The Royal Ballet Edward Watson and Tamara Rojo in âMachina,â one of three works in âMetamorphosis Titian 2012â at the Royal Opera House in London. It is Monica Masonâs final program as the companyâs director.
LONDON — It all seemed like a mad idea: seven choreographers, three ballets. But Monica Mason’s decision for her final program as director of the Royal Ballet was to assemble the choreographers who have been central to the company’s creativity during her decade-long tenure. For “Metamorphosis Titian 2012” she put them together with well-known contemporary composers and artists — an ambitiously Diaghilevian project that is a collaboration with Britain’s National Gallery and part of the cultural Olympiad.
The theme was Titian’s three paintings based on the myth of Diana and Actaeon (“Diana and Actaeon,” “Diana and Callisto” and “The Death of Actaeon,” all on display in an accompanying exhibition at the National Gallery) and recounted by Ovid in “Metamorphoses”: the hunter Actaeon, chancing upon the chaste Diana bathing naked with her nymphs, is transformed by the vengeful moon goddess into a stag, then killed by his own hounds.
And “Titian 2012,” which had its premiere on Saturday at the Royal Opera House, is a resounding success. Not because any one work proves to be a masterpiece but because a real sense of collective creative energy and innovation permeated the enterprise.
Kim Brandstrup and Wayne McGregor, the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer, worked together on the opening piece, “Machina.” It is set to an appealingly moody score by Nico Muhly, and dominated by Conrad Shawcross’s enormous, swiveling, light-brandishing robot that looked as if it might eat a dancer if provoked.
Although Mr. Shawcross describes the machine in program notes as a Diana figure, lashing out at her watchers, “Machina” is by and large an abstract work. It opens with the silhouetted figures of Leanne Benjamin and Carlos Acosta barely visible on a smoky gray stage, a lone bright point shining through a scrim behind them. (The lighting design for all the ballets is by Lucy Carter, bravo!)
The pas de deux that ensues is beautiful — its nervy, reflexive lashing and flexing of limbs tempered by a cool lyricism, with Ms. Benjamin’s weightless elegance perfectly set against the rougher-edged texture of Mr. Acosta’s dancing. The final duet, for Edward Watson and Tamara Rojo, is also notable, full of whirling ice-skater effects and dominated by a wistful tenderness. Between these pas de deux, however, the choreography feels less focused. Once the scrim goes up midway through the ballet and the source of the light-point proves to be the immense squatting robot, the machine takes over “Machina.”
“Trespass,” choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon and Alistair Marriott, also has an attention-grabbing set. Mark Wallinger has created a semicircular black-and-white moonscape that is reflected in a mirrored concave screen in the middle of the stage. Ms. Carter does wonders with the lighting here, as the screen conceals and reveals dancers behind it; a nod, perhaps, to Actaeon spying on Diana.
Some narrative is suggested, with Melissa Hamilton as a preternaturally flexible goddess among her nymphs lifted into back-bending crescents by Steven McRae. There is also a duet for Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Nehemiah Kish that has echoes of Mr. Wheeldon’s “Polyphonia” and that brings out a freshness and dynamism in both dancers that is enthralling to watch.
A lot goes on in “Trespass,” including the rhythmic/arrhythmic stimulus of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s powerful score; busy costumes by Mr. Wallinger; several finely managed ensemble sections; and a duet for Sarah Lamb and Mr. McRae that has gasp-inducing, slightly overthought acrobatic complexity. There is a slightly too-many-cooks feel about “Trespass,” but the elements of a good ballet are all there.
The program’s final work, “Diana and Actaeon,” is, at Ms. Mason’s request, a narrative piece that recounts the Ovidian myth. It provided a flourish of an ending, mostly because Chris Ofili’s décor is utterly, stunningly gorgeous: a lush, fantasist Eden of huge purple and pink flowers, an orange crescent moon, giant green Picasso-like female figures (among them, Diana holding aloft an enormous phallus), plants, roots and tendrils that gradually lift away to reveal the story depicted on the backdrop.
The choreography, by Liam Scarlett, Will Tuckett and Jonathan Watkins, has its moments, with some humor in its treatment of the hounds and fine pas de deux for Marianela Nunez and Federico Bonelli, showing Diana and Actaeon passing through a range of competing emotions. But, quite possibly because Jonathan Dove’s score (which includes two singers, the excellent Kim Sheehan and Andrew Rees) offers more music than the story needs, there seems to be a lot of filler.
With Mr. Ofili’s paradise before you, though, and the rest of the collaborations behind you, who cared? There was a genuine feeling of creative ferment in the air, and as Ms. Mason bounded onstage ecstatically at the end, real joy too.
âMetamorphosis Titian 2012â will be performed Tuesday and Friday at the Royal Opera House in London; roh.org.uk.
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