Royal Ballet review – sublime surprises from Cunningham, Tanowitz and Ashton

It’s a tough call to share a bill with Merce Cunningham and Frederick Ashton, two towering transatlantic granddaddies of 20th-century dance-making. But New York-based choreographer Pam Tanowitz rises to the occasion with a beguiling new work to round off the Royal Ballet’s Cunningham centenary celebration.

Cunningham famously used chance – dice rolling, coin flipping – as a choreographic technique. Fittingly, a sense of glorious unpredictability shines through Tanowitz’s Everyone Keeps Me. With the emotive melodic swell of Ted Hearne’s score undermined by the sudden screech and grind of the musicians’ bows against their strings, Tanowitz endows her classically based choreography with rich, unexpected detail and puzzling changes of tack. Dartingly fleet phrases become abandoned-marionette flops, while legs rear up with a dressage-like flourish amid the subdued ensemble.

Dressed in an array of gorgeous hues, from blush pink to muted turquoise, the nine dancers converge into a softly snaking chain and splinter apart into solos and duets shaded by subtle shifts in energy: sometimes they’re standoffish, sometimes almost companionate (as when Anna Rose O’Sullivan capers with sparrow-light precision under the curving frame of James Hay’s arm), nearly always enigmatic. The inscrutability isn’t off-puttingly po-faced but leavened by moments of sly wit, an invitation to smile as well as wonder.

Pared-down classical lines … Francesca Hayward, Matthew Ball and Mayara Magri in Cross Currents by Merce Cunningham. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The same can be said of Cunningham’s Cross Currents, from 1964, which sees its three dancers (Francesca Hayward, Mayara Magri and Matthew Ball) hop backwards into the wings with business-like speed and no regard for the niceties of a denouement.

In unhooking movement from music, Cunningham’s work poses a bracing challenge for the audience, and provides dauntingly exposed passages for the dancers, who manage well here. As they balance and turn with cool composure and pared-down classical lines, Conlon Nancarrow’s piano score provides a densely jazzy rhythmic foil, evoking the frenetic scrabble of a kitten let loose on a keyboard.

Nicol Edmonds, Melissa Hamilton and Reece Clarke in Monotones ll by Frederick Ashton from Merce Cunningham Centennial @ Linbury, ROH. (Opening 10-10-19)

Quiet majesty, with Satie … Nicol Edmonds, Melissa Hamilton and Reece Clarke in Monotones ll by Frederick Ashton. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Elsewhere, the serenely singing lines of Ashton’s Cunningham-inspired Monotones II – set to Erik Satie’s Trois Gymnopédies – are rendered with quiet majesty by Melissa Hamilton, confidently flanked by Reece Clarke and Nicol Edmonds. Apart from the silver-spangled sheath-hats, it’s sublime.

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