17 Feb 2024

Royal Ballet - New Works by Gemma Bond, Joshua Junker, Mthuthuzeli November and Jessica Lang

An impressive night of four new works…

Royal Ballet in Joshua Junker’s “Never Known”. © Andrej Uspenski.Royal Ballet in Joshua Junker’s “Never Known”. © Andrej Uspenski.

Royal Ballet
New Works by Gemma Bond, Joshua Junker, Mthuthuzeli November and Jessica Lang
London, Royal Opera House
16 February 2024

It’s a very rare event when the Royal Ballet (RB) puts on a bill with 4 new works on the main stage - so rare I can’t recall when such an event last happened. At a time when the company seems to be concentrating on long and expensively priced runs of established classics, it’s good to be reminded of their wider brief to push the art forward and develop creatives in the bargain. And at good seat prices as well - £50 maximum. To add extra piquancy, these are not premieres by the usual suspects, but choreographers all new to making main stage Royal Opera House work. And I have to say from the off it turned out rather well - it would be great to see this exercise repeated every year.

Gemma Bond used to dance with the Royal before moving to New York to dance more and develop a choreographic voice. Her piece, Boundless, was a neoclassical response to a tough, brassy score by Joey Roukens, and it felt tough in the watching. What you hope is that the movement will unlock and simplify the music, but here it mirrored the blaring frenzy, if there was some panache from the repeated use of straight legs and little fluttering motifs for the limbs. BUT Boundless had one large saving grace - a slow and magnetic duet for Yasmine Naghdi and Ryoichi Hirano. Here you could hear yourself think and study the movement’s appealingly odd intricacies - playing with power and strength. Now that I want to see again.

I could cheerfully throttle Joshua Junker, a Royal Ballet First Artist, for being such a prize chump as to start his Never Known with 2 minutes of Crystal Pite - or a homage to Crystal Pite if you want to be kinder. It looks good, but it immediately marks Junker down as an overly enthusiastic imitator, and he is way, way better than that, as the work goes on to show. This is an eerily moody piece, set to a terrific brooding score and soundscape by Nils Frahm and Vikingur Ólafsson, that stretches the dancers, particularly as individuals. It’s weightily fast and supportive movement full of original lifts and dance drapes with some of the energy of breakdance, which is where Junker started in dance before full-on ballet training. He couples Russell Maliphant’s gravity and weight with a more fleet of foot liquidity as dance seems to erupt here, there and everywhere across the stage. And yet all the dancers retain their dramatic core - dancers as humans, not dancers as detached alien bodies. Count me a fan.

Mthuthuzeli November, while still dancing with Ballet Black, has been getting many commissions and growing each time as an interesting choreographer. Last year’s Nina: By Whatever Means, about Nina Simone, was particularly well received and in For What It’s Worth he’s channelling singer Miriam Makeba (aka Mama Africa), a fellow South African. And so a slice of African sun and expansive percussive movement, ballet-tamed, lands on the Opera House stage. It’s fascinating seeing RB dancers respond to a different quality of movement, as much about the body/torso as the limbs, and Mayara Magri commands the stage, especially in her first deliberate and slow solo. I’m not sure if I know anything revelatory about Miriam Makeba, but in his designer (Yann Seabra) and Music (himself and Alex Wilson), November has made solid choices that take you and the company to a different and fresh place - this is good.

American choreographer Jessica Lang has probably made more ballets than the other three put together, and so comes with rather higher expectations. In the UK she is perhaps best known for two Birmingham Royal Ballet commissions and the new piece, Twinkle, very much channels the same quietly thoughtful and engaging tone. Set to lullabies, the title is a reference to the tune we know as Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star (by Mozart), but here played (along with some Brahms) in many tempi variations live on stage by company pianist Kate Shipway. The movement is classy, architectural, complex and yet happily engaging. I just love the way Lang seems to shape not just the dancers but the space around and between them - there is visual harmony here, every which way you look. In a shouty world, Lang’s rather neat movement can feel old-fashioned, even a bit twee, but that’s also its rather grown-up strength, and I’m glad Lang treads her distinctive furrow well away from the mainstream.