Sadler’s Wells, London
June 5, 2019
Liam Scarlett’s Hummingbird, the centrepiece of San Francisco Ballet’s third programme at Sadler’s Wells, remains one of his best ballets. Set to Philip Glass’ Tirol Concerto, and backed by John Macfarlane’s ramped set and fabulous scrolling canopy, it is utterly compelling and deeply laden with emotion.
When I first saw the designs a few years ago, I thought it looked like a huge scroll of grey, deep blue and black ink-stained paper. This time around, I saw a wall of ice, perhaps more appropriate given some of the emotion in the dance, in the second pas de deux especially.
Shades of grey in the dance too. There is no narrative as such, although the three pas de deux, and the second in particular, have a strong sense of narrative. In the first movement, Sasha De Sola seems to be playing with Angelo Greco as she leads him on. It’s physical and fast-moving stuff, although there’s still time for moments of intimacy. The corps, who slip onto the stage via the ramp echo their mood.
The heart of the ballet comes with the arrival of a haunting Yuan Yuan Tan. She arrives almost unnoticed but, as she is left alone, an air of deep melancholy sweeps across the stage. Her pas de deux with Luke Ingham was riveting. There’s a sense that we are watching a rerun of the unravelling of a relationship. Tan’s arms are desperately expressive. She is all anguish and loss as she often just stands and looks into the far distance.
As their dance develops, Ingham seems to be both the cause of her suffering and provider of comfort. At one point, after he has flung her around, Tan runs away from an embrace, and stands, visibly shaking, before he goes to her and oh so tenderly runs his forehead down her back as if in apology. An inventive section sees the couple joined by Myles Thatcher and James Sofranko as it effectively becomes a double pas de deux.
There’s a change of mood in music and dance for the final movement. Its upbeat feel seems somehow not quite right. It is quite a feast of dance, full of super leaps and lifts, led here by Dores André and Joseph Walsh.
Apart from Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy, Hummingbird is the only work of the Sadler’s Wells season not created for the company’s 2018 Unbound season, for which artistic director Helgi Tomasson asked choreographers to answer the question, ‘Where is ballet heading?’ If Stanton Welch’s Bespoke, which opened the evening, is truly an indication of the direction he believes ballet, American ballet at least, is heading, then it has a major problem.
The ballet is a meditation on the art form, and the physical and emotional toll it can take. An abstract neoclassical piece, it is elegant and restrained, and always controlled. Nice to look at yes, but little more as it fails to even spark, let alone ignite. Worst of all, it feels desperately old-fashioned. Time drags and not even the strains of two Bach violin concertos can save things.
Justin Peck’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, which closed the evening, is altogether more appealing. An upbeat piece about dreaming, as children, as coming-of-age and then as fully mature adults.
Danced in sneakers and shiny tight-fitting costumes that look like something from the 1970s, it bounces along easily. Those sneakers help imbue the dance with a certain looseness. The ballet is a good demonstration of Peck’s skill with working with an ensemble. Performed to songs from M83’s album of the same title, connections, geometric shapes and patterns emerge easily from what initially appears totally individual dance.
There is a sense of community too, of people coming together, although at its heart are two duets. In one, the woman almost never acknowledges the man, certainly never looks at him. In contrast, the other is all about being together.
But while very pleasant, there is nothing that hasn’t been seen before, and a long time ago, from Jerome Robbins in particular. It’s also much less interesting than Peck’s much more inventive and contemporary sneaker-ballet, The Times are Racing.