2,000 separate performances over two years will constitute a worldwide festival to celebrate Leonard Bernstein at 100, including this triple bill at The Royal Ballet, which, hitherto, has had but a tenuous link to Bernstein’s music.  

The collective responsibility for marking this centenary was handed to the company’s Resident Choreographer (Wayne McGregor), Artistic Associate (Christopher Wheeldon) and Artist in Residence (Liam Scarlett). McGregor and Wheeldon crafted world premières while Scarlett had the opportunity of a first revival for his Age of Anxiety, from 2014, which provided the company’s previous association with the great man’s music.   

Sarah Lamb and Federico Bonelli in McGregor's <i>Yugen</i> © Andrej Uspenski | ROH, 2018
Sarah Lamb and Federico Bonelli in McGregor's Yugen
© Andrej Uspenski | ROH, 2018

Twelve years ago, McGregor and Wheeldon shared the same stage with world premières of Chroma and DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse in an evening that remains a strong candidate for the best opening night at The Royal Ballet, thus far, in the 21st century. And, this new pair of works appear to have gone some way towards achieving a similar acclaim. 

McGregor’s Yugen could not have been more different from Chroma, both musically and choreographically, but the visual style, represented by Edmund De Waal’s quartet of tall lightboxes, bore some similarity to the simple but impactful architecture of John Pawson’s set for Chroma; both productions beautifully lit by McGregor’s long-term collaborator, Lucy Carter.  

McGregor chose the haunting Chichester Psalms (1965), a choral work for countertenor or boy treble (the composer’s requirement for the Psalm of David was to be heard as if sung by David, himself). It shares Bernstein’s frequent Hebraic theme – following Jeremiah (1944), his first symphony, and pre-empting Dybbuk (1974), his second ballet – which casts some incongruity on McGregor’s choice of an anglicised Japanese word for his title (it means something akin to “a simple beauty” but in a complex, philosophical context).  

It is a mighty score to wrestle with – both hauntingly spiritual and ebulliently jazzy – and McGregor has made a fine work that does it justice, perhaps helped by its brevity (at just nineteen minutes). I generally contend that works should be longer than the subsequent interval but here is a “less is more” exception to that rule.  McGregor’s choreography is less strident, less angular, more fluid, softer and certainly more sentimental than we have seen in his previous one-act works.  

Tierney Heap in Wheeldon's <i>Corybantic Games</i> © Andrej Uspenski | ROH, 2018
Tierney Heap in Wheeldon's Corybantic Games
© Andrej Uspenski | ROH, 2018

The opening spectacle was as momentous as the opening sight of Chroma; dancers silhouetted within De Waal’s boxes, facing different directions. Calvin Richardson was particularly memorable in the undulating solo that takes him centre-stage for David’s psalm, providing poetry in motion to match the feelings engendered by that haunting song. Sarah Lamb and Federico Bonelli brought tranquillity to the introspective sentiment of the 131st Psalm, reflecting the choral music with enthralling eloquence.  McGregor skipped 2017 for a new work at the Royal Ballet but he’s returned with one of his best to date.

Like Jerome Robbins (the only ballet choreographer with whom Bernstein collaborated), Wheeldon is both a man of ballet and Broadway and he has prior experience of choreographing to Bernstein’s music. His choice of Serenade after Plato’s “Symposium” – in essence a violin concerto (Sergey Levitin, outstanding as the solo violinist) – opens up an eclectic range of dance possibilities. 

Wheeldon’s title – Corybantic Games – connects to the work’s Greek origins, etymologically linked to Korubantes, a Phrygian goddess, who – appropriately – performed frenzied dances.  Erdem Moralioglu’s distinctive costumes (diaphanous skirts and flowing ribbons) further enhanced the Greek theme. Jean-Marc Puissant has designed a versatile set that creates a subtly different ambience for each movement.        

Plato’s dialogue in praise of love, so well represented in Bernstein’s concerto, is persuasively interpreted by Wheeldon through five absorbing and distinct danced movements. Marcelino Sambé and Mayara Magri scythe through the fast Eryximachus section, giving a strong indicator of a refreshing new partnership. The gorgeous Agathon adagio is democratically represented by three simultaneous romantic duets involving two men, two women and a male/female pair, each duet danced differently but always with a synergous, emotional attachment to the music.  The “broadway man” came to bear on the final movement with the whole ensemble delivering a “dream ballet” sequence against the backdrop of Puissant’s corn-coloured sunrise. Wheeldon has crafted an enigmatic, turbulent work – corybantic, even – but also one that is controlled and emotional. Another from the top drawer.

Sarah Lamb and Alexander Campbell in Scarlett's <i>The Age of Anxiety</i> © Bill Cooper | ROH
Sarah Lamb and Alexander Campbell in Scarlett's The Age of Anxiety
© Bill Cooper | ROH

Sandwiched between these world premières came the revival of Scarlett’s The Age of Anxiety (choreographed to Bernstein’s Second Symphony, following earlier iterations by Robbins and John Neumeier), bringing a welcome narrative thread to the programme. John Macfarlane’s designs are outstanding (particularly his interpretation of the New York skyline) and there are charismatic performances throughout the small cast.   

Although he composed directly for only two ballets and a choreographic essay, Bernstein’s music has regularly inspired choreographers. It has a strong sense of theatre, full of emotional impact and descriptive depth; and the eclecticism of these three diverse works was impressively – and sensitively – performed by the Opera House Orchestra and Chorus.