In his new Electric Counterpoint for the Royal Ballet, choreographer Christopher Wheeldon tries to catch up with the digital age. Four dancers perform with filmed versions of themselves, projected on to Jean-Marc Puissant's set. It's a work with too much effort and not enough substance. Wheeldon has come late to the dance/screen genre: this toy isn't as new as all that.
In an opening section, we hear the dancers' voices describing the experience of being on stage. They wear extravagant costumes on screen, simpler versions on stage, confronting their own theatrical images. The tone is pensive: dim lighting, keyboard music by Bach. Wheeldon has chosen melancholy interview clips, too, stressing vulnerability and introspection.
The second part is set to Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint, in which the electric guitarist James Woodrow plays against multiple recordings of himself. The dance echoes that, with virtual dancers crossing the screen and reappearing as real people. Too often, the video material (filmed by Ballet Boyz William Trevitt and Michael Nunn) makes a doodling backdrop.
The dances are sleek and often intricate. Edward Watson folds his legs into mathematical tangles. Sarah Lamb considers her own image, stepping elegantly from pose to pose. Eric Underwood and Zenaida Yanowsky wind around each other with energy and poise. Moment by moment, these charismatic dancers look good, but the ballet doesn't go anywhere much.
In Afternoon of a Faun, Jerome Robbins sets Debussy's music as an encounter between two dancers in a studio. Lamb is stylish, while Carlos Acosta – a star who has been stretching himself thin – looks more relaxed and alert than he has in a while.
Balanchine's Tzigane is a new acquisition for the Royal Ballet, and an odd choice. It's a slight work, a beribboned gypsy number for lead couple and small corps. It was created for the ballerina Suzanne Farrell, whose coaching is probably the main reason for reviving it. The best scene is the long opening solo for ballerina and violin. Marianela Nuñez matches Sergey Levitin's playing with spiky, sumptuous movement, bringing out the sharper accents of Ravel's music.
More ribbons in Ashton's A Month in the Country, a ballet with sensuous dancing and dramatic frills. The heroine falls in love with her son's tutor – as does every other woman in the house. In her debut, Alexandra Ansanelli falls into melodrama. She exaggerates Ashton's delicate arm movements, turning them into angst. Her phrasing lacks variety. As the tutor, Ivan Putrov is stiff in the first scene, but suddenly comes to life when dancing with Iohna Loots's smitten Vera. When he gently turns her away, it's both partnering and emotional response. Since he doesn't stop dancing with her, we can see trouble coming.
"Every individual is empowered through choice," the Shen Yun hosts explain, introducing a scene in which hip-hop punks find redemption in a ruined Buddhist temple. With the Beijing Olympics looming, this will be a year of Chinese art in Britain, with exchanges and collaborations. Shen Yun isn't in this category. The production company, Divine Arts, is based in New York, and in tone the show could be a Californian self-help manual.
There's a creepy edge to this celebration of Chinese traditional art. The dances go from bland to pretty, with lines of dancers fluttering sleeves or posing in front of digital backdrops. Many numbers have a lurking evangelical air, offering crass solutions for China's human-rights abuses.
Two bilingual hosts introduce each number with groaningly unspontaneous comedy routines, and the dramatic scenes are just as clunking. Nobody can act, and costumes are extravagant but the fabrics move like polyester. Indeed, much of Shen Yun is tacky. It becomes something worse when it tries to address serious political issues.
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