Just walking to your seat at the Royal Opera House in London can already be very exciting. If you get a student ticket somewhere in the upper amphitheatre you have only a small ledge, tens of metres above the ground, to get to your seat, made even more challenging if you encounter a less mobile or less courteous fellow theatre-goer on your way. Certainly not a place to try your chances at a pirouette. Dance can be at its most exciting too, when it lets its audience participate in seeking out the edges of whatever structures house it. The quadruple bill of neo-classical works currently on at the Royal Opera House in London is a great reminder of the thrill of seeing the physical, musical, and societal laws governing ballet challenged.
The first piece of the evening, William Forsythe’s 1996 The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, attempts to do so, and as the title suggests, knows it. The piece is incredibly technically challenging and, set on the fourth movement of Schubert’s Symphony no. 9, fast-paced. The two men in magenta leotards and three women in neon-green tutus in the shape of flat discs are required to negotiate a strict and structure of alternatingly small and big movements and sudden changes of direction. As a result of this technical difficulty set on the allegro vivace, and the lack of a decisive mood or narrative, the ballet is often understood, with much of Forsythe’s early work, as a postmodern piece of robotic precision with little underneath the surface. Indeed, it is often performed as such: technically brilliant with a cold demeanour, and right on the music. But, I think, to reach the vertiginous thrills of the title, the dancers should not merely master the music and steps but challenge them, too. The vertigo comes from seeking out the edges and coming back from them, from teasing the music with a slow pirouette and nevertheless nailing the next beat of the music with the next step. This risk of falling, or falling behind, brings out the fragility of the human performance and can ultimately make the performance most thrilling; on the evening I watched, only Vadim Muntagirov came close to this edge.
Part of the brilliance of the evening, however, is that it opens up this avenue of thinking about Forsythe’s work by placing it alongside George Balanchine’s 1964 Tarantella. This piece, whose name and costumes refer both to a Neapolitan courtship dance and a southern Italian dance to sweat out the poison of a spider-bite, is a pas-de-deux equally quick in step, but one in which passion and play are on the surface. Set up as a classical grand pas-de-deux (with a solo for both dancers in the middle and a grand finale at the end), it is one big flirtation between the woman, the man, and the music. Barely ever getting to put two feet on the floor at once, they hop around the stage, provoking each other and the music to get ever faster. It was due to the excellent performances of Francesca Hayward and, especially, the charming Marcelino Sambé, both toying with the music, that the question of what might have been in The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude even came up.
But while the Royal Ballet team deserves much credit for putting these two pieces together, they lose some of it after the break, by pairing them with Christopher Wheeldon’s 2016 Strapless. If the second piece showed its audience how music and dancers can lift each other up, metaphorically preserving life, the third piece shows how the wrong music can kill a piece. Based on the story of John Singer Sargent’s famous portrait of the Parisian socialite Amélie Gautreau entitled Portrait of Madame X, the piece wants to be a ballet of passion and drama in late nineteenth-century France. But the brass- and percussion-heavy music, specially composed by Mark-Anthony Turnage, is better at relaying the drama than it is the passion which is supposed to instigate Amélie’s downfall. The sex scene between Amélie (Lauren Cuthbertson) and her lover Samuel-Jean de Pozzi (Ryoichi Hirano) falls flat, and even the can-can girls can’t whip the music into anything resembling a frenzy.
While the third piece, thus, cannot escape its unfitting score, and the first two pieces have their dancers and music face off, the final piece of the evening, Symphonic Dances (2017) by Liam Scarlett, has something else in mind. Here Rachmaninov’s orchestral suite of the same name is used to create a whole new universe with its own laws to subvert the stereotypical gender roles still omnipresent in ballet choreography. The world Scarlett creates is perhaps best described as a Spanish colony on Mars, using the whole of the large, barren stage, and covering it in red light and costumes, including a contemporary version of a Flamenco dress. Owning this dress is the outlandish Zenaida Yanowsky, in her last season at the Royal Ballet, who stands tall at the centre of the piece. As a futuristic Titania she rules over the other dancers, the stage and the music, sometimes with just one perfectly executed arm gesture. Gone are the petites princesses of Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella; here stands a queen. And this defiance of the gendered tropes of the ballet continues: the men of the corps de ballet dance in long skirts partnering each other as they do the women; the stead-fast Yanowsky is partnered by a shorter, energetic, satyr-like James Hay, which is a delight, especially when in one quick movement their roles are reversed and she leads him by the hand across the stage. In the end, however, this challenge to the unwritten rules of the ballet collapses. On the sacre-like rhythm of Rachmaninov’s 1940 score, Yanowsky is celebrated in the centre of a circle of dancers, mimicking Béjart’s Boléro. Everyone familiar with the workings of ballet knows that such a rhythm never ends well, especially for women, and this ballet can’t overcome this last trope of the balletic tradition either. In a fantastic feat, the screen which has been hovering over the stage, previously showing videos of red flowing material, comes down and, with a flash of white light, kills Yanowsky: another powerful woman struck down.
This London evening shows that although dancing at the edge might make you fall into the abyss, it is nevertheless worth the vertiginous thrill of the challenge. High up in the amphitheatre, I was mostly on the edge of my seat.
Seen 25 May 2017, Royal Opera House, London
Meindert Peters  is reading for a DPhil in German at New College, Oxford. He is a former professional ballet dancer.