In a unique and frankly hazardous collaboration, seven choreographers, three composers, three artists and two of Britain’s greatest cultural institutions have worked together to interpret a trio of Titian’s mythological paintings. The final project for The Royal Ballet’s outgoing artistic director, Monica Mason, it is also one of her most creatively ambitious.
Carlos Acosta, Leanne Benjamin and Edward Watson in Machina from Metamorphosis Titian 2012 at the Royal Opera House, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
Taking their cues from Titian’s Diana and Actaeon, Diana and Callisto and The Death of Actaeon, whose collective subject revolves around the huntsman Actaeon’s fate after accidentally coming across the goddess Diana while she is bathing, the choreographers have responded in a variety of ways. In Machina, Wayne McGregor and Kim Brandstrup take the route of greatest abstraction, allowing their dancers to be dwarfed by Conrad Shawcross’ enormous robot - a tripod resembling the Martian death rays in War of the Worlds - whose ‘eye’ sweeps up, down and around the stage. To Nico Muhly’s delicately-drawn quasi-Baroque music, the cream of the Royal Ballet deliver a series of duets, solos and pas de trois of variable quality. You can hear the slap of flesh as Leanne Benjamin is thrown from Edward Watson into Carlos Acosta in the most impressive pas de trois but the choreography is underwhelming and ultimately, it is the robot’s ballet.
Trespass, by Alastair Marriott and Christopher Wheeldon, may also be abstract but is an altogether different affair. Against designer Mark Wallinger’s curvilinear reflective Perspex wall, young men move in gymnastic synchronicity to Mark-Anthony Turnage’s jolly, prancing score before Beatriz Stix-Brunell blazes on like a meteor and engages in the first of a sequence of stunning pas de deux whose slow curls and contoured contortions require exquisite poise and balance. Responding to the choreography, Sarah Lamb and Melissa Hamilton, Nehemiah Kish and Steven McRae push the limits of the body’s flexibility to the max. Wheeldon and Marriott create a series of incredibly inventive lifts that owe as much to yoga as to dance, as well as injecting the occasional flash of humour. A wonderful and expressive ballet.
Finally, Chris Ofili’s vibrant jungle designs and costumes plunge the narrative ballet Diana and Actaeon right into the heart of a Ballet Russes pastiche. A trio of choreographers working on individual sequences convey the story as Federico Bonelli’s Actaeon, smitten by the sight of a ‘naked’ Diana (Marianela Nunez) is seduced, transformed and abandoned by her to the dreadful fate of being torn apart by his own hounds. Jonathan Dove’s music, with sterling contributions from singers Kim Sheehan and Andrew Rees, incorporates the repeated motif of a hunting horn that often accompanies the pack of hounds, conjured by Ofili’s dog masks held at arms’ length rather than worn. There is more than a touch of Fokine in its colourful exoticism and a strong hint of Stravinsky’s Firebird in Nunez’s Diana, who conveys a real sense of an implacable goddess. The corps of nymphs moving and swaying like a protective phalanx of bodyguards around her is superb.