deaths of Ashton, then MacMillan in Britain, and Balanchine and Robbins stateside, seemed to have cut off the future of ballet at its source. But then along came Wheeldon, the young, Royal Ballet-trained Brit who made the switch to Manhattan and straddled both camps, taking what he wanted from the New York look – the leggy angularity, the grandeur, the speed – and overlaying it with a very British emotional depth. He also has an enlightening knack with difficult music and a seemingly endless stock of ideas.
Fitting then, that his new company opened and closed its first programme with works by C Wheeldon, still only 34. Morphoses – set to Ligeti's first string quartet, played live (and, wonderful to relate, all the music is live) begins life as the Red Cross logo – four glowing human streaks laid cruciform on the floor – which gradually morphs into different flattened shapes, and then takes flight. In one duet, the American star Wendy Whelan wheels at head-height like some imperial eagle; in another, she and the striking Sterling Hyltin (why must Americans christen girls ambiguously?) sidle sideways on their pointes and fingertips like delicate crabs escaping the tide.
At the centre of the programme is a set of duets from various hands. Wheeldon's Prokofiev pas de deux is the most classical – by which I mean timeless and hard-to-date – and had the added value (from the predominantly British crowd's point of view) of showcasing Covent Garden's favourite ballet couple. It was certainly a treat to see pocket-wonder Alina Cojocaru back from injury. Nine months must feel like a decade in a career so potentially short.
But the biggest cheers were in recognition of pure quality. Somehow, to an extract from Prokofiev's second violin concerto, Johan Kobborg and Cojocaru summoned the heartbeats of Romeo and Juliet. I swear the smiling spirit of Kenneth MacMillan was hovering close by.
Wheeldon's reluctance to load us with information left me at sea in the William Forsythe Slingerland duet. Why called so, and when was it made? But the potato crisp tutu was witty, and its wearer quite sublime.
All very well, this serious quality, but where was the commercial hook - the thing to ensure survival, and the promised tour? Wheeldon covered that base last, in the soaring heart-tugger After The Rain , set to heaven-ascending Arvo Pärt, superbly played by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. Did he intend a nod to Balanchine's once-scandalous Agon , with its black man manhandling a white woman? The great thing now is that we can just relax and enjoy.
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