Britain's got talent – I don't think anyone doubted that. But for some years the Royal Ballet has been at a loss to know how to bring it into flower.
Nurturing performing talent is straightforward enough, but providing the right growing medium for choreography is tricky: it's just not a thing you can teach. Under Dame Monica Mason's watch, however, the Royal has given the problem special attention, and the triumphant result is now on view.
At just turned 24, Liam Scarlett, still in the junior ranks of the company as a dancer, is the youngest choreographer ever to make work for the Covent Garden stage. The greater marvel, though, is that his piece, made for three leading couples and a corps of 14, and inspired by the large-scale lusciousness of Poulenc's Double Piano Concerto, has the assurance of a veteran thrice his age.
Had Scarlett called his piece "Elysian Fields", it might have held less interest. Instead, he hit on Asphodel Meadows – residence, in the Greek mythology of death, of less heroic souls, cursed to a pallid afterlife of humdrum tasks. That endless nothingness, paradoxically, seems to have pricked his imagination. The 23 minutes of his ballet are packed with incident, and the kind of densely patterned busy-ness that ravishes the eye, while setting out a strong case for the endurance of classical dance in the Ashton mould. This isn't a young man who feels a need to smash it.
Choosing a palette of palest beige with the star couples picked out in brown and plum, Scarlett keeps the look cool and suave to complement Poulenc's louche, 1930s-flavoured score. Pianists Robert Clark and Kate Shipway cope well with its kaleidoscopic range and mad changes of pace, especially the delicious, tinkling, gamelan-imitations when time seems temporarily suspended.
Each star pair is allocated a movement of the concerto: Marianela Nunez and Rupert Pennefather are magnificent in the first, expansive and haughty as eagles; Tamara Rojo and Bennet Gartside blow hot and cold in the second, veering from fevered amorousness to rejection; finally Laura Morera and Ricardo Cervera present yet another aspect of love in their vivacious, crisply heedless couplings. The backcloth, by print-maker John Macfarlane, is an intriguing blank of sheaved paper, inkily thumbed and spattered – the ledger of a life unheroically lived, perhaps. What is not in doubt is that a choreographic career of note was launched last week.
Sharing the same bill are Christopher Wheeldon's sleek, multi-media Electric Counterpoint (now looking even sassier than at its premier in 2008) and Mats Ek's cartoon rendering of Carmen, set to the brilliantly creepy re-orchestration of Bizet by Rodion Shchedrin. Given the neo-classical sheen of Wheeldon and Scarlett's work (both the British young bucks taking the neo-con line), the worry was that the arch-expressionist Ek would look a bit Old Labour. I was wrong.
Tamara Rojo reveals the familiar cigar-toting matador-tease as a genuinely dangerous product of the Spanish underclass – an unwashed terrier with a mighty yap and a lethal bite. And the entire tawdry, hilariously raunchy, piece is strongly cast. With its snarling hispanic expletives, extravagant on-stage smoking and explosions of energy and colour, Carmen makes an exhilarating sign-off to a memorable night.
To 15 May (020-7304 4000).
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