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Gloria/The Judas Tree/Elite Syncopations review at Royal Opera House – ‘staggering’

Birmingham Royal Ballet's Gloria at Royal Opera House, London. Photo: Bill Cooper Northern Ballet's Gloria at Royal Opera House, London. Photo: Bill Cooper
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The third and final programme celebrating the legacy of Kenneth MacMillan sees Northern Ballet performing his First World War masterpiece Gloria at the Royal Ballet for the first time.

Inspired by Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, MacMillan made the ballet as a tribute to his father who was killed at the Battle of the Somme.

Set to Poulenc’s haunting, lyrical music sung with blood-quickening passion by Sarah-Jane Lewis, it creates an impression of war and horror as indelible as Picasso’s Guernica. Yet between the dances of death in which bodies contort and sway, bullet-riddled and shrapnel-struck, there are passages of numinous beauty. Women hover in and around the soldiers like idealised memories of those left behind or, possibly, ministering angels.

Bathed in ochre light, the men in tin helmets and skintight leotards the colour of mud and dried blood appear attenuated and quixotic, stretched like El Greco figures. A pas de quatre with three men and a woman with their defences down is a fragment of innocence and joy.

The erotic riptide of a pas de deux illustrates the tension between respectful courtship and sublimated sexuality. Sometimes the women are tossed into the air like shuttlecocks or folded into intimate, curling lifts; part fantasy projection, part spectral guardians, they comfort the dying and grieve for the dead in the lullaby rocking of a pieta-like tableaux or swooping like dolphins in floor-skimming partnerings. The finale – as three figures are raised upright and held aloft like statues or memorials – is staggering. The company has every reason to feel proud. This is its first stab at  MacMillan’s most cherished work and it’s as fine and moving as any I have seen.

Following the psychological sump of The Judas Tree, wonderfully danced by Melissa Hamilton as the whore/madonna, members of all four contributing companies combine for the Ragtime romp of Elite Syncopations. The onstage band, the crazy printed costumes and the sheer buoyancy of the dance suggest a bunch of circus artistes letting their hair down in a speakeasy after a hard day at the big top.

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Northern Ballet cover themselves in glory with their contribution to the MacMillan festival