Christopher Wheeldon is arguably one of the brightest international stars the Royal Ballet has produced recently, and he is now one of the most in demand choreographers in the world. Most recently his wildly successful musical An American in Paris won multiple Tony awards including Best Choreography, and in addition to being the current Royal Ballet Artistic Associate he is a former New York City Ballet resident choreographer. So it is really about time that the Royal Ballet devoted an entire mixed program entirely to his works.
Their all Wheeldon bill gives audiences two Wheeldon works never before performed at the Royal Opera House in After the Rain and Within the Golden Hour, and the brand new creation co-produced with the Bolshoi, Strapless, a vehicle for ballerina star Natalia Osipova. We were lucky enough to attend on opening night and experience this fantastic mixed bill!
Strapless was the ballet on the bill that everyone was eagerly anticipating; everyone loves a world premier. The opening night cast can only be described as a dream, including not just Natalia Osipova, but Federico Bonelli, Edward Watson and young rising star Matthew Ball. First of all, Strapless is a ballet where it is absolutely essential to read the synopsis. Being familiar with the story before the ballet helps it all become more poignant and leave a longer lasting impression. The ballet opens with the audience’s first view of Natalia Osipova as Amélie Gautreau alone on stage, and the background moving backwards as frames with the corps de ballet and the rest of the cast moving forward on either side, the effect being that the ballet was taking place in a picture frame. We meet Amelie Gatrau on the evening of the unveiling of her portrait, and we see her trying on dresses to wear to the event. She enters the party wearing the famous dress from the portrait, and Osipova dances a beautiful but somewhat lengthy solo. The portrait is unveiled, and the ballet moves back in time to the events culminating in the creation of the portrait.
The ballet never really gels, despite the gorgeous pas de deux between Osipova and Federico Bonelli, who plays Amélie’s lover Dr Pozzi, and a pas de trois between Osipova’s Amélie , Ed Watson as John Singer Sargent and Matthew Ball as Sargent’s lover Albert de Belleroche. Those two moments of the ballet, though wonderful, were really let down by the music. You’d expect a pas de deux between two illicit lovers to be sensual and steamy, and though the choreography more than delivers the music makes it seem like an awkward encounter, not giving Bonelli and Osipova a lot to work with though they make the best of it.
The scene changes felt like they took a bit too much time, and some bits of the set looked flimsy and unnecessary, and just a bother to move into place (those balcony doors in Amélie ‘s apartment!). A lot of the scenes seem like they could either be cut or lengthened, like the cafe scene where Amélie approaches Sargent to paint her portrait. If you read the synopsis and the program notes this scene becomes really poignant and powerful, but without this information it seemed rushed and unclear as to what was happening and why we should care about it. It also felt like Watson and Ball were very underused. They really only got to truly dance in the pas de trois along with Osipova, and mostly acted their way throughout the rest of their scenes. The ending had echoes of Alice in Wonderland, with Amélie witnessing how her portrait eventually made her dream of fame come true only after her death.
Within the Golden Hour was undoubtedly the highlight of the night. The Ezio Bosso score worked flawlessly with choreography and made for a positively invigorating twenty minutes after Strapless. Having the opportunity to see the three wonderful principal couples of Matthew Golding and Lauren Cuthbertson, Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb and Vadim Muntagirov with Beatriz Stix-Brunnel dance so well together in such different pas de deux was a real treat. Within the Golden Hour closed the evening on a very uplifting note.
Our verdict: A truly wonderful mixed bill showcasing the extraordinary talents of Christopher Wheeldon and the Royal Ballet company. It’s just a shame that Strapless wasn’t very accessible and didn’t leave the longest lasting impression upon us.
Royal Ballet programme notes
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