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Viscera (2012) [22:03]
Music by Lowell Liebermann
Choreographer: Liam Scarlett
Cast: Laura Morera, Marianela Nuñez, Ryoichi Hirano, Yuhui Choe, Meaghan Grace Hinkis, Emma Maguire, Alexander Campbell, Valentino Zucchetti, Olivia Cowley, Isabella Gasparini, Tierney Heap, Chisato Katsura, Yasmine Naghdi, Nicol Edmonds, Benjamin Ella and Kelvin Emerton
Afternoon of a faun (1953) [11:21]
Music by Claude Debussy
Choreographer: Jerome Robbins
Cast: Sarah Lamb and Vadim Muntagirov
Tchaikovsky pas de deux (1960) [10:25]
Music by Pyotr Tchaikovsky
Choreographer: George Balanchine
Cast: Iana Salenko and Steven McRae
Carmen (2015) [59:29]
Music by Georges Bizet (arr. and orch. by Martin Yates)
Choreographer: Carlos Acosta
Cast: Marianela Nuñez, Carlos Acosta, Federico Bonelli, Matthew Golding, Thomas Whitehead, Valentino Zucchetti, Tomas Mock, Kristen McNally, Lara Turk and artists of The Royal Ballet
Fiona Kimm (mezzo-soprano)
Royal Opera Extra Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Emmanuel Plasson (Viscera, Afternoon of a faun, Tchaikovsky pas de deux)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/ Martin Yates (Carmen)
Directed for the screen by Ross MacGibbon
rec. 12 November 2015, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
NTSC DVD-9 double layer disc
16:9 anamorphic
Audio: LPCM 2.0, dts Digital Surround
OPUS ARTE DVD OA1212D [118:00 + 16:00 (features)]

This recording was filmed on 12 November last year when Royal Ballet star Carlos Acosta gave his farewell classical ballet performance at Covent Garden. That night, however, he didn't only showcase his abilities as a dancer. The climax of - and the most substantial item in - the four-part programme was his own recently choreographed version of Carmen, set to some of the music from Bizet's familiar operatic score with a bit of L'Arlésienne thrown in for good measure.

The evening began, however, with another relatively new piece, though a very different one, by the Royal Ballet's Artist in Residence Liam Scarlett who, ever since his first major success with Asphodel meadows in 2010, has won particular critical acclaim for his abstract creations. Choreographed for Miami City Ballet in 2012 and quickly taken up thereafter by the Royal Ballet, Viscera has no story as such but features a cast of 16 who dance to the music of Lowell Liebermann's first piano concerto.

Liam Scarlett's brief introduction to the piece is an optional DVD feature but is well worth watching before you embark on the full performance itself. He explains that the title reflects the piece's gutsy and powerfully raw character, evidenced particularly in the outer movements where the music provides, as he puts it, a "playground" for a stage full of dancers, moving together "at the speed of light" in a degree of unison and harmony reminiscent of a pack of wild animals. The promotional blurb on the DVD’s rear cover calls it “energizing”; it must be a sign of ageing that I found it exciting but rather exhausting. The concerto's calmer central movement offers the welcome opportunity for a much less frenetic duet between Marianela Nuñez and Ryoichi Hirano, made all the more powerful for the absence of any obvious "romantic" atmosphere.

Viscera's lack of a story and Liebermann's spiky score may well challenge those who prefer their ballet to be narrative-driven and set to familiar melodies, but the programme's remaining three items prove to be more easily accessible fare. Afternoon of a faun, set to Debussy's familiar score, takes place in a dance studio where choreographer Jerome Robbins's conceit is that the fourth wall is actually a gigantic rehearsal mirror in which two dancers watch themselves at practice, while sneaking admiring glances at - or occasionally interacting with - each other. That clever, elegant concept engenders two distinct erotic effects. The first arises from the relationship between the two dancers themselves, even though we can never be entirely certain whether it is a real one or simply one being acted out as part of their rehearsal. The second, more subtle frisson is generated between each of them and their own individual "reflection" - which is, of course, in practical terms as they stare out into the auditorium/camera, between them and us, the voyeuristic viewing audience. Afternoon of a faun is an apparently simple piece which is, in reality, rather subtle and thought provoking. Its performers on this occasion, Sarah Lamb and the feline Vadim Muntagirov, both fair skinned and slight of frame, are physically well matched. They sensitively portray a couple who, emotionally restrained almost to the point of androgynous sexlessness, dare to approach each other only nervously and tentatively. As a result, even their smallest physical gestures take on an immense significance and, when they eventually arrive, a momentary caress and a glancing kiss make an enormous impact. I enjoyed it all immensely, as did the enthusiastic Covent Garden audience.

