Bernstein Celebration


Bernstein Celebration ballet collection. The Royal Ballet, for the centenary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth, performed a triple bill of ballets set to different pieces by Bernstein. Directed 2018 by Kevin O’Hare. The performances are as follows:

  1. Yugen. Set to Chichester Psalms. Choreographed by Wayne McGregor. Stars Federico Bonelli, William Bracewell, Harry Churches, Melissa Hamilton, Francesca Hayward, Chisato Katsura, Paul Kay, Sarah Lamb, Calvin Richardson, Joseph Sissens, and Akane Takada. Koen Kessels conducts the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House (Co-Concert Master Sergey Levitin; Assistant Concert Master Melissa Carstairs) and Members of the Royal Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus (Chorus Director William Spaulding). Features solo treble William Davies. Sung in Hebrew. Set design by Edmund de Waal; costume design by Shirin Guild; lighting design by Lucy Carter.

  2. The Age of Anxiety. Set to Symphony No. 2. Choreographed by Liam Scarlett. Stars Sarah Lamb (Rosetta), Alexander Cambell (Emble), Bennet Gartside (Quant), Tristan Dyer (Malin), Kevin Emerton (Bartender), David Yudes (Soldier), and Leticia Stock (Girlfriend). Barry Wordsworth conducts the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House (Co-Concert Master Sergey Levitin; Assistant Concert Master Melissa Carstairs) and Members of the Royal Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus (Chorus Director William Spaulding). Features solo piano Robert Clark. Set design by John Macfarlane; lighting by Jennifer Tipton; staging by Ricardo Cervera.

  3. Corybantic Games. Set to Serenade after Plato’s ‘Symposium.’ Choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. Stars Matthew Ball, William Bracewell, Lauren Cuthbertson, Yasmine Naghdi, Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Mayara Magri, Marcelino Sambé, Ryoichi Hirano, Tierney Heap, Camille Bracher, Leticia Dias, Isabella Gasparini, Hannah Grennell, Isabel Lubach, Charlotte Tonkinson, Harry Churches, Leo Dixon, David Donnelly, Téo Dubreuil, Kevin Emerton, and David Yudes. Koen Kessels conducts the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House (Co-Concert Master Sergey Levitin; Assistant Concert Master Melissa Carstairs) and Members of the Royal Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus (Chorus Director William Spaulding). Features solo violin Sergey Levitin. Set design by Jean-Marc Puissant; costume design by Erdem Moralioğlu; lighting design by Peter Mumford.

Directed for TV by Ross MacGibbon. Released 2018, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Blended Grade: A

I think the 3 works on this disc were first performed together on March 15, 2018. The 3 works were recorded on March 27. I saw this show in a theater in Dallas, Texas on April 25. The Blu-ray disc was released in England on November 2, and I bought the disc on November 11, 2018. So there was about a 6 months delay from the time this first was performed and when I watched it in my HT. That’s not as fast as streaming. But it was plenty fast for me, especially when I consider the fantastic quality and permanence of the Blu-ray disc Opus Arte made for me.


Per Wikipedia, yugen is said to mean "a profound, mysterious sense of the beauty of the universe ... and the sad beauty of human suffering.” It is used to refer to "refined elegance" in the performance of Japanese Noh theater. The music selected by McGregor was the 20-minute long choral piece Chichester Psalms composed by Bernstein in 1965 to a text in Hebrew and premiered in the Anglican cathedral of the British town of Chichester. Set designer Edmund de Waal used 5 tall boxes to create the impression of reverence and magnificence inspired by the great Gothic churches:


Al this sounds a bit mysterious, but the text selected includes all of the 23rd Psalm, which is one of the most famous passages from the Hebrew Bible and what Christians call the Old Testament. Next below we include all the words from the Chichester Psalms translated into the English text of the Christian Revised Standard Version of the Bible:


Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn! (Psalm 108: verse 2)

1st Movement

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the lands! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! Know that the Lord is God! It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him, bless his name! For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures for ever, and his faithfulness to all generations. (100)

2nd Movement

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. (23) Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his anointed, saying, "Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us." He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision. (2: 1-4) Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies; thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. (23)

3rd Movement

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a child quieted at its mother's breast; like a child that is quieted is my soul. O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and for evermore. (131)


Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! (133: 1)

Wow! How does the ever-aggressive McGregor cope with such serious music? First he covers the dancers in sober garments of ecclesiastical red and wine with little skin showing other than the arms. Fast moves, hyper-extensions, and explosive solos/duets are eschewed in favor of slower formations with larger numbers of dancers working together. The general pace of performance is slowed in response to the relatively slow music. I did a Wonk Ballet Worksheet, and the video pace for this segment is quite acceptable with more than 10 seconds per clip and 81% of clips showing the whole bodies of the dancers.

