Sir Kenneth MacMillan's ballet The Invitation (1960) is best remembered for being the ballet that consolidated the choreographer’s shift towards controversial topics. With explicit and violent sex onstage, it opened up his repertory to the toughest and darkest areas of human experience. It tells the story of the sexual awakening of two adolescents (the Girl and the Boy), who have their first sexual experience during a party at the Girl’s house. While the Boy is seduced by an unhappy Wife, the Girl is sexually abused by the woman's Husband. The four central characters in the story are one of the first examples of the multi-faceted, dynamic and intense type of characters that would populate MacMillan’s imaginary ever since. The four dancers in the original cast (Lynn Seymour, Christopher Gable, Anne Heaton and Desmond Doyle) received unanimous praise for their impressive dramatic performances. After twenty years of absence, the Royal Ballet is now reviving the ballet and the two casts alternating the main parts are offering potent renditions of the almost fifty-year old roles.  

Edward Watson and Eric Underwood in McGregor's <i>Obsidian Tear</i> © Andrej Uspenski
Edward Watson and Eric Underwood in McGregor's Obsidian Tear
© Andrej Uspenski

Two rising stars of the company, Francesca Hayward and Yasmine Naghdi vividly play the complex role of the Girl. They are partnered, respectively, by Vadim Muntagirov and David Donelly, as the Boy. 

Naghdi and Donnelly offer a frisky and lively portrayal of the two young protagonists of the story. With an excellent chemistry between them, their portrayal of the naïve, trusting adolescents stresses the innocence that, later, will be poignantly destroyed. Naghdi imbues the Girl's character with sweetness and freshness, her dancing adjusting easily to the demands of her partners. The eloquence of her face is remarkable, particularly in her fascination for the Husband and at the end, when she closes the ballet alone onstage, facing a future of disgrace. Donnelly brings spontaneity and vitality to the two relationships in which the Boy is involved. He is joyful and playful in the duets with the Girl, and is tenderly impulsive in his scenes with the Wife.   

In the adult characters, the two dancers performing the role of the Husband (Gary Avis And Thomas Whitehead) have opted for a similar line of interpretation. An essentially evil character, their Husband is a bitter man that cannot control his feelings for the Girl. Thomas Whitehead discloses the Husband’s impetus with discretion, disguising his intentions with a certain charm. His rough support in the final pas de deux suggests a distressing impulse to harm the Girl.

In the role of the Wife, Olivia Cowley achieves the portrayal of an elegant, suffering woman who is constantly fighting to keep the turmoil in her soul private. Deeply hurt for her husband’s lack of love and respect, she allows herself to have the affair with the Boy almost against her will. The tenderness that it brings out, buried again at the end, when she submissively returns to her Husband, makes her deeply rooted unhappiness a second female tragedy in the story.

This variety of nuances in the interpretation of the characters is to a grand extent possible for the potential expressivity embedded in the choreography of the six pas de deux of the ballet. The duets in The Invitation are forerunners of better known pas de deux in MacMillan’s repertory and it is a fortunate decision to bring them back to the stage now, if only briefly. I wish the Royal Ballet does not take another twenty years to return this ballet to Covent Garden.

The Royal Ballet in Wheeldon's <i>Within the Golden Hour</i> © Bill Cooper | ROH 2015
The Royal Ballet in Wheeldon's Within the Golden Hour
© Bill Cooper | ROH 2015
The Invitation was at the heart of a triple bill that started with Wayne McGregor’s new work Obsidian Tear and ended with Christopher Wheeldon’s abstract ballet Within the Golden Hour (2008).

McGregor’s piece is set to music by Esa-Pekka Salonen, who was conducting the orchestra from the pit, and has an elusive narrative about a group of men casting out one of its members. The all-male cast seemed at ease with the angular, extreme movements that shape McGregor’s choreography and performed it with real commitment and conviction. Edward Watson, who was figure of power within the group, gave gravity and aplomb to the piece.

Within the Golden Hour epitomises Wheeldon’s choreographic talent. It is a plotless, neoclassical ballet in which graceful dancing is beautifully interwoven with radiant Italian music by Ezio Bosso. Wheeldon created this ballet for the San Francisco Ballet at the end of his seven-year residency at New York City Ballet and the inspiration from

Balanchine is evident. It is a work for a small ensemble, with three pas de deux in the middle
that evoke different moods. The choreography seems to flow naturally and gives an impression
of harmony that the Royal Ballet dancers conveyed with Ashtonian elegance.

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