The Royal Ballet won a whole new legion of fans with its visit to the National Theater, which more than lived up to the expectations that had been building since its visit was first announced in December.
The Mixed Bill program and Giselle were in both impressive productions, in very different ways, but in the end in came down to the dancers, who were simply superb. The decision to open the Taipei tour with the mix of Wayne McGregor’s Choma, Sir Frederick Ashton’s Raphsody and Chrisopher Wheeldon’s DVG was spot on: McGregor’s piece served notice that this was not your parents’ Royal Ballet, Ashton’s gave the audience a vision of what they think the Royal is, while Wheeldon’s showed what the Royal actually is now.
Chroma is set in a clinically sparse, yet glowing cube (by John Pawson), with tall walls and a large rectangular cutout in the back. The 10 dancers on Friday night — Lauren Cuthbertson, Yuhui Choe, Sarah Lamb, Melissa Hamilton, Ricardo Cervera, Paul Kay, Eric Underwood, Jonathan Watkins, Edward Watson and Dawid Trzensimiech — arched, contorted and distorted their bodies in ways that often looked completely inhuman and yet were oddly familiar. Often the pairings looked like the mating rituals of some elongated stick insect, especially in the lifts and carries, when the women would spread their legs wide, but with the feet angled in sharply. And yet there was a softness in some of the pas de deux. McGregor’s choreography built on the tensions and power of Joby Talbot’s arrangements of White Stripe songs.
Steven McRae shone in Rhapsody, which is really all about the male danseur, since his partner — the exquisite Alina Cojocaru — doesn’t enter until about halfway through. Set to Serge Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, the piece is filled with flashy moves for the male lead, but with plenty of fast footwork for the six-couple ensemble as well.
DVG is a 29-minute journey of pure bliss. Everything about it was perfect: the soaring, pulsating score by Michael Nyman (his 1993 composition commemorating the inauguration of France’s TVG trains, MGV: Musique a Grade Vitesse), the masterful choreography that showed Wheeldon’s lineage — George Balanchine’s geometric pattern-making, the humanity and accessibility of Jerome Robbins and Ashton’s romance and lyricism — and the eight lead dancers: Laura Morera, Nathalie Harrison, Itziar Mendizabal, Cuthbertson, McRae, Ryoichi Hirano, Gary Avis and Nehemiah Kish. Each of the lead pairs has a distinctive look, while the 16-member ensemble — who begin packed together like commuter sardines — later expand to lines that arch and weave in rolling waves of motion.
When the company performs this work at home there is a massive silvery sculptural set piece, but DVG works just as well on a bare stage, thanks to the great lighting design by Jennifer Tipton. DVG is a jubilant piece that lingers in the mind long after the performance is over, just as the four female leads, carried by their partners, linger on stage, slowing spinning after the music has stopped.
The Saturday matinee of Giselle showed the purity of line and storytelling the Royal is famous for. I have never seen a Giselle in which the storytelling is so clear, from the mime in Act I to the moment in Act II when Giselle places herself, arms outstretched, in front of Albrecht, to protect him from the wrath of Myrtha and her Wilis, who throw their arms over their heads and curve away in terror.
Roberta Marquez was a delightful, but fragile Giselle to Thiago Soares’ Albrecht, while Thomas Whitehead as Hilarion was more a jealous stalker than lovesick youth. Also notable were Hikaru Kobayashi as Myrtha and Akane Takada and Kenta Kura, who were the lead couple in the Pas de six in Act I.
Now that the Royal has wrapped up its first visit to Taiwan, let’s hope it won’t take another centennial anniversary before the company is seen here again.