A welcome development during the current refurbishment of the Royal Opera House, perhaps to compensate for the temporary absence of the Linbury Studio Theatre, downstairs, is the recent opening up of the Clore Studio Upstairs to present brief works ahead of main stage production. Following Wayne Eagling’s Jeux (performed by dancers of the Royal Ballet) and Kenneth MacMillan’s rarely-seen classic, Sea of Troubles, presented by the Yorke Dance Project, the main stage revival of Sylvia was prefaced by Alexander Whitley’s new commission, Noumena.

© Helen Maybanks
© Helen Maybanks
It was not a random association since Noumena was billed as a response to Frederick Ashton’s Sylvia, taking – we are told, in the brief programme note – particular inspiration from the goddess, Diana (who appears only briefly in the final scene of Sylvia, dispensing wrath and forgiveness in equal measure). Whitley is a choreographer for whom the art of making dance is as much an intellectual inquiry as it is to do with movement. His former works are concerned with matters of Artificial Intelligence and motion-response technology (in Pattern Recognition); solar science and space exploration, in 8 Minutes; and the structural engineering of Frames (made on his former company, Rambert).

So, it was a reasonable bet that this work would not take a literal or linear look at Greek mythology, a direction quickly evidenced by Whitley’s own programme-note reference to the psycholanalyst, Carl Jung, in explaining his rationale for the work. Noumena means “Things as they are in themselves”. In any event, it was inadvisable to waste too much mental effort by trying to draw any parallels in the association between this work and the one that followed on the main stage.

That is not, in any way, to detract from Whitley’s burgeoning skill as a choreographer. In the intimate surroundings of this small space, the purity and variety of his neoclassical dance form, backed by a live twelve-piece musical ensemble, was pervasive and enveloping. In the earlier works, already mentioned, dance was but one of several visual elements, such as roving lighting units, metal structures and spectacular digital imagery; here, Whitley largely lets the dance lead, although the stage area is dominated by a large circular lighting installation (created by Children of Light), which – suspended from above – appears something like the wicked queen’s mirror in Snow White, ceating optical illusions through haze effects as well as a vibrant light show (designed by Guy Hoare). Having seen several pared-down works in the Clore, this possessed the most ambitious staging, yet, but – with Whitley as the choreographer – that was probably to be guaraneed!

Even if it was difficult to discern elements of Sylvia or the character of Diana, in this 25-minute piece, the work was nonetheless easy on the eye; absorbing and generally fascinating with excellent performances, notably by Australian dancer Tia Hockey, in a strong central role (was she Diana?), backed by a kind of subconscious, relected self (Caitlin Taylor) and supported by two elegant male dancers: Leon Poulton, formerly of BalletBoyz – The Talent; and David Ledger (formely with NDT2).  Whitley has assembled a very strong quartet, which further sharpened the edge of his fluid and dramatic movement.

Although, Whitley is carving out a particularly idiosyncratic niche for his thoughful choreography and its scientific, technological and philosophical associations, it is a channel of work that seems closely aligned in some ways to that of Wayne McGregor. In making this piece (albeit for his own company) at The Royal Opera House, Whitley was returning on two counts, firstly as an ex Royal Ballet School Student and, secondly, as a former choreographic affiliate of The Royal Ballet. Like McGregor – the company’s Resident Choreographer – Whitley is evolving his own style, building outwards from the essence of classical form, in his quest to broaden the dance horizon, often through innovative collaborations with other artists. This brief work presents an intriguing new stage in his journey, as well as further opening up the performance potential of the Clore Studio, which I sincerely hope will be a continuing exploration (on both counts).  

***11