Steve McRae

At the Penguin Cafe – The Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House, March 16
Taking my seat within the grand surroundings of the Royal Opera House, I was struck by the peculiar Englishness of the atmosphere and the aptness of the eccentric triple bill on offer. From the camp extravagance of ‘Rhapsody’ and ‘Sensorium’s’ restrained sensuality, to the downtrodden humour of ‘‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Cafe’, this programme of Royal Ballet favourites proved to be a successful, if disparate, collection.
Set to Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Frederick Ashton’s ‘Rhapsody’ provides a suitably flamboyant opening. The virtuosity of the piece is instilled from the outset with breathtaking work from soloist Steven McCrae accompanied initially by six female supporting dancers, later by the
six males. Each variation is choreographed perfectly to fit the orchestration; from the shimmering strings of ‘Variation 11’ announcing the arrival of soloist Alina Cojocaru, who gracefully makes the stage her own, to the serenely romantic ‘Variation 18’ accompanying a stunning duet. From ‘Variation 19’ onwards the ensemble is constantly changing, with Cojocaru and McRae flitting between solos until the final virtuosic duet.
‘Sensorium’ is Alasdair Marriott’s setting of a selection of Debussy piano preludes, orchestrated by Colin Matthews. Mechanical, angular figures contrast with fluid, sensual motions within a minimalist background to create a sparse, futuristic vision; simultaneously contrasting and complementing the fluidity of the compositions. The four principal dancers perform intricate pieces, weaving amongst
each other to form a single being. The work is imaginatively orchestrated, at times unsettling, at others drifting through the ether. Only two preludes remain untouched by the orchestration; performed on solo piano, their intimacy is reflected by reserving these pieces for duets.
Incorporating a selection of Penguin Cafe Orchestra founder Simon Jeffes’ works, ‘‘Still Life’ at The Penguin Cafe’ provides a moving finale, consisting of several relatively short dances portraying an endangered world. Following a short introductory dance by the Great Auk, the inherent decadence of the opening ballroom sequence, accompanied by the lilting refrain of PCO favourite ‘Air a Danser’ sets the scene – humanity indifferent to the plight of the outside world. David Bintley’s choreography maintains a human element while depicting characters – from the agitated, long-distance runner movements of the Texan Kangaroo Rat’s ‘Horns of a Bull’ to the vanity of Edward Watson’s Southern Cape Zebra, juxtaposed against the self-involved clothes horse fashion models who don’t even flinch when a bullet cracks across the mesmeric minimalism of ‘White Mischief’.
The spellbinding finale begins with the frantic display of ‘Music By Numbers’, featuring the evening’s second appearance of Steven McRae as a Brazilian Woolly Monkey. The whole cast joins in a carefree gathering until the frivolity comes to an abrupt end and flood rains begin to pour; the dancers removing their masks to reveal their true, fearful selves. The piece ‘Numbers 1-4’ is the cue for numerous short solos as the cast flees the unrelenting downpour until an ark containing the characters is revealed; there is hope…Katie English

Steve McRae

Steve McRae in ‘Rhapsody’
Photo courtesy Royal Opera House © Tristram Kenton

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