A box of delights: New Works at The Royal Ballet

The Royal Opera House, London
February 15, 2024

Part of The Royal Opera House’s Festival of New Choreography, the New Works programme features a quartet of works from choreographers making their Royal Opera House main stage debut. There is much to like, not least that all have an overt classical core, even Mthuthuzeli November’s For What It’s Worth, which also draws on African street, and Joshua Junker’s Never Known, by far the most contemporary piece. A big hurrah too for the fact that three of the pieces feature pointework, far too often something of a rarity in programmes of new works these days.

The short videos that introduce each piece are way better than the usual fare. In hers, Gemma Bond talks about how the idea for her Boundless came from watching children in a playground, but not so much from their innocent playfulness as in their sense of their lack of lack of impulse control and thirst for movement.

Ryoichi Hirano and Yasmine Naghdi in Gemma Bond’s Boundless
Photo ROH/Andrej Uspenski

Boundless is a real rollercoaster of a ride. The music, Joey Roukens’ concerto for two pianos and orchestra, In Unison (he does have a composition called Boundless, but this is not it), is tricky to say the least. It may be nigh on impossible to count but comes with a marvellous pulsating minimalist sort of driving rhythm that Bond taps into perfectly in her choreography. The dance has superb attack and a real New York City vibe.

Right from the off, Boundless bursts into life in a dance full of energy and twists. It’s busy, bright and catchy. A slower, second movement starts more lyrical and serene before becoming faster and building to a more dissonant climax, before quietening again. Then, back to a fast pace that again matches the dissonance in the music.

The lead couple, Yasmine Naghdi and Ryoichi Hirano were superb, the highlight undoubtedly their pas de deux. Naghdi’s hands and feet flutter. The initial impression is of a bird wanting to escape but that can’t. Or is she quivering with anticipation?

Maybe the bird notion was sparked by designer Charlotte MacMillan’s short-skirted grey and black tutus for the women, those skirts layered like a bird’s feathers. I initially thought them chunky, but the longer the ballet went on, the more they grew on me.

Joshua Junker’s Never Known
Photo ROH/Andrej Uspenski

Crystal Pite’s influence seems to be everywhere these days, but if you’re going to be inspired by another choreographer, consciously or unconsciously, it might as well be the best. It’s certainly there in Royal Ballet first artist Joshua Junker’s Never Known, both in movement quality and the way he initially uses the ensemble.

Danced to a soundscape by Nils Frahm and Vikingur Ólafsson, the choreography is complex, but also seamless in its construction. A dark and smoky opening sees the cast of twenty, dressed in various shades of blue-grey long-sleeved tops, trousers and socks, shift around the stage like murmurating birds. Later, lighting designer Zeynep Kepekli, who added much to all four works, creates a sort of forbidding, underground feel as solos and duets emerge.

There is a particularly impressive duet for Liam Boswell and Madison Bailey, and for Bailey and Lukas B. Brændsrød, the high, long, one-handed opening lift that opens the latter especially spectacular. But there is sometimes too much going on. Apart from the closing duo of Boswell and Francisco Serrano, Junker seems reluctant to leave to stage to a single couple. Having two, then three different duets happening simultaneously simply divides the attention causing each to detract from the others.

Mayara Magri in Mthuthuzeli November’s For What it’s Worth
Photo ROH/Andrej Uspenski

Mthuthuzeli November’s For What It’s Worth is certainly colourful. Drawing on the spirit of singer Miriam Makeba, the opening, under sixteen orange lights, evokes the dust and heat of the high veld or Karoo. A long lyrical solo for Mayara Magri, portraying Mama Africa, hints at connection with the Earth.

As delightful as the series of solos and small group dances that follow are, that connection somehow gets a little lost, however. And while the whole ensemble dance that closes the piece is a real celebratory affair, I can’t help feeling the whole piece would have benefitted enormously from rather more than the nine dancers it has.

The music, by November and Alex Wilson, a young pianist, keyboardist, and composer based in London, played in part by percussionist Sidiki Dembele, is fabulous.

William Bracewell and Fumi Kaneko
in Twinkle by Jessica Lang
Photo ROH/Andrej Uspenski

By some distance the most established of the four choreographers, Jessica Lang is known to British audiences for her successful Lyric Pieces and Wink for Birmingham Royal Ballet, although she also has an excellent track record for major companies across the United States.

A suite of dances set to Brahms’ Cradle Song and the twelve variations of Mozart’s Ah vous dirai-je, Maman, known to one-and-all as ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,’ Lang’s easy-on-the-eye, light and joyful Twinkle, is quite enchanting.

The designs immediately drew murmurs of approval: a star hanging in deep blue-black night sky of wispy clouds and comet trails, and on a small black raised platform, the excellent Kate Shipway on solo piano.

In her introductory video, Lang talks about how she likes to use the dancers in front of her and what they bring to a piece. In Twinkle, she does just that. Classical through and through, it shows them off to their best.

It opens with William Bracewell, out alone in the night sky. One senses he’s absolutely at peace with the World as he dances a beautiful, elegant solo. As the Brahms drifts into the Mozart, others take up the stage.

‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ may not be an obvious choice for classical choreography, but Lang’s dance is a treat. It’s pretty, at times witty, at times even a little bit cutesy, but it’s a delight: one of those lovely, charming, evening-closing pieces where you can just sit back, let it wash over you, and enjoy.

Each dance matches its variation to perfection. Bracewell’s fellow lead, Fumi Kaneko sparkled too, feather-light in her playful variations, and their pas de deux is a dream. But as the dancers come and go in different combinations, Twinkle is a work where everyone feels like a soloist, everyone gets their chance to shine, to be one of those stars in the night sky. And they do.

Twinkle makes for a fine uplifting end to a fine evening. It really is one of the most enjoyable programmes of new works I’ve sat through for some time.

New Works by The Royal Ballet continues at The Royal Opera House, London, to February 21, 2024.