The Royal Ballet must have been shaken by its exposure to Japan last year. Following Jack Carter's derivative Shukumei for the company's touring wing, Kenneth MacMillan threw together more obscure Japanese Rituals at Covent Garden. And now, for the newly (and awkwardly) dubbed Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet, Lynn Seymour has created Rashomon, based on the enigmatic legend made familiar to westerners by the Kurosawa film.
Fortunately, as the authentic Ondeko-Za and Gagaku Theatres were in London the same week, Seymour has avoided crude japonaiserie. Composer Bob Downes's score uses an exotic range of percussion and wind instruments, Pamela Marre's designs, with tape 'trees' which bend at moments of crisis and an angled ramp and silver wire webbing, are stylised but the three protagonists wear normal makeup and their vigorous movements owe as much to Martha Graham as to kung fu.
The Graham element stems, in part, from the presence of Robert North as a distinguished guest from the London Contemporary Dance Theatre to play the brutal bandit. He has collaborated with Seymour before, on a duet, and here his powerful physique and knowledge of martial arts add conviction to a violent tale.
Tales, actually, for the legend consists of three versions of the same incident: the encounter of a couple with a brigand in the forest, and the resulting death of the husband. Was he accidentally killed in combat, or murdered, or did he commit suicide after watching his wife ravaged by the stranger? Was she raped or willingly seduced?
June Highwood as the wife seems herself
uncertain. Although in the bandit's explanation she is almost rent asunder by the force of his assault, her view of the coital pas de deux is dreamily erotic. Highwood's astonishingly pliant body allows the most complex entanglements and lifts: one moment she is twining her legs around North's shoulders, the next, slithering through her husband's bound arms, pleading for forgiveness. This is not forthcoming, and the wife wreaks vengeance.
In her version of the battle, the men are brainless louts, content to cease fighting until urged on by the wife thrusting swords back into reluctant hands. At this point Downes's vocal accompaniment to the score goes over the top. His amplified and frantic gasps and grunts generate widespread amusement, and it is unclear whether this is a deliberate feminist dig from the choreographer or the composer's miscalculation.
Certainly the husband, as interpreted by the stalwart Desmond Kelly, allows no misapprehension about his heroic selfsacrifice. When his wife is carried off, seemingly content, by the bandit, he slowly, with impassive dignity, disembowels himself.
A trio of dynamic performances, then, the only drawback to the casting being the difficulty of replacing either of the borrowed men (Kelly is on loan from the parent troupe). The SWRB abounds in lightweight juveniles, but mature male performers are in scant supply.
Offstage, Seymour—one of the world's greatest dramatic ballerinas and a notable exponent of dance detente—between classical ballet and modern dance—can feel well satisfied with this, her solo choreographic debut. Rashomon is tightly, albeit repetitiously, structured, beautifully staged (another impressive professional debut, by the designer) and the movement, particularly for the pas de deux, is strikingly inventive; and if some members of the audience go off muttering about the confusion of it all, well, that's the point, isn't it ?