With the triple bill Viscera / Infra / Fool's Paradise, The Royal Ballet have confirmed the status of their new holy trinity of choreographers: Wayne McGregor, Christopher Wheeldon and Liam Scarlett. McGregor and Wheeldon already had official choreographic affiliations – as Resident Choreographer and Artistic Associate respectively – and it was announced on Friday that Scarlett will now be joining them, hanging up his dancing shoes with immediate effect to concentrate on choreography as The Royal Ballet's first ever Artist in Residence. The more established McGregor and Wheeldon have created some of The Royal Ballet's most successful new works in the last few years, while Scarlett's debut Asphodel Meadows was so well received in 2010 that it was revived in 2011. Listening to the buzzing of the crowd in the packed auditorium on Saturday, there could be no doubt about the popular following all three have gained, nor about the London ballet audience's appetite for modern choreography: with McGregor, Wheeldon and Scarlett The Royal Ballet have both popular and critical success on their hands. And they know it: Saturday night's première was – fittingly – the third triple-bill outing for them as a joint ticket this year, after Carbon Life / Polyphonia / Sweet Violets in April, and Titian 2012 (Machina /Trespass / Diana and Actaeon) in July.
Of the three works being shown tonight, two were new to the ROH stage, Scarlett's Viscera, premièred by Miami City Ballet to great acclaim earlier this year, and Wheeldon's Fool's Paradise, first performed by his own company Morphoses at Sadler's Wells in 2007. In the middle we had McGregor's beloved 2008 Infra, seeing its third run at the Opera House in four years.
In Viscera Scarlett showed his confidence with a classical idiom by subverting it: angles are just off the true, while the dancers suddenly snap their heads around, or change on a knife-edge their direction of travel, skewing their body-weight and momentum to fall off what seemed like a natural course. It's just as well that the choreography can sustain our interest, because this is, emotionally, a rather inscrutable piece. Marianela Núñez and Ryoichi Hirano have an intense central duet filled with the complex lifts which are de rigueur in contemporary ballet, but, although beautifully danced, somehow the ambivalent relationship it portrayed failed to get me in the gut. The third section, with all the dancers attacking Scarlett's difficult changes of direction at once, is spikier; Laura Morera shows some soul. Viscera is good stuff – I like Scarlett's smartness - but I wonder whether it needs the attack and abandon of the Americans it was made for in order to shine properly. Another problem was that with the ubiquitous-in-modern-ballet side lighting, and identical leotards, it was hard to make out faces at all, or tell performers apart, so it was difficult to feel engaged with the dancers' characters or to get a sense of their development through the piece.
Wayne McGregor's familiar, spine-squiggling, leg-throwing choreographic idiom is remarkable in that it is unmistakeable and repetitive, yet doesn't become boring: he has a real gift for recombining movements in a way that keeps the audience mesmerised. Infrawas made for The Royal Ballet, and perhaps it's this familiarity that allows the dancers to give it so much depth and soul. It portrays the variousness of human society, sometimes showing the impossibility or contingency of communication – as when six couples dance in their own little boxes, only occasionally coming into synch with one another – and at others conveying the transfigurative effect of intense and unique individual relationships (these beautifully embodied by the cast in a series of pas de deux each with its distinctive emotional tenor). Julian Opie's cartoonish, faceless digital figures acquire tremendous humanity through the naturalness of their gait across the screen above the dancers' heads and Max Richter's score combines lyrical piano and ensemble string sections with the sounds of city streets, trains and forests. Overall the effect is of profound exhilaration; dance as window onto the complicated pleasure of being human. The audience went wild; clearly, London loves McGregor, and his big ballets for The Royal Ballet (Infra, Chroma and Limen) have achieved iconic status – deservedly.
Fool's Paradise is set to music originally composed by Joby Talbot for a Russian silent film and this narrative quality shines through in the condensed arrangement Talbot made for the ballet, which is abstract yet feels like a story because there is such feeling in the dancing, particularly the pas de deux. Nine dancers create relationships in a fluid sequence of lines and positions; always moving, always beautiful. Gold foil fluttering down from the ceiling is one moment among many that seem to point forward to Talbot and Wheeldon's subsequent, fertile collaboration on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
Viscera: This dazzling ballet was the US choreographic debut of rising star Liam Scarlett. Intense, dynamic movement is set to Lowell Liebermann's driving score. Infra: Wayne McGregor's virtuoso choreography is set against designs by Julian Opie. The ballet presents a complex and moving portrait of human relationships, set to Max Richter's haunting score. Fool's Paradise: Gold petals flutter down on the dancers in Christopher Wheeldon's exquisite ballet. It contains beautifully nuanced pas de deux and a romantic score by Joby Talbot.
Royal Opera House, Covent GardenBow Street Covent Garden
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2E 9DD
Ricardo Cervera and Sarah Lamb in Infra © Bill Cooper, courtesy of ROH
Marianela Núñez and Ryoichi Hirano in Viscera © Andrej Uspenski, courtesy of ROH
Artists of The Royal Ballet in Fool's Paradise © Andrej Uspenski courtesy of ROH