Unveiling a world premiere ballet at the same time as one of your equally-as-lauded contemporaries would be tough on any choreographer, let alone showing alongside George Balanchine's 1928 masterwork Apollo. Nay, immediately succeeding Balanchine. To quote my theatre neighbour, “What was the Royal Ballet thinking?”
But choreographers Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky have both achieved what many thought was implausible: they have created works that complement Balanchine’s game-changing Apollo and, dare I say, vivify it, while carving out their own niches in the increasingly crowded contemporary classical ballet realm.
Apollo kicks off the evening, and what a faithful reinterpretation it is. A barefoot Leto in blue (Christina Arestis) gives birth to a radiant Apollo (Carlos Acosta) amidst a misty backdrop that glows a stark white as Apollo is literally unravelled into the world by two handmaidens. Sun kissed and supremely stoic, Acosta captivates as the Greek God of prophecy and healing. His commanding presence and commitment to character is unsurpassed only by his three muses, Terpsichore (Marianela Nunez), Calliope (Olivia Cowley) and Polyhymnia (Itziar Mendizabal) who dance in perfect synchrony, beguiling Apollo with coquettish glances and jaunty footwork. Mendizabal’s comedic timing is spot-on, leaving the audience little to do but laugh out loud at her gawkish expressions and Chaplin-esque mime. Balanchine’s choreography teeters exquisitely between playful and tender, but it is Acosta and Nunez who deserve all the credit for the final, amorous pas de deux, so touching that it threatens tears. There is a moment in which Apollo levers Terpsichore’s torso onto his flattened neck and balances her there in bow pose and Apollo is worth watching for those three seconds alone.
Alexei Ratmansky’s 24 Preludes is other-worldly in a sense that Apollo is not, which is ironic because Balanchine’s classic is time-specific while Ratmansky’s is not. But the dancers’ ethereal metallic grey and violet costumes (flowing chiffon skirts for the girls; medieval tunics and tights for the boys), an ever-changing aqueous backdrop and Chopin’s static score all point to a parallel universe where loyalties constantly shift and change and happiness is a fleeting emotion underpinned by betrayal and morbidity. The piece depicts four boys and four girls navigating a never-ending journey, and though Ratmansky’s choreography is at times static (no thanks to Chopin’s oppressive Preludes op.28; poor music choice) it is never dull nor predictable. Edward Watson impresses with his agility and incredible jumps, as does Alina Cojocaru, who gives a wraithlike, weightless quality to every movement. The only poor casting choice is Zenaida Yanowsky, who stands heads above the other girls and is far too imposing to carry off Ratmansky’s contained choreography. There are pressing timing issues and, at 41 minutes is ten too long, but 24 Preludes is so breathlessly beautiful that it’s hard to tear your eyes away. A very solid Royal Ballet debut from Mr Ratmansky.
Death also looms over Christopher Wheeldon’s newest Royal Ballet commission but, unlike its predecessor, Aeternum is chaotic and delineated with no determinable narrative. The dancers are flanked by a mammoth structure of criss-crossed wooden ribs that lift and shift throughout the work which, combined with interspersed blackout lighting, evokes an apocalyptic feel. Wheeldon’s choreography is dominated by group work that employs powerful pattern play to create tension, though it is the stirring and final pas de deux performed by Marianela Nunez and Federico Bonelli that gives the piece its emotional heart. There’s a raw, almost uncomfortable physicality in the way the dancers contort their bodies as they skulk across the stage; at one stage a row of seated female dancers lift their knees up to their chins, extend their legs and aim their feet at the audience, manoeuvring their limbs like machine guns.
Wheeldon’s choice of music - Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, in commemoration of the centenary of the composer’s birth – brings such intensity to the piece it’s as if the music was composed for the ballet, rather than the other way round. There’s a lot to love about this triple bill, especially for balletomanes who love nitpicking the nuances that define a world-class choreographer (or one on his way). Yes, 24 Preludes and Aeternum are still very much diamonds in the rough and there’s a lot to be improved upon. But to dismiss either Wheeldon or Ratmansky as the next Balanchine would be very foolish indeed.