Festival of New Choreography: Dark with Excessive Bright, Duets

Royal Opera House, London
February 2024

The Festival of New Choreography has been a bold experiment by The Royal Ballet. Shedding their very traditional image, the Royal Opera House has opened up unusual spaces and introduced new faces. There has been collaboration with other dance companies, and I imagine the dancers’ Facebook contacts have expanded exponentially. As with all experiments outcomes are uncertain with successes, also rans and lessons learnt.

Around the four new works on the main stage came Duets at the Clore Studio and Robert Binet’s Dark with Excessive Bright at the refashioned Linbury Theatre.

For Dance with Excessive Bright, the theatre, minus stalls seats, had the dance areas marked out by wire cantilevers and carefully marked pedestrian pathways. The audience was shepherded in for 45-minute viewings and it was like a ticket to the Elysian Fields, as we mortals inhabited the same space as celestial bodies. Seeing the dancers go through their paces in such close proximity was a thrill but, possibly due to the short extracts, it was difficult to identify structure in the choreography and the limited space meant that free movement was limited although the invention, especially in the double work, was exceptional.

Reece Clarke and Melissa Hamilton in Robert Binet’s Dark with Excessive Bright
Photo ROH/Andrej Uspenski

Missy Mazzoli’s music played live in a back corner, captured the ethereal mood and the eleven dancers, some of the Royal’s finest, were magnificent especially Melissa Hamilton who seemed so perfectly at ease in the strange environment.

Duets was an hour-long programme shared by six choreographic works presented in the intimacy of the Clore Studio. Breath is the essence of life and George Liang’s Out of Breath was right on the button. Finely crafted neo-classical choreography with a defined message, it was danced by Alessandra Bramante and Joseph Taylor from Northern Ballet. Opening with tentative moves it developed into a warm relationship finding the time and space to be human. The closing moment, as they stood, holding hands and audibly breathing out together summed up the honesty and integrity of a memorable work.

Alessandra Bramante and Joseph Taylor in Out of Breath by George Liang
Photo Andrej Uspenski

A male duet, Words to the Wind, was choreographed by Denilson Almeida and danced by Martin Diaz and Caspar Lench, all from the Royal Ballet; and a female duet Ax.One was danced by choreographer, Hannah Joseph with Elaini Koula Lalousis, both from Company Wayne MacGregor. Each work had something to say and said it in a highly individual style. The two men started sitting on chairs, movement minimal between moments of stillness, but the focus intense. The chairs were shifted to different configurations as the movement found meaning through dance in sensitive and very personal exchanges. The music, ‘Cordeiro de Nana’ had Afro-Brazilian rhythms, but the dance language was universal and eloquent.

Ax.One was a totally contemporary conversation opening as the women, two distinct individuals, walked with purpose across and around the space. The dance vocabulary expanded opening a brusque conversation punctuated by full stops, exclamation marks and choice expletives before developing into a sharing with hints of harmony. Skilfully structured and performed with passion, the duet held attention throughout.

English National Ballet dancers offered two works. Cha Cha and Tiara by Rentaro Nakaaki was inspired by watching his ballroom dancer parents. Julia Conway and Miguel Angel Maidana relished the fun of it as weird partnering and steps contributed to a clever send-up of the style. Maidana showed an instinctive sense of comedy that balanced neatly with Conway’s cooler response in an entertaining number.

Also from ENB, Breanna Foad’s Focal used a curious and complex acapella composition, AEIOU by Judd Greenstein. Finding the focus in the layers of voices was the spur to finding diversity in movement and it was given an enthusiastic and high-quality performance by Ashley Coupal and Aitor Arrieta.

There was one other female duo, Other, also by artists from Company Wayne MacGregor and given powerful performances by Rebecca Bassett-Graham and Eileih Muir. It was choreographed by Jordan James Bridge in collaboration with the dancers. The sense of alien and artificiality that inspired the work was visible in the hard abstraction of the choreography. There was invention and innovation in the moves but little engagement; the dancers often side by side or distinctly separate with Valgeir Sigurdsson’s music in tune with the strangeness.

It is a great idea to give dancers the opportunity to choreograph. Some will become choreographers but equally important is the value that they will add in the collaborative process when creating a ballet. All good news for the future of dance.