The Royal Ballet Returns to NYC with Fresh Fare

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The Royal Ballet in Liam Scarlett's The Age of Anxiety (photo by Bill Cooper)

The Royal Ballet in Liam Scarlett’s The Age of Anxiety (Photo by Bill Cooper)

Most frequenters of Lincoln Center’s Koch Theatre are familiar with George Balanchine’s famous declaration that “there are no new steps, only new combinations.” Last week, The Royal Ballet briefly commandeered the venue to offer a glimpse at just how many new combinations — of steps, of repertory, and of ideas — might be possible with a masterfully mixed bill that ran the style gamut from abstract contemporary to 20th-century classic. Marking the company’s first New York City engagement since 2004, this motley assortment of works (one of two programs presented by the Joyce Theater Foundation) underscored the vast physical, technical, and artistic capabilities overflowing from every rank of the troupe — not to mention director Kevin O’Hare’s adventurous and ambitious vision for it.

The curtain opened on Wayne McGregor’s Infra, a stark interpretation of the tumultuous reality humming beneath the cool façade of modern metropolitan society. Accented by intentionally monotonous digital animations floating on a screen above the stage, McGregor’s enigmatic choreography — which likely would not have read quite so clearly on a palette of performers less classically adept and committed to line — capitalized on the extraordinary facility and athleticism available within The Royal Ballet. But even at a mere 30 minutes, the opus began to feel more than a trifle labored halfway through.

On the opposite end of the spectrum and the program, The Age of Anxiety, completed just last year by artist in residence Liam Scarlett, struck a far more refreshing note. The work unpacked W.H. Auden’s notoriously difficult poem (deemed “frightfully long” by the author himself) of the same name into a more digestible narrative ballet following four drifters on an extended evening of alcohol-fueled revelry. A score also inspired by Auden’s ponderous verse and bearing Leonard Bernstein’s unmistakable stamp fueled scintillating performances by principals Sarah Lamb and Federico Bonelli and first soloists Alexander Campbell and Johannes Stepanek, all of whom seemed to relish Scarlett’s challenging, wittily poignant choreography.

Christopher Wheeldon's Aeternum Pas de Deux (Photo by Johan Persson)

Christopher Wheeldon’s Aeternum Pas de Deux
(Photo by Johan Persson)

Tucked between these two lengthier ballets was a collection of six divertissements. It began with Frederick Ashton’s sprightly Voices of Spring, which first soloists Akane Takada and Valentino Zucchetti performed with precision and infectious energy. The section ended with Kenneth MacMillan’s “If I Loved You” duet from Carousel, a purely theatrical dance that — though undertaken with merriment by principals Lauren Cuthbertson and Matthew Golding — felt somewhat out of place, even on the extremely diverse bill.

At the deliciously rich center of the program were three brilliantly delivered male solos, each drawing audible breath and ample applause from the audience. Dancer Marcelino Sambé opened the set with Borrowed Light by long-time company member Alastair Marriott. Sambé performed with buoyant ease, gracefully devouring the stage and sailing through a series of gravity-defying, echoing movements. The amusingly acrobatic “Le Beau Gosse” from Bronislava Nijinska’s Le Train Bleu, executed with jaunty alacrity by principal Vadim Muntagirov, was a well-chosen interlude between Marriott’s expressive piece and Calvin Richardson’s soulful, intricate reimagining of The Dying Swan. Seeing a choreographer interpret his own work can be a treat, and Richardson, who joined the company directly from its school only last year, proved himself one to watch as both dancer and dance-maker.

Finally, the silvery pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s Aeternum built on the electric ambiance generated by the three powerful soloists. It exuded a subtle vintage romanticism that left me wanting more.

Here’s hoping New York won’t have to wait another decade for the next Royal visit.

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