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Live in the Opera House: A Review of 21st-Century Choreography

The disjunction of leaving a street protest to go to the Royal Opera House was a lot easier to navigate than I had expected. That said, the contrast did make me more attentive to a list of qualities I would normally bungle together somewhere close, but not too close, to beauty: power, messaging, relevancy, wokeness, etc. In other words, I didn’t sit back and enjoy the show. And I ended up with a lot more opinions than I had ever expected four pieces of 21st-century choreography to evoke.
The night began with Within the Golden Hour by Christopher Wheeldon. I had been looking forward to this piece after having seen Wheeldon take my favourite part of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (the denouement by tapdancing Mad Hatter) and making it a major variation in his ballet adaptation. In this new work, he moves away from the excesses of Wonderland to the minimalist restraint of Ezio Bosso’s strings score. Rather than toning down, however, Wheeldon takes the minimalist score as an exercise in repetitions and centres his choreography on the unsettling inevitability of copies. Couples are joined on the stage by perfect mirrors only slightly out of sync or only a single move of their routine will repeat in the background as they dance on, unaware.

These descriptions are far from exhaustive, Abraham’s piece excels because he quickly presumes the audience’s understanding and starts exploring his characters.

Yet, when the dancers can escape from repetition, there is harmony within the dance couples themselves. The male always acting as the structure of which the female drapes—a relation clearest when all the males link arms and lock shoulders, turning into the metal bar from which the women practice their battements. This harmony peaks in the 4th section, which is dedicated entirely to one couple. The man guides the woman through her twirls to a soothing purple backdrop, he lifts her up spreads her arms, they separate, then finish in a sheltering embrace. Meanwhile copies, and their anxiety, peak in the 3rd, 5th, and final sections respectively. In all three the backdrop blares red and the strings are plucked, the patterns in the music spawning rapidly. The dancers are perfect mirrors of each other, sometimes facing one another, other times arrayed in front of the audience like leotarded space invaders.
What is bizarre though, especially given Wheeldon’s own homosexuality, is that he lets the supreme symbol of this transgressive mirroring be the gendered pairing. In other words, while the man and women are allowed to be joined in their difference when two men come on the stage in the third act they are copies, a pairing inherently unsettling because of their innate similarity. This continues into the 5th act where the red backdrop accompanies four women all mirroring each other. Then into the final act when, despite the couples themselves being the repeated signs, they are only reproducing as couples, as if there could be no sameness within the male-female couple as if their gendered dance roles will always prevent the horror of mirroring. All in all, the piece explores well the patterning of the minimalist score but lazily grafts it onto heteronormative anxiety about mirrored sexes—3 stars.
If Wheeldon played the dangerous game of universals, Kyle Abraham’s Optional Family: a divertissement was a refreshing change. Right from when the iPhone auto-reader blares out the scathing texts between the husband-and-wife duo, you know precisely the characters you are dealing with. The texts are skillfully employed. Abraham makes sure that what he loses in interpretation over the dancer’s identities and orientations, he gains by fleshing out the three distinct characters. The husband is stubborn, willing to tuck himself in the corner and stand arms crossed as if fed up of the performance. Opposite him, the wife cannot stop dancing, always twirling, always throwing herself into their back and forth even when the husband is with another man. And as for that other man, he has the same love for the game found in the wife, but there is greater independence to him—he enters the stage alone, worming his way up a jagged trail of spotlights until he twirls into a romance with the husband.
These descriptions are far from exhaustive, Abraham’s piece excels because he quickly presumes the audience’s understanding and starts exploring his characters. You see the husband pulled into the gaudiness of a ballet threesome, you see the shock as the wife finds out she cannot keep playing at romance, and you see the once independent lover collapse after the husband’s exit stage left. Abrahams clearly knows what type of show he wants to put on and delivers. I look forward to him becoming head choreographer of the Opera House next year—4 stars.
The night then ends with two pieces by Crystal Pite, which are so dumbfounding as a pair that I will just say she shows off her breadth as an artist and leave it at that. Her first, The Statement, is a cosmic horror tale of corporate scandal. It reminded me of the film The Big Short, in that it is unexpectedly funny. The board-room argument, which plays over the four dancers, is a brisk display of semantic stretching matched only by their acrobatics. Their heads jerk to the side as they ‘look at the situation from a different angle’; their arms splay on the black boardroom table as they try to dominate the conversation, and their legs jingle like a marionette’s as they desperately reposition. The effect is over the top. The widely meaningless business-speak seeming sillier with each move they make.

The first half begins tentatively with its theme of connection; solo performances get their chance to shine, and the dancers are only brought together in twos. The second half is more forceful; the dancers stay awkwardly tightknit as a human wave from which bodies will collapse only to be re-absorbed.

But what about cosmic horror? Well, it’s horrific in that the vagueness of business-speak eventually undercuts that humor. The dancers are shocked to stillness, or collapse, in the face of ‘the board’ who reside ‘upstairs.’ And though the upstairs has no dancer, its presence looms large, quite literally by the end when a booming voice accompanies a descending black pall. Against this disembodied power those moves which were funny for their excesses seem more like a sign of impotence, just a reminder that they can move anywhere but upstairs. In all honesty, their arguing would have remained comedically petty if it were not for the dancers being so utterly terrified.
All in all, the sense of unspecific foreboding comes through well and the comedy was engaging against the otherwise vague language about a ‘situation’ and ‘sorting it out’—4 stars.
I should probably explain why I have given the last two pieces 4 stars despite saying nothing negative about them. Quite simply, I don’t like voiceovers. I try to give respect to how Abrahams and Pite use them well—one grounding us in the marital drama the other tapping into the ominous hilarity of corporate-speak—but when I go to see dance, I want a break from the semantic heaviness of dialogue and, as long as it is done well, I will always prefer a vague heading, taught strings, and moving bodies to a monologue. Hence Crystal Pite’s second piece Solo Echo, with its title like a zen koan and no voices to speak of, gets five stars.
The work is a mediation on humanity’s struggle to find connections that leaves you teary-eyed, if not still ultimately optimistic about human life. The first half begins tentatively with its theme of connection; solo performances get their chance to shine, and the dancers are only brought together in twos. The second half is more forceful; the dancers stay awkwardly tightknit as a human wave from which bodies will collapse only to be re-absorbed. And as the insistence to connect increases throughout, the disconnects, the times when dancers crumple to the floor or walk off the stage, become more acute. But what really elevates Pite’s work is that she always takes time to problematize what it even means to connect: people fumble over one another’s faces, grab onto legs, sprawl together on the floor, hook ungainly legs over necks, control each other like marionettes, and, if they are lucky, perform ballet together—5 stars.
Taking the pieces together, we see the responses to the flaws with the first piece by Wheeldon. His Within the Golden Hour relied on heteronormativity when it made the rigid male-female roles the only source of harmony through difference. But Abraham’s piece counters this. It increases the rigidity of the dancing roles yet does so to outline the particular characters of the marital strife rather than break into generalities. Right after Abraham’s, Pite’s Solo Echo comes with another response. It removes dialogue and returns to generalities, but constantly problematizes what it means for humanity to be a harmonious unity in a distinctly queer fashion.
I’m trading the pieces off against each other like this, not just because it is a neat analysis, but because there is no better way to get across the variety this collection gives you. It is difficult to introduce contemporary choreography with just four pieces, but the Opera House has certainly given it a good shot. And like all worthwhile art, it will make you want to make more art—(3+4+4+5)/4=4 stars.

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