Newspaper article International New York Times

A Premiere in Wheeldon's Triple Bill ; Choreographer Presents 'Strapless,' Portrait of a Scandal, at Royal Ballet

Newspaper article International New York Times

A Premiere in Wheeldon's Triple Bill ; Choreographer Presents 'Strapless,' Portrait of a Scandal, at Royal Ballet

Article excerpt

The choreographer presents "Strapless," his portrait of a scandal, at Royal Ballet.

A new ballet by the British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon is an event, and one with a score by Mark Anthony Turnage even more so. On Friday night, the great and the good had turned out at the Royal Opera House here to see the premiere of "Strapless," part of a Royal Ballet all-Wheeldon bill that included "After the Rain," created for New York City Ballet in 2005, and "Within the Golden Hour" (San Francisco Ballet, 2008).

Trained at the Royal Ballet School and briefly a member of the Royal Ballet, Mr. Wheeldon decamped at 20 to City Ballet, where he began to choreograph. Now 42 and an artistic associate at the Royal Ballet with an ocean-straddling career, he has also crossed over into Broadway with the Tony-winning musical "An American in Paris." He is fluent, skillful and versatile; this program shows (among other things) how he can deploy ballet technique to almost shockingly contemporary effect, use it to tell a story and respond to music with physical patterns of marvelous complexity.

But no one gets it right every time. With "Strapless," Mr. Wheeldon has run into trouble. The first problem is the story -- or perhaps the larger problem is simply that of the story ballet, now back in fashion after the long reign of the plotless, abstract dance.

Mr. Wheeldon's full-length "Alice in Wonderland" in 2011 and "The Winter's Tale" (2014), both created for the Royal Ballet, have been huge hits here, but the shorter narrative work is a genre that no ballet choreographer today seems able to treat without imitating older models.

"Strapless," inspired by Deborah Davis's book of the same name, recounts the social ascent of the glamorous New Orleans-born Amelie Gautreau in Belle Epoque Paris, and her fall from grace when "Madame X," John Singer Sargent's revealing painting of her with a strap falling down a bare arm, was shown at the 1884 Paris Salon. It fascinates as a tale of ambition, social mores, hypocrisy and humiliation, but its issues are subtly rooted in the cultural and social norms of another age and not easy to convey in a 40-minute dance.

The ballet's structure doesn't help. Mr. Wheeldon begins with the unveiling of the portrait, then goes back in time to show how it came about, ending in the present day as a 21st-century crowd admires the portrait. Without attention to the program notes, it's all quite difficult to follow, particularly the relationships between Amelie (Natalia Osipova), the husband (Jonathan Howells), her lover Dr. Pozzi (Federico Bonelli), Sargent (Edward Watson) and his lover, Albert de Belleroche (Matthew Ball).

The ballet offers no chance to develop empathy for or understanding of Amelie, played as a powerfully seductive coquette by Ms. Osipova. …

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