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Wayne McGregor’s Chroma dance highlight: ‘The Hardest Button to Button’

In 2006, the future Resident Choreographer of The Royal Ballet made history by ripping up the rulebook of classical dance with a piece set to music by The White Stripes.

By Paul Kilbey (Content Producer (Ballet))

25 October 2016 at 5.21pm | 2 Comments

‘Out of the void step creatures that scarcely fit the human mould’, wrote Jenny Gilbert in The Independent. ‘Sockets twist, spines duck and curve, heads butt or shudder. No movement is familiar’. Sarah Crompton in The Telegraph wrote of ‘pliés within pliés, kicks within holds, impossible balances, wriggling shimmies’. Clement Crisp was pithier in the Financial Times: ‘osteopathy as choreography’. The occasion? The world premiere of Wayne McGregor’s Chroma in November 2006.

A decade has passed since this performance, which led to McGregor’s appointment as The Royal Ballet’s Resident Choreographer. But even today, Chroma retains its remarkable, alien aura. Its set by architect John Pawson – a huge, stark box for entrances and exits, and a vast expanse of space in front of it – is a startling, minimalist counterpart to the dancers’ extremes of movement.

And then there is the music: Joby Talbot’s explosive collection of White Stripes arrangements and original orchestral pieces gives the choreography a dramatic, visceral frame. ‘The Hardest Button to Button’ is a typically intense movement. Although the White Stripes’ original version, like most of their songs, was performed by just voice, drums and a single guitar, the song (like the ballet) combines aspects of minimalism with extreme, powerful effects: its repetitions form a huge, powerful crescendo. The enormous orchestra amplifies this effect. A deep, shattering tam-tam ushers in the insistent plod of the low winds and brass. The guitar riff becomes a hypnotic, intricate pattern for tuned percussion and harp, and the shuddering refrain is a raucous tutti. While the heart of the song survives, it is given a strange and compelling new form.

Even more radical is the way the choreography reinvents balletic tradition. Remnants of the sort of partnering found in conventional pas de deux fuse with a completely new lexicon of movement. Yet these new steps – the woman’s strange, flat-footed turns, for instance, or the pair’s sudden, synchronized lunges towards the floor – still demand the sort of precision, control and flexibility at which ballet dancers excel. Working with and against tradition, Chroma reimagines what the art form can do.

‘Chroma swings confidently from hard to soft, from brazen to intimate’, wrote Gilbert. It does this between movements – blaring, aggressive numbers alternate with gentler ones – but also between moments, from step to step: in ‘The Hardest Button to Button’ the dancers sometimes move at an accelerated pace, and then, suddenly, switch to a graceful, slow-motion style. The relationship between the pair is volatile, too, with moments of tenderness as frequent as flashes of hostility. What Judith Mackrell, writing in The Guardian, called ‘The tension between chaos and minimalism, anarchy and classicism’ infuses every aspect of the work.

In the ten years since Chroma, McGregor has created many more works for The Royal Ballet – this Season’s all-McGregor programme features Carbon Life alongside Chroma and a new work Multiverse, and the full-length Woolf Works returns in January 2017. The upcoming Chroma performances welcome members of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, performing alongside The Royal Ballet for the first time, in an international collaboration that demonstrates how widely the work has travelled: it has been performed by companies in the USA, Canada, Russia, Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia. Wherever it goes, though, and whoever performs it, the ballet remains disruptive, fresh and unpredictable. In just one paradox of many, this now-classic production still appears brand new.

Chroma runs 10–19 November 2016. Tickets are sold out, but returns may become available.

Further tickets are available through Friday Rush, where every Friday at 1pm tickets for all main-stage performances in the following week are released.

This article has 2 comments

  1. Patricia Casselden responded on 14 November 2016 at 4:35pm Reply

    I saw the premiére & can't wait to see it on Saturday!

  2. Alethea Thomas responded on 10 November 2018 at 8:50pm Reply

    Awesome dancing by the pair! Choreography is fantastic as well as the music score. Loved and enjoyed it!

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