Still only 31, Liam Scarlett has been artist in residence at the Royal Ballet for five years already. It was the assured musicality of his plotless pieces that first caught attention, but his more recent narrative works (Frankenstein, Hansel and Gretel, Sweet Violets) have been altogether shakier. Symphonic Dances returns to his earlier mode, showing what an inventively musical choreographer he can be.
Created as a tribute to principal dancer Zenaida Yanowsky, who is retiring after 23 years with the company, Symphonic Dances may be plotless, but it surges with dramatic currents that the narrative works sometimes lack.
Following the movements of Rachmaninov’s score, Yanowsky appears in three guises. At first she is imperious, stalking the stage in a voluminous crimson skirt, topped with a dash of black, while James Hay is an appeasing, boyish figure who coaxes her into a tentatively tender pas de deux.
The rhythms of the waltz — so often used to evoke both doom and desire — drive the second and best of Scarlett’s scenes. Here, it’s the eight bare-chested men who are wearing the big red skirts, while Yanowsky herself appears in a tunic, slashed to the thigh: she skirtless, they shirtless, the angled colours of their costumes echoing a rakish slant in the shoulders. It’s a gorgeous composition, Scarlett sending the men into restless swirls around Yanowsky’s elusive figure, like rootless harmonies around a wandering melody.
The sporty final movement sees the dancers in red-and-black gym wear, pumping away at their steps. It’s stretched thinner than the preceding sections, but gives Yanowsky her due: she’s a powerful, out-of-the-mould dancer who can do athletics as readily as drama, gut-driven emotion as well as sure-footed lyricism.
While Scarlett gathered his choreography around a singular dancer, Scottish Ballet’s bold double bill over at Sadler’s Wells was all about the group. Angelin Preljocaj’s MC 14/22 (Ceci est mon corps), made for his own company in 2000 before being taken on by the Paris Opera Ballet, is a work for 12 bare-chested men that loosely references the Last Supper.
The imagery is clearest in a painterly series of tableaux vivants, the men taking up dynamic postures variously indicating the feasting, toil (scything arms, hammering fists) or war (crossbow stretches, spear-throwing stances); if the feel is Biblical, the look is of a Physique Pictorial magazine spread.
Elsewhere in Preljocaj’s montage, the tables become morgue slabs for fleshy carcases; a countertenor sings while two others impassively prod and constrict him so that his angelic voice keeps cracking; and one man, increasingly incapacitated by wrapping tape, gamely struggles to continue repeating his dance phrase. The final image — of the men as corporeal units in a kind of choreographic conveyor belt — strikes a resonant note, but overall there’s too much portent for too little coherence.
Crystal Pite’s Emergence, created for the National Ballet of Canada in 2009, is all about coherence. As in other works (Polaris, Flight Pattern), Pite shows her compositional command of large groups of dancers, the choreography here drawing on the behavioural patterns of social insects to populate the stage with all manner of swarms, clusters and trails.
Large ensembles can often end up looking regimented, but here they merge and splinter and lace in a way that is simultaneously unpredictable and crystal clear. Sometimes the groups split — most notably by gender, the women whispering counts as they face off the men (bare-chested, again). But the thrill of the piece, very confidently danced by Scottish Ballet, lies less in these dramas than in the way it holds extremes together: we apprehend both the fine detail of individual actions — the antenna-tremble of an arm, a locust leg-fold — and the teeming patterns that contain them, like a kind of choreographic hive mind.
Sadler’s Wells also saw two performances of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Rain, created in 2001 for her company Rosas (and notably taken into the repertoire of the Paris Opera Ballet). It’s another work that deals with emergent patterns, but here the imagery is not of insects but of weather: cyclonic circlings, butterfly-effect cascades, build-ups of pressure, flurries of turbulence, the tug of tides. The backdrop is an arc of cords, hanging like ropes of rain; surreptitious changes of costume flush the initially pastel scenes with sunset pinks.
De Keersmaeker has long had an affinity with Steve Reich, and here she uses his Music for 18 Musicians (played live by the marvellous Ictus Ensemble) as the evolving sonic environment for her own elemental, minutely articulated patterns. The material — echoing the tectonically shifting basslines and top-note sprays in the score — combines plain runs, walks and leans with highly textured formations of spins, swoops, darts and tumbles.
As with Pite’s Emergence, the material is sometimes split by gender (there are eight women and three men — only one bare-chested, by the way, and then only briefly). But, again, what we register is the bigger picture, the sense of an uplifting, expansive intelligence at work. True, the piece feels as if it could easily be shorter; but all of it is genius.