Later iterations have continued in that vein, but this year is different. This year is all about a single company. It’s from Britain, and it’s big, very big: the Royal Ballet.
As organized by the Royal’s artistic director, Kevin O’Hare, the two-week festival is both intimate and large-scale. It’s one major company presenting many small items — no fewer than 21 pieces in four programs. Selecting the opening program himself, O’Hare has delegated the other three to the designer Jean-Marc Puissant and the Royal stars Lauren Cuthbertson and Edward Watson.
Cuthbertson and Watson are also performing. Chances to see them and their expert colleagues in New York come far too infrequently for this up-close look to be anything other than a welcome treat. It’s the choice of repertory that’s suspect.
Later programs are filled with at least the potential for discovery and surprise: lesser-known choreographers, new works, guest stars (including David Hallberg and Robert Fairchild). The selection that opened the festival Tuesday (and continues through Friday) is the opposite: a classy collection of the big-name choreographers most famously associated with the Royal.
The names are big but the pieces aren’t — only solos and duets, many excerpted from more substantial works. Eight or nine items in 90 minutes is a lot of bang for your buck, yet the tasting-menu variety sacrifices depth. It might even do a disservice to the Royal’s artistic history.
Because there is history on the program, and not just in the oldest work: the slow, beautifully constructed pas de deux from Kenneth MacMillan’s 1966 “Concerto” (impeccably performed by Cuthbertson and Nicol Edmonds). Nor just in the two wonderful 1970s solos by the company’s founding choreographer, Frederick Ashton: “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” (performed with buoyant innocence by the young Joseph Sissens) and “Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan” (overacted by Romany Pajdak).
Much of the history is more recent. The opening pas de deux is from “Asphodel Meadows,” the 2010 work that put Liam Scarlett, then 24, on the map. But in this excerpt, a smooth expression of hesitancy, it’s hard to see what justified the buzz.
Similarly, one of two pas de deux by Wayne McGregor is from “Qualia,” the 2003 work that was his first for the Royal’s main stage. The acrobatic suggestion of sex here makes its point — the man (Watson) is as flexible as the woman (Sarah Lamb). But the excerpt from “Obsidian Tear,” a 2016 work hailed as a breakthrough for McGregor, doesn’t make much sense. In the full dance, is the master-slave dynamic less disturbing, or disturbing in a more artistically justifiable way?
One solo, “Jojo,” is very recent history. It’s a 2018 piece by Charlotte Edmonds, who is the first to hold the Royal’s new Young Choreographer position. But there’s nothing new here, sad to say, just a well-trained dancer (the shyly smiling Sissens) demonstrating that he can do bravura ballet steps and also get down at the club. Will the rest of the festival show the Royal’s present and future in a more flattering light?
Through Aug. 18 at the Joyce Theater, Manhattan; joyce.org.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.