In our next screenshot below Federico Bonelli and Sarah Lamb begin the piece with a careful duet:


And the rest of our screenshots show larger formations


I think of McGregor as an upstart and radical, so I was a bit disappointed with Yugen. Still, I’m glad to see him extend his range here into something so serious and grand. I’ll give this a B+ and hope to see something else from McGregor soon that’s more exotic.

Age of Anxiety

As noted above, I first saw Liam Scarlett’s Age of Anxiety in a movie theater. I was astonished and thought, “How did Scarlett dream up a story that so perfectly matches Bernstein’s highly irregular and dramatic music?” I didn’t then know that the original Age of Anxiety was a poem published by W.H. Auden in 1946 about three men and a girl who meet in a bar and have a desultory party at the girl’s apartment. The poem was too strange (and boring they say) for anyone other than specialists to read. But Bernstein read it, and he wrote his Symphony No. 2 based on the poem. Both Jerome Robbins and John Neumeier made dance pieces for the music, but neither of those ballets appears now to be in repertory. So the way was open for Scarlett to give it a try, and the result is completely satisfying.

In the first screen shot below we see (left to right) Tristin Dyer as Malin, Sarah Lamb as Rosetta, David Yudes as bartender, and Bennet Gartside as Quant. We are in Manhattan during WW II:


Soon Alexander Campbell enters as Emble:


Stay open a little longer! I think the bartender knows Rosetta, so he relents:


Now the bartender is unhappy! But while he was out the 4 have bonded to an extent and different relationships start to form:


I’m not sure I would especially want to hear Bernstein’s Age of Anxiety in concert at the symphony even if it does have a spectacular piano part. But for sure it’s a superlative piece of music for this ballet. Scarlett’s naturalistic choreography cleverly develops each of the 4 characters and Bernstein’s score elevates the package ever higher. Bernstein said he thought he was writing abstract music in his 2nd symphony. But when he finished, he realized that he had included subconsciously many musical references to passages in Auden’s poem. Scarlett picked up on this, and this explains why the music and the action on the stage seem like parts of a single creation.

Now our heros are all at Rosetta’s (rather elegant) apartment. I don’t think Rosetta works as a secretary or file clerk:


This kiss seems like a logical development for our friends, but soon everything will start to unravel:


Tristan and Bennet at curtain calls can’t disengage from their characters. To find out why, you’ll have to watch the disc:


When I saw this in the movie house, it was my instant favorite of the ballets on the triple bill. Everything is so well done and it reminds me of problematical events of my own past. It was a fantastic treat to be able to see this twice so soon (movie house and HT) almost like I was living in London! Each time I watch it, I like it better. And the audience went crazy about it also.

I did a Wonk Ballet Worksheet. The pace is about 8 seconds per clip and only 45% of the clips show all the bodies of the dancers. Normally I would mark a video down with these numbers. But MacGibbon did not shoot this segment as a typical dance video—he set out to shoot something like a short indie movie with a ton of near and closeup shots to create a special atmosphere and depict fast action by dancers who are also expert actors. I still maintain that the normal ballet video should have a slow pace and show the whole bodies of the dancers throughout. But where a narrative dance piece demands an impressionistic presentation, anything goes. I don’t know how MacGibbon was able to shoot this as he did for the Blu-ray disc. Perhaps the disc is different and more movie-like than what I saw in the live movie telecast. In any event, I’m sold on MacGibbon’s work here and I give this an A+.

PS: W.H. Auden’s poem is largely forgotten, but he does get credit for coining the enduring phrase of “age of anxiety.”

Corybantic Games

After Wheeldon took on the task of making a dance to Bernstein’s Serenade after Plato’s ‘Symposium’, he encountered what was, I surmise, an unexpected problem: Alexie Ratmansky introduced at the American Ballet Theater on May 16, 2016 Ratmansky’s new work entitled: Serenade after Plato’s ‘Symposium’. (Following Plato, Ratmansky’s piece is for 8 men who “explore how love can help the soul to understand truth in the pursuit of wisdom and beauty.”) I suspect this turned out to be a lucky break for Wheeldon. Surely the ballet market had no crying need for 2 competing serious new works about Plato.

So Wheeldon was set free to have some fun. He named his new work after the Korybants, ancient Greek warriors who loved to dance themselves into a frenzy, especially, I take it, after defeating their enemies and enslaving their women. Behold below 8 of the Corybants:


May I have this dance?


Below a step I never saw before:

The women are more interesting than the men:


Even though the Korybants were famous for frenetic dance, Wheeldon’s choreography is rather mild-mannered and sedate with many static poses:


And here’s a shot of all 21 members of the cast:


Wheeldon’s Games is thoroughly enjoyable. The Wonk Ballet Worksheet reveals that the pace is a laudable 12 seconds per clip and 84% of the shots show the entire bodies of the dancers. That computes to an A for Games.

In summary, I admire the way this Bernstein Celebration introduced me to 3 somewhat obscure Bernstein works as well as 3 fine new ballets. So I’ll give a blended grade of A for the entire disc.

Here’s a clip from the Royal Ballet: