The works in this triple bill were all created by choreographers in their twenties and two of them are new works made for the Royal Ballet this season, making for an evening of fresh, exuberant modern ballet. The Royal Opera House had given over the entire Amphitheatre to student tickets for this performance, so there was a youthful buzz in the audience to match the youthful buzz on stage.
Polyphonia, set to piano music by mid-twentieth century Hungarian composer György Ligeti, is one of Christopher Wheeldon's first major works, made at New York City Ballet in 2000. The choreography is accomplished and elegant, but can seem a little stilted in the central sections, while the dancers themselves sometimes take precision rather over the line into stiffness. The opening and closing sections, however, are superb: the swiftly-changing geometric shapes made by four couples in canon have a rhythmic intensity that perfectly matches Ligeti's percussive score. The grace of Leanne Benjamin and Nehemiah Kish keeps Wheeldon's intricate partner-work on the right side of the dance/gymnastics divide, and David Trzensimiech and Alexander Campbell deserve a mention for perfectly embodying the spirit of their piece – 'Vivace Energico' from Musica Ricercata No. 8.
Liam Scarlett's Sweet Violets is a completely different affair: a character-driven, fully-costumed narrative set in dark Victorian London. It is based on episodes in the life and art of the painter William Sickert (Johann Kobborg), and spins a tale of prostitution, murder and madness, which problematises the distinction between art and voyeurism. Intensely attracted by the criminal underbelly of London, Sickert painted murder scenes and was posthumously accused of being Jack the Ripper: the dangers of his obsession with violent death are suggested in the ballet through Steven McRae's quasi-demonic Jack character, who haunts Sickert across the dance halls and street corners of a shadowy, seedy city, expertly evoked by John MacFarlane's grimy sets and Mark Stanley's high-contrast lighting. Add to all this a sweeping Rachmaninov score, choreography that is both sensual and fast-paced, and almost all the principals of the Royal Ballet as the main characters and you have compelling dance theatre.
Leanne Cope and Thiago Soares electrify in the opening pas-de-deux between a prostitute and her murderer, while Federico Bonelli shows his dark side as Eddy, the disguised prince whose dangerous love ruins poor shopgirl Annie (Laura Morera). Morera's dancing in her first love scene is as smooth and vibrant as the solo cello sound which underpins it, while her stark, angular despair as she is committed to an asylum is chilling – and deservedly acclaimed by the audience. Alina Cojocaru is beautiful as the sweet-natured servant who is eventually murdered for her part in the Eddy/Annie affair, and Tamara Rojo consummately captures the resignation of an artist's model as she puts up with humiliation and rough treatment from her male patrons.
This story is all about violence, and as the constant playing of male brutality against female helplessness begins to wear, the audience is forced to interrogate its own complicity in violence-as-spectacle. The coup-de-théatre – literally – in this exploration of voyeurism places a set of dancing girls on a stage facing away from the audience, so that we look out past the wrong side of another proscenium arch to a group of men in gilded boxes not unlike ours, who are raucously enjoying the show. A second line of footlights divides us from them, but also plays up our similarity, forcing us to ask if our enjoyment is any less sordid than theirs.
My non-dance critic friend loved Sweet Violets, and I wouldn't say no to a second viewing of this smart, dramatic ballet, but for me the evening's highlight was the final piece. Wayne McGregor's Carbon Life combines music and dance in a pulsing, dazzling triumph, which features rock stars and rappers performing their own work live: the august auditorium at Covent Garden suddenly thrilled with the atmosphere of a stadium rock concert. International fashion designer Gareth Pugh's futuristic costumes for both musicians and dancers only added to the fun. After the gentle synth sounds and mesmerising soft-focus lighting of the opening, it was impossible not to smile as the beat picked up and sixteen dancers in identical black shorts executed an obbligato port-de-bras of practice-room precision, while a couple in front twisted and lifted in McGregor's trademark fluid kinetic style. Music sets the tone in Carbon Life, but the choreography steals the show: it fizzes with inventiveness, from the beautiful opening sequence of fast-moving tableaux to the final ecstatic dance-off, in which Mark Ronson rocked the house on bass guitar, and the artists and principals of the Royal Ballet proved that a ballet-funk-disco mash-up is not only possible but magnificent.