Iana Salenko and Steven McRae, both redheads, make another good physical match in Balanchine's Tchaikovsky pas de deux, set to music that the composer originally composed for Swan Lake but, thanks to a chapter of accidents, eventually discarded. This comparatively brief episode is the least emotionally complex - though certainly not the least technically demanding - piece so far and both dancers are all radiant smiles and high spirits throughout. Theirs is an engaging partnership. The featherlight Ukrainian dancer Salenko, a regular Guest Artist with the Royal Ballet over the past few years, gives an exquisitely detailed performance - the sort that appears effortless but can only be the result of deep concentration and sheer hard work. Her partner McRae has emerged in recent years as one of the Royal Ballet's leading artists. He lends Salenko peerless support and, whenever the spotlight falls primarily on him, gives a flawless performance in which he rises superbly - and, with some perfectly timed and executed leaps, quite literally - to the occasion. Choreographer George Balanchine created a little neo-classical masterpiece with Tchaikovsky pas de deux and it's good to see it getting an outing on the Covent Garden stage.

In recent years the Royal Ballet's best-known male dancer Carlos Acosta has begun to diversify his career. He has written an autobiography, penned some fiction, dipped a toe into acting, presented Caribbean dance extravaganzas, announced plans to create a ballet company in his native Cuba and, certainly not least, tried his hand at choreography. Acosta's first reworking of a ballet classic - 2013's Don Quixote - was, I felt at the time, still something of a work in progress (see here His brand new 2015 production of Carmen took up the second half of the programme recorded on this disc.

Here all the passion and tragedy of Bizet's opera has been concentrated into just a single hour and the story pared down to a Don José/Carmen/Escamillo love triangle. Even more so than in Don Quixote, Acosta adopts a somewhat scattergun approach, adding character to the simplified storyline by deploying a range of elements other than dance. They include a glowering Minotaur-like figure who looms over the stage and personifies Carmen's inevitable fate; a quartet of on-stage guitarists; some vigorous drumming on assorted congas and bongos; a chorus that's sometimes off stage and sometimes on it; a couple of solo singers; some occasional raucous shouting; and, at one point, the male members of the corps de ballet transmogrified in the flash of an eye into a Covent Garden version of the Chippendales. Such things are undeniably entertaining and certainly add to the on-stage atmosphere. They can also, however, create a degree of muddle and distraction to what, given its concentration into a single hour, needs to be a clear exposition of the story.

Moreover, all that relentless on-stage action leaves little time for any real characterisation beyond the one-dimensional. Here Carmen is a man-eating femme fatale, hardly more complex than a Theda Bara villainess; Escamillo is entirely preening and self-regarding; and while Don José does demonstrate at least a modicum of emotional development, it's only from dim, via weak, to desperate. Given Carlos Acosta's overall concept, there's remarkably little sexiness here either. Pert bottoms that are stuck out and wiggled vigorously are as likely to engender giggles as thoughts of passion. Meanwhile, Marianela Nuñez’s predilection for cavorting about at length in frilly underwear generates an effect that’s less Kama Sutra than Littlewoods shopping catalogue. There's far more eroticism in the single kiss of Jerome Robbins's Afternoon of a faun than in the whole of this Carmen.
This pared-down version of the story also has a tendency to spell out points to the audience in a somewhat simplistic and even patronising way. We don't need to see Carmen literally winding her prison chains around Don José to appreciate that her seductive wiles have emotionally entrapped the poor sap. Similarly, the moments where Carmen is repeatedly caught between the minotaur's horns are rather too obviously symbolic of how she's trapped by her inevitable fate.

The vocal insertions caused me some problems too. Dancers convey emotion primarily by means of physical movement rather than through their facial expressions. Singers tend to do the reverse. Seeing both approaches operating at the same time on a single stage can be rather disconcerting. Thus, when Fiona Kimm gives us Bizet's fortune teller's aria, she mugs a series of exaggerated facial expressions that might not be out of place in an operatic production but look decidedly inappropriate alongside the dancers' more restrained and, dare one say, realistic demeanours. Dancers also tend to be young and fit while singers, to be polite about it, don't necessarily need to fulfill those requirements. It is difficult to suspend one's disbelief, therefore, when a supposedly homogenous crowd of supernumeraries is clearly made up of, on the one hand, toned young bodies who dance and, on the other, rather more mature and comfortably shaped ones who sing.

Many of that evening's Covent Garden audience and others who have already enjoyed this DVD may consider that I'm being something of a nit-picker. The performances on display are all highly expert and accomplished. While it would be misleading to suggest that the choreography poses any particular technical challenges to dancers of the calibre of Carlos Acosta, Marianela Nuñez and Federico Bonelli, they and the rest of the cast undoubtedly rise to the stylistic challenge with aplomb. Video director Ross MacGibbon does the expert job that we expect from him both here and in the rest of the programme. Cameras are invariably positioned to offer us the best possible view and the quality of the DVD image and sound is first class.

This Carmen is an undoubted crowd pleaser and this Covent Garden audience is certainly very enthusiastic. I suspect, however, that much of their goodwill is directed towards Carlos Acosta and his 17 years career at the Royal Ballet as a whole rather than specifically to this production.

At curtain call, Mr Acosta steps to the front of the flower-strewn stage and makes a gracious speech of thanks to his colleagues. In doing so, he offers what he clearly considers to be some important advice to younger dancers: "Allow yourself the freedom to make mistakes". Rather sadly, one wonders whether he will look back one day and see this problematic Carmen itself as an illustration of that wise and useful maxim.

Rob Maynard



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