A racy celebration of the works of Christopher Wheeldon
British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon has reached superstar status: his rich, neoclassical ballet style is both critically adored and crowd-pleasing.
This Royal Ballet triple bill is a celebration of their artistic associate, with the big draw being new short work ‘Strapless’. It traces the scandal behind John Singer Sargent’s ‘Portrait of Madame X’, when belle époque Paris turned against painter and his sitter (society beauty Amelie Gautreau) after deeming the fallen strap of her evening gown too racy.
Wheeldon’s non-linear narrative structure for the piece keeps circling back to the moments just before the painting’s unveiling at the Paris Salon, then darting away. His preoccupation is with how society frames women: Gautreau is seen through empty frames, looking in mirrors, an object of scrutiny wherever she goes. As portrayed by Natalia Osipova, she’s an imperious diva, coltishly whirling from one grand event to the next, so assured of her exalted position, she’ll romp with her lover in Sargent’s studio.
If that scene, with Federico Bonelli as her rakish amant, is steamy, the highly charged atmosphere gets ramped up still further with a ménage a trois imagined by Ed Watson’s besotted Sargent, between him, his male lover (Matthew Ball) and Gautreau. Wheeldon’s deftness at manipulating big emotions is evident here, and again, for the shock of the fall, when the reaction to the portrait is finally shown.
Bob Crowley’s imposing and frequently ingenious set designs come into their own, as do the corps, with excellently sketched finger-wagging society ladies. It’s not Wheeldon’s most coherent work, but there are intriguing layers and some superb renditions of characters through steps.
‘Strapless’ is bookended by pieces Wheeldon created for other companies. The Royal’s dancers didn’t look entirely comfortable negotiating Arvo Part’s music for the first section of ‘After The Rain’, but Marianela Nunez and Thiago Soares’s extended, slow, second-part duet was simply, heartbreakingly moving. Within The Golden Hour is a fast-paced showcase piece for 14 dancers – Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb are a highlight here, but Wheeldon’s playful side and love of daring counterbalance is well displayed throughout.
BY: SIOBHAN MURPHY