Can hand-me-downs ever be as good as new? In ballet, they can. The current Royal Ballet season may be short on premieres, but it's offering stacks of nearly-new works to compensate. All three in the latest Triple Bill were acquired in the past few years. Second time round, all three are more worth seeing.
Previously, in The Seven Deadly Sins, the words were a problem. What was the point of staging a biting satire by Brecht, translation by Auden, if barely any lyrics were audible? Two years on, not only has singer Martha Wainwright beefed up her diction, but the balance between her smoky tremolo and the orchestra has been adjusted to make the sorry fate of the Annas from Louisiana, who set off across America seeking their fortune, devastatingly clear. Wainwright also looks more confident as Anna I, the chanteuse who trails around after Zenaida Yanowsky's dancing Anna II. With their identical fawn raincoats and sport Sixties beehives, we're meant to see them as one, even though Anna I seems to be in denial about Anna II's activities. Coyly sitting at the head of a motel bed, she deliberately blocks our view of what her "sister" is up to with a male visitor.
Will Tuckett's choreography is slick, sleazy and hyperactive, a good match for the curdled harmonies of Kurt Weill's score, if rather better at depicting lust than any other sin. Zanowsky is indefatigable as a young woman manhandled into a tawdry commodity, as her family look down from an ironwork gantry to comment on her earning power, and complain that she costs too much in food. Tuckett's inspiration falters when it comes to gluttony: you wouldn't guess this wasn't just another bout of lust. And you have to question the directoral wisdom of having Anna in her undies, flashing her crotch from the start. As a narrative of moral decline, the dance hits rock bottom prematurely.
Mats Ek's Carmen also trades in female sexuality, but with the boot on the other foot. Insolent, man-eating, this Carmen is a force sauvage whom conventional morality cannot touch. Ek's dance language is unconventional too – gauche, cartoonish, elliptical – with great gaps where you expect the story to be (it certainly helps to know the opera). And where Sylvie Guillem, who dominated the role in 2002, gave Carmen a rangy gallic elegance, Tamara Rojo delivers the real scuzzy, unwashed deal, stomping about issuing Spanish expletives and greedily puffing on two fat cigars at once.
But this Carmen isn't just a vehicle for a star. Its madly aerobic chorus is integral to the fun: girls in cigar-foil frills sprint and whoop while army cadets do a frenetic rifle drill, busting a gut in hope of an admiring look from Carmen. Rodion Shchedrin's mysterious orchestration of Bizet's themes achieves its full shivery potential under the baton of Pavel Sorokin.
Impressively, each of the three ballets has its own conductor. Despite my personal antipathy to the music of Michael Nyman – and his orchestral homage to France's high-speed train seems to me as tedious as any – I have to concede that conductor Daniel Capps keeps its layered time schemes chugging along nicely, and the volume is impressive. So too is the massed effort of the Royal Ballet. Christopher Wheeldon's inspiration, however, comes and goes. In DGV: Danse à grande vitesse, the best segments are those that suggest bobbing, jostling crowds, or the serenity of planes at high altitude. Nathalie Harrison's spread-eagle float, supported by nothing but the strong palms of Gary Avis, held high above his head, is heart-stopping.
Heart-sinking was my initial reaction to Joaquin Cortés, packing the Roundhouse for just two nights. But then I got riled. Never before have I felt the urge to shout two-syllable insults at a performer (such was the din that no one heard). Flamenco? Pah! Cortés has a few flashy tricks, but no stamina and no material, unless you count a string of hammy climaxes, using the same facile spins and kicks. The pity is that some of that crowd will think voguing and taking your shirt off is what flamenco is about. Catch this month's Spanish season at Sadler's Wells for a bracing corrective.
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