Insights: Chroma, Tryst and Symphony in C
Behind-the-scenes in rehearsals for the Mixed Programme.
There is a very specific thrill to an Insight Evening – the emotion to see dancers up close, to learn how they rehearse, to see them take risks a few feet from you. Extra treats, however, were in store on 14 May to introduce the last triple bill of The Royal Ballet’s season, comprised of Chroma, Tryst and Symphony in C. One of the great Balanchine ballerinas of her time, Patricia Neary, was there to introduce the Balanchine masterpiece Symphony in C, and her presence in the studio seemed to energize dancers and audience alike. Tryst was then rehearsed by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon himself, later joined by Scottish composer James MacMillan for a discussion of the work’s score. An embarrassment of riches, and the rare opportunity to see ballets being passed on by a muse and a choreographer in the same evening.
Patricia Neary launched the evening with a delightful bit of history. Symphony in C was originally choreographed for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1947 as Le Palais de Cristal – instead of the white tutus and plain backdrop we know today, Balanchine had the four movements dressed in different colours. The ballet then entered the repertoire of the New York City Ballet the following year under the name Symphony in C, after the Bizet symphony it is set to, and Balanchine’s dancers always thought the two ballets were identical. When Patricia Neary was called to the Paris Opera Ballet to rehearse Le Palais de Cristal in the 1990s, however, she quickly realised they weren’t – Balanchine had apparently forgotten a good deal of the choreography he had created the year before, and he started from scratch when it came to New York, creating what Patricia Neary deems the better version of one of his most famous “tutu” ballets.
Symphony in C is a company work – with 8 principals, 16 demi-soloists and 28 corps de ballet dancers, it fills the stage like few short works. For Patricia Neary, it also became a learning ballet. The third section was one of her first assignments at the New York City Ballet, and she went on to dance in the first and fourth movements. The only part she never performed was the Adagio – “Mr. Balanchine usually is in love with the girl who does that movement,” she explained. The choreography is indeed a celebration of the Ballerina, and the audience was made aware of its spell as Neary guided Principals Marianela Nuñez and Rupert Pennefather through the entire pas de deux. The man disappears behind the woman, a mere cavalier as she melts in his arms, oblivious. Marianela Nuñez brought out the solemn, pensive beauty of the choreography, her back arching and initiating the flow in her arms, the emotion deepened here by the sound of her heavily breathing at the end of the long, difficult scene. Everything in the choreography urges the audience to fall in love, and with such crystalline execution, it is hard not to.
A rehearsal of the third movement of the ballet followed. It is a fast, virtuoso whirlwind of jumps, and Patricia Neary remembers struggling with it shortly after joining the New York City Ballet – she hadn’t trained at Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, and suddenly she realised what fast meant with him. As the former ballerina gave directions to Yuhui Choe and Sergei Polunin, one could see Balanchine’s specific style emerging, with its emphasis on musicality and on an off-balance edge Choe was slowly incorporating.
Patricia Neary gleefully explained that she has found the Royal Ballet a perfect fit for Symphony in C as the four soloists flew through the finale, which traditionally brings together the entire 52-strong cast. The virtuoso classical coda, complete with jumps, turns and fouettés, is a gasp-inducing display of talent seen up close. “Mr. B” was proud of this ballet, we were told, and always rehearsed it himself, probably not least because it brings a company closer in its exacting classical beauty.
Christopher Wheeldon then introduced Tryst, his very first creation for The Royal Ballet, followed since by DGV and Electric Counterpoint. The work hasn’t been seen since 2002, and newcomers Melissa Hamilton and Eric Underwood have therefore been learning from scratch the intricacies of the slow central pas de deux, which takes its cue from the Scottish feel of James MacMillan’s score. We dove into their fresh reading along with Wheeldon, who suggested metaphors to take the neo-classical abstraction to another level – the idea of Zeus and Aphrodite coming together, with branches or wings growing from their backs as they extend their arms, shivering in the wind. A visible change took place as the dancers, pushed by Wheeldon, started to reach out and breathe life into the choreography’s shapes. Abstract but far from expressionless, Tryst‘s pas de deux suddenly became a nuanced, layered whole.
The choreographer was finally joined by James MacMillan, the prolific composer of Tryst, for a discussion led by Rozzie Metherell. Originally from the west of Scotland, MacMillan composed his first piece on the piano when he was 9. His best teachers remain, he says, the great classical composers, not least Bach – they taught him music needs to be “both complex and luminous,” not unlike choreography. As it happens, Tryst hadn’t been composed with dance in mind back in 1989 – Christopher Wheeldon decided to use it one day as he was driving through Scotland with Tryst playing in the background, a perfect reflection of the landscape.
Stunned by the result, James MacMillan went on to work with the choreographer on a new score for a New York City Ballet premiere, Shambards. He is also conducting the complex Tryst for this season’s revival, and discussed the idea that the music should be a support and inspiration for the dancers in performance, rather than the composer’s sacred property. Symphony in C and Tryst are clear examples of what can be achieved through such dialogue between music and dance, and the two casts scheduled for this triple bill are set to bring out different facets of both ballets’ complex architecture.