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After The Rain/Strapless/Within The Golden Hour review at Royal Opera House – ‘curiously underwhelming’

Edward Watson, Matthew Ball and Natalia Osipova in Strapless, ROH, London Photo: Bill Cooper Edward Watson, Matthew Ball and Natalia Osipova in Strapless, ROH, London. Photo: Bill Cooper
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Scandalous behaviour fuels a creative impulse that can result in dance of the most dramatic kind. For his latest work, Christopher Wheeldon turns to the belle epoch scandal over the John Singer Sargent painting, Portrait of Madame X. When the portrait of Parisian society beauty Amelie Gautreau was unveiled revealing the strap of her black dress slipping from one of her shoulders the inference was clear – beneath Gautreau’s marble hauteur lay a sexually provocative seductress. So brittle was Parisian society at the time that Gautreau never recovered her position, while Sargent – after repainting it with the strap in place – managed to regain his reputation.

Wheeldon presses these elements into the service of a curiously underwhelming ballet. Bob Crowley’s design fills the stage with frames and dresses the Parisian society in funereal black. The largely impressionistic narrative is delivered through Gautreau – danced with ferocious precision and hard-edged sexuality by Natalia Osipova at the premiere – while the men from Sargent and his would-be paramour Albert de Belleroche, hover and skitter around her. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s score seems to belong to a different ballet, pulling it in directions it doesn’t want to go. The final sequence with Gautreau as a ghost in her underwear is a striking image.

Both After the Rain and Within The Golden Hour were made by American companies – the former for New York City Ballet and the latter for San Francisco ballet – and their confident abstraction is far more palatable than the new work. Arvo Part’s Tabula Rasa provides the blank slate for the gender symmetry of Rain before shifting gear into a sublime pas de deux in which Marianela Nunez in a rose pink swimsuit has rarely seemed lovelier, especially when arcing forward like a ship’s figurehead. I’m not too wild about the discarded vegetable matter costumes in Hour but the sylvan frolic has many delights, including a series of duets that range from the vigorous to the ethereal.

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Christopher Wheeldon’s latest ballet is surrounded and outgunned by two of his earlier works