Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Scottish Ballet, Autumn 2011

Reaching the end of Ashley Page’s time as Artistic Director, Scottish Ballet are in a state of transition. Pulling the company out of a creative slump at the turn of the millennia, Page asserted a clear voice for contemporary ballet that neither abandoned its classical roots nor pandered to the past. A careful strategy of expanding the repertoire of established works – Britain’s iconic choreographers Kenneth MacMillan and Frederick Ashton are both represented – alongside new commissions from rising stars gave Scottish Ballet a fresh, innovative energy.

Page’s choices have not always been successful: Ashton’s Scenes des Ballets is an exercise in classical aesthetics and geometry that saw the company struggle even as it delighted more conservative audiences, and Page’s own Alice received a mixed critical reception. Yet Page's tenure has been consistently imaginative and bracing. Enticing English contemporary ballet celebrity Richard Alston north for a version of Carmen and adopting Trisha Brown’s challenging For MG gave a signal that Scotland was not willing to wither in a nostalgic twilight.

The Autumn Season offers a double bill that both signposts the company’s current status and suggests two readings of contemporary ballet. Jorma Elo illustrates Steve Reich and Mozart with a style that builds new movement onto the ballet basics, while Pennies From Heaven is Page’s attempt to graft a 1930s aesthetic onto a traditional technique. In radically different ways, they test ballet’s potential for evolution: Elo links it to the dynamic abstraction of Reich’s minimalism, Page adds a vintage glamour.

Pennies From Heaven is the more traditional: there is even a narrative hidden between the series of dances, and the romantic yearning so often present in the classics spills over into uncomfortable ménages. Aside from a few crowd-pleasing, humorous interludes, such as the cowboy fancy dress amble of Roll Along Covered Wagon, Pennies studies hidden passions behind comfortable desires. Perhaps thanks to its sentimental nostalgia, Pennies showcases the solo and duet skills of the company and comfortably charms the audience to an ovation.

Kings To Ends picks up on the baroque elegance of Mozart and the lineal precision of Reich, moulding the dancers into awkward, abstract shapes and relationships. A minimal set and subtle lighting frames the dancers, Elo giving away few clues about the emotions or story behind the choreography. The sense of playful exploration around the possibilities of a trained physique is hidden by a vigorous urgency, especially during Reich’s Double Sextet. When this intensity gives way to a more humorous set of interactions, Elo’s choreography steps back from the intensity and weaves baroque patterns around Mozart’s Violin Concerto. It’s a stunning exercise in mathematics as movement.

Unfortunately, there remains the weakness of Scottish Ballet: a ragged corps. Elo’s sprightly design is not always delivered tightly, and the absolute precision demanded by terse music and rapid shifts of style is only occasionally delivered. The ambition of Scottish Ballet, and their mission to become relevant and vibrant is admirable, yet the revolution will not be complete until they cleave to the discipline that transforms technical skill into a unified, focused machine.

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