Sam Goldwyn famously said that modern danced soon looked old fashioned. The Royal Ballet’s latest mixed bill proves him hilariously correct, although it also shows that he was very wrong.
The programme starts with George Balanchine’s Agon, which is a masterwork of timeless modernity. It was made in 1957 and it looks as startlingly fresh now as it must have done when the porcelain skinned Diana Adams premiered the piece with the African-American Arthur Mitchell. The significance of Balanchine casting a black male dancer in an America that was still segregated cannot be over-stated. The black and white costumes, and Stravinsky’s music that parries the piano's black and white notes further emphasize the contrast or conflict suggested in the work’s title (it’s Greek for contest, debate or struggle).
Combine all that with Balachine’s extraordinary balances in the duets and his action-filled moves for the corps, and you have a work of enduring newness.
Agon’s central duet was danced to dazzling effect by Carlos Acosta and Melissa Hamilton on opening night. The three dancers in the second work, Glen Tetley’s Sphinx, were also excellent, although Marianela Nunez, Edward Watson and Rupert Pennefather couldn’t retrieve the 1977 ballet which is very much as Goldwyn describes.
Created for American Ballet Theatre barely 30 years ago, it is a new acquisition for the Royal, and a surprising one, given it is a dated mish-mash of athletic moves and Spandex unitards – the headdress worn by Nunez looks suspiciously like one of those plaited head bands favoured by 1970s disco divas. The dancing verges on the bombastic and after about 10 minutes you have to close your eyes and just listen to the music (Martinu’s Double Concerto).
Only time will tell if Wayne McGregor’s new Limen will sustain its modernity. Elements of the production augur well. The music is an evocative composition by Kaija Saariaho, and the set a striking design by LED artist Tatsuo Miyajima. The moves are signature McGregor – spiky legs and arched backs, although he also includes a greater sensuousness that we’re unused to, especially in the moves for Eric Underwood and Sarah Lamb, whose duet could almost be a labour of love.