A recent trip to The Grange Festival saw opera audiences being challenged by dance – and enjoying it, writes Sarah Kirkup
We’ve all been there. The lure of a juicy repertoire staple – Beethoven’s Ninth, say, or Brahms’s Violin Concerto – is what has enticed us to leave the comfort of our sofas for the concert hall on a school night, only to find that the first piece on the programme is something contemporary, unknown, and challenging – uncomfortable even – to listen to. It has happened to me many times, particularly at the BBC Proms (more of which anon). And more often than not – in hindsight perhaps, rather than at the time – I find that I’m immensely grateful for having been aurally challenged, for having been forced to step outside my comfort zone. And that’s not even taking into account the fact that contemporary composers deserve – have a right, no less – to have their music listened to.
I was reminded of this recently when I attended The Grange, the opera festival based in the Hampshire countryside that’s now enjoying its second season. Originally the home of Grange Park Opera until it decided to relocate at the end of the 2016 season, this 19th-century country house in Northington remains dedicated to putting on great operas, now with countertenor Michael Chance at the helm as Artistic Director. But it wasn’t opera I came to see – it was dance. And it wasn’t just traditional ballet ‘lollipops’ either. The inaugural 'Dance @ The Grange' was overseen by Wayne McGregor, known mainly for his pioneering work in the world of contemporary dance and responsible for ‘shaking things up’ at The Royal Ballet where he has been Resident Choreographer since 2006. So it wasn’t surprising that for his programme for The Grange – which he co-curated with Royal Ballet Principal Edward Watson – there was no sense of ‘playing it safe’. In fact, the only remotely traditional piece was ‘Méditation’ from Thaïs by Massenet; even the final work, Bach Forms, to Bach’s The Art of Fugue performed live by Joanna MacGregor, challenged any preconceptions by bringing together dancers from The Royal Ballet with Company Wayne McGregor, a fascinating fusion which saw unlikely partnerships (Royal Ballet Principal Federico Bonelli dancing in a ‘traditional’ pas de deux with one of McGregor’s own male dancers was a highlight) and forced us to hear in new ways music we thought we knew inside out.
Bach Forms, The Royal Ballet with Company Wayne McGregor
But the point I need to make here is that this audience was definitely not the sort you’d see frequenting the bar at Sadler’s Wells. My first impression was that these well-heeled, Hampshire folk were, at heart, opera lovers who were there perhaps out of curiosity but most probably because they wanted to show support for The Grange. Some discreet enquiries at the box office confirmed this hunch. I’ve been told that the majority of 'Dance @ The Grange' tickets were sold before public booking opened – in other words, it was Festival Friends and the like with access to priority booking who snapped up most of the tickets. And we can therefore surmise that, as this is a festival whose ‘very raison d’être is great opera’ (in the words of Tim Parker, who sits on The Grange Festival Board), these people are, first and foremost, opera lovers.
And yet they came to 'Dance @ The Grange'. No doubt they wanted to get behind Michael Chance, whose determination to include the ‘unfamiliar’ (his words) medium of dance in his programme is to be applauded. (‘As a singer,’ he says, ‘my work with dancers and choreographers has been amongst the most demanding and satisfying of all … Playing host to some of the best in the land gives profound joy.’) But they didn’t have to like it. And yet it seemed that they did.
We started off with a sensual, sinewy duet from McGregor’s Obsidian Tear, to Esa-Pekka Salonen’s virtuoso solo violin work Lachen verlernt (the complete ballet also incorporates Salonen’s symphonic poem Nyx), leanly danced by The Royal Ballet’s Matthew Ball and Calvin Richardson. Next up was the impeccable partnership of Marianela Nuñez and Thiago Soares in a breathtakingly beautiful duet from After The Rain by Christopher Wheeldon to Arvo Pärt’s plaintive Spiegel im Spiegel. In a similar vein was a duet from McGregor’s Woolf Works with atmospheric music by Max Richter, danced by Federico Bonelli and the seemingly ageless Alessandra Ferri.
