Sunday, 2 June 2013

Raven Girl

Raven Girl/ Symphony in C, Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House - reviewed on 29th May
Edward Watson in Raven Girl
Photo: ROH / Johan Persson
"Once there was a postman who fell in love with a raven." The opening line of Audrey Niffenegger's novel flickers in gothic script against the stage's black curtain.

This is the beginning Wayne McGregor's new ballet, Raven Girl. But instead of allowing the words to complement his choreography, both the text on stage and that in the programme (and book) is a necessary explanation for the ballet. McGregor’s movement doesn’t effectively tell the story; neither does it convey character or emotion. And for most of the time, it is unfortunately not even appealing to watch.
Niffenegger and McGregor were in discussions for several years to plan the project, which resulted in the author’s creation of an all-new novel and then the choreographer’s ballet interpretation of the same name. The story tells of a Postman and Raven meeting, falling in love and having a daughter. This Raven Girl comes out of an egg and squawks like a bird but has a human body. She spends her childhood wishing she could fly and lamenting her human arms, so when she meets a plastic surgeon who can replace these arms with wings, she immediately agrees. Once transformed, the Raven Girl meets a Raven Prince and as all fairy tales end, they live happily ever after.

Sarah Lamb in Raven Girl
Photo: ROH / Johan Persson
Clearly, the plot is not an easy one to translate into dance, but McGregor insisted that Niffenegger make no concessions for choreography in her writing. And herein lies perhaps his most critical mistake. Any dance-maker would struggle to translate this narrative’s complexities into a one-act ballet, but even so, there are many ways in which Raven Girl could have been dramatically improved.

For a start, there is little dancing and what dance there is says almost nothing. Instead of McGregor showing the Raven and Postman falling in love through beautiful pas de deux, we see an awkwardly jerky duet and suddenly a projected egg image that denotes their having reproduced.

There is also no differentiation between the bird-like and human movements, so that the choreography doesn’t display how the Raven Girl combines these two contrasting qualities. Instead, both her (and the Raven Mother’s) neatly executed classical steps are identical to the movement of other human characters, such as Alexander Campbell’s Boy and Federico Bonelli’s Postman. Once again, it is left to staging to tell the story. In this case, Niffenegger’s beautiful drawing of a human girl with raven outlined on top is projected onto stage to indicate the title character’s difficult juxtaposition.

The ballet is full of bizarre seemingly time-wasting segments with numerous corps de ballet ravens walking around a darkened stage. I knew the story in advance but even I was unable to follow the plot as these inexplicable interludes took place. At one point, a 19th Century couple waltz about the stage for no conceivable reason.

There are other gaps in the ballet’s story too – for example, the Raven Girl’s surgically-gained wings are removed before her final pas de deux, presumably for choreographic convenience rather than narrative significance. This does result in the ballet’s most successful moment, as Raven Girl Melissa Hamilton and Raven Prince Ryoichi Hirano perform a powerfully interweaving duet, with several interesting lifts indicating the bird’s flight.

Most frustrating about McGregor’s ballet is the wealth of company talent onstage that remains unused. The most interesting character is Bennet Gartside’s perverse Doctor, who crudely manhandles his surgery subject before removing her arms and then replacing them with industrial metal wings. The other Royal Ballet cast members, including Melissa Hamilton, Federico Bonelli and Akane Takada, are sadly wasted.

Marianela Nunez in Symphony in C
Photo: ROH / Johan Persson
Dark, unflattering costumes (particularly both male and female corps de ballet ravens wearing halter-neck black tops, black opera gloves and flesh-coloured tights) and sets by Vicki Mortimer only add to the ballet’s strangeness. Gabriel Yared’s score is an uncomfortable mix of confrontational percussion and overly-sentimental strings. I am normally a huge fan of McGregor’s work but Raven Girl showed none of his remarkable and engaging choreographic style and I shudder to think at how much money such a ballet may have cost to create.
The work was cleverly paired with Symphony in C, which provided the ideal white sparkly tutu antidote. In this, the Royal Ballet excelled with principal females Marianela Nuñez, Sarah Lamb and Roberta Marquez revelling in the joy of George Balanchine’s lively and exuberant choreography. Finally, there was a chance to see the Royal Ballet doing what they do best – dancing beautifully.

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