Wayne McGregor’s new ballet Tetractys – The Art of Fugue has already proved unlucky. Star ballerina Natalia Osipova was concussed at the second performance. With no second cast available due to the ballet’s “complex nature”, the third was cancelled outright. The next depends on the recovery of Osipova and Thiago Soares, who was also taken ill.
With its light sculptures and tied-in-knots steps, Tetractys is certainly complicated. Set to music from Bach’s The Art of Fugue, McGregor’s new work aims for mathematical intricacy. In Tauba Auerbach’s designs, geometric patterns light up overhead. The 12 dancers – five women, seven men – change from one set of coloured body tights to another.
In both ballet and his contemporary dance work, McGregor has been an ideas man rather than a music-driven choreographer. This time, you can see him trying different approaches to Bach’s lucid geometries. None of them get under the skin of the score.
Osipova and Edward Watson skate over the shape of the score as they pull themselves into extreme poses – the audience gives a hissed intake of breath at her first long-past-six-o’clock arabesque. A trio for Sarah Lamb, Steven McRae and Paul Kay sticks pedantically to the notes. McGregor isn’t helped by Michael Berkeley’s new orchestration, which adds a layer of schmaltz to this rigorous music. There are some better ideas: the dancers moving through patterns in silence between numbers, or muscular duet for tall Lauren Cuthbertson and the compact McRae.
McGregor’s dancers do him proud. For the first time since she joined The Royal Ballet this season, Osipova was dancing in an ensemble rather than as a superstar. She takes on McGregor’s style with commitment and grand authority. She hid her accident well on stage: there was no sign that she had been injured. McRae is taut and composed, while Cuthbertson danced with fiery attack. Despite its dancers, despite Auerbach’s modish designs, the whole ballet feels muted and dull.
The programme opens with Frederick Ashton’s Rhapsody, a virtuoso showcase. McRae is a surge of energy with superb comic timing, soaring and spinning through the firework steps with throwaway élan. As his ballerina, Laura Morera dances with crisp speed, relishing the quirky detail of Ashton’s backbends. At the second performance, Hay made a bright debut – he can’t yet match McRae’s stage presence, but this was a clean, elegant account of a murderously difficult role. Francesca Hayward, also making her debut, danced with floating ease and gorgeous musical phrasing.
The evening ends with Gloria. Kenneth MacMillan’s lament for the First World War is full of weighted dances to Poulenc’s religious music. Andy Klunder’s designs evoke a stylised battlefield, the dancers’ tattered costumes suggesting battered or even ghostly bodies. There are some rough edges to this revival, but Melissa Hamilton made a superb debut as the leading woman, showing an elegiac sense of line. On opening night, Carlos Acosta was grounded and noble as the leading soldier; at the second performance, Edward Watson makes it an angrier, more wounded edge.
Until 15 February. Box office 020 7304 4000.