But in between, there were two more duets that broke the mould: one from McGregor’s Autobiography (returning to Sadler’s Wells next month), set to a score by electronic musician and producer Jlin and danced fearlessly by two of McGregor’s own dancers; and another from Borderlands, McGregor’s first commission for San Francisco Ballet, danced with astonishing ease and fluidity by Francesca Hayward and Calvin Richardson to a dreamy, mesmeric soundscape by Joel Cadbury and Paul Stoney. And then there was the irrepressible Joseph Sissens, who only recently graduated from The Royal Ballet’s Upper School, in jojo, a joyous groove-fest to the hip-hop, funk and jazz sounds of ‘Pandi Groove’ by Chinese Man. And that was only Part One!
Part Two turned the spotlight on Company Wayne McGregor, who danced Atomos, a 70-minute collaborative work for 10 dancers to a melancholic, spatial score by neo-classical ambient composers A Winged Victory for the Sullen. And then Part Three was dedicated to Bach Forms which, building on McGregor’s 2014 Tetractys – The Art of Fugue for The Royal Ballet, explored the intricate patterns and mathematical equations of Bach’s solo piano music through interlocking limbs, precise couplings and the juxtaposition of bodily separation and unity. (And what a joy it was finally to hear music played live, allowing that precious, spontaneous interaction between dancers and musician.)
There were whoops from the audience as the dancers took their final bows. The Bach was truly the icing on the cake. But would we have enjoyed it as much had we not been taken on such a diverse journey beforehand? I’m reminded once more of the Proms I’ve been to – most recently one last September with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Karina Canellakis, in which, in order to hear Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto and Dvorák’s Eighth Symphony, I first had to listen to Missy Mazzoli’s Sinfonia (for Obiting Spheres). I had no preconceptions – but I liked it a lot. And what about Barenboim’s Boulez/Beethoven Proms back in 2012? Listening to Boulez’s Anthèmes 2 for violin, electronics and orchestra before settling down for some Beethoven was a bit like having a blow-out main course after a super-healthy, salad-based starter: I’d earned my self-indulgent enjoyment of the Seventh Symphony – and it sounded different, too. As Tom Service wrote in The Guardian at the time: ‘It has been the simple contrast between Beethoven and Boulez that has made me hear from a different perspective music I thought I knew. Beethoven's symphonies shimmer with a new energy after you've heard the sumptuous electronics of Anthèmes, or the unstoppable, torrential energy of his micro-cello concerto Messagesquisse, and Boulez's music, in turn has resounded with new but old connections to previous musical traditions.’
There will be more unusual juxtapositions at this year’s Proms, now tantalisingly only just around the corner. The First Night, for example, rounds off a programme of Vaughan Williams and Holst (The Planets) with a BBC co-commission by Anna Meredith: Five Telegrams, drawing on communications sent by soldiers in 1918 and involving digital projection. If Meredith’s recent album ‘Varmints’ is anything to go by, the audience is in for a wild ride. (‘She makes it feel as if you're strapped in her spaceship's sidecar as she goes rampaging around the universe,’ wrote Pitchfork.) Then there’s the BBC Singers' Cadogan Hall Prom which sees Bridge, Parry, Holst and RVW being performed alongside a new BBC commission by singer-songwriter Laura Mvula. And let’s not forget the Last Night, which, in addition to the old, flag-waving favourites, opens with the premiere of Songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light by Roxanna Panufnik, who recently celebrated her 50th birthday.
So what I’m trying to say is, it’s good for us to be pushed beyond our comfort zones. The worst-case scenario is we won’t enjoy it. But far more likely is that we will – or at least, we’ll be able to return to what we already know we enjoy with renewed appreciation. We’ll also have the satisfaction of knowing that new voices, new talents, are being given the chance to shine.
As I was leaving The Grange in the fading light along with the rest of the audience, all of us struggling with our picnic hampers and rugs and talking about what we’d just seen, I heard one elderly lady turn to her companion and say: ‘It’s so good for us to come and see something like this because it’s new to us.’ Which kind of says it all.