A Chroma primer

27 March 2014 | By Behind Ballet

Sarah Lamb in The Royal Ballet's Chroma. Photography © ROH/Bill Cooper 2010
Sarah Lamb in The Royal Ballet's Chroma. Photography © ROH/Bill Cooper 2010
Olivia Cowley and Johannes Stepanek in The Royal Ballet's Chroma. Photography © ROH/Bill Cooper 2010
Olivia Cowley and Johannes Stepanek in The Royal Ballet's Chroma. Photography © ROH/Bill Cooper 2010

The ladies of London-based blog The Ballet Bag give us six key facts about Wayne McGregor’s electrifying breakthrough work.

We like to think of Wayne McGregor’s modern classic Chroma as a music box. One of the coolest, most exciting music boxes ever created. An indie rock party in a “Zen” space, where the energetic sound of the White Stripes challenges yet perfectly blends with John Pawson’s Oriental-minimalist set, and where dancers create the décor with individual shapes and strange beauty.

Choreography
Chroma was McGregor’s second work for the main stage at the Royal Opera House, and it was the strength of this piece, along with other successes like Qualia and Engram, that led to his appointment as resident choreographer of The Royal Ballet. Up until 2006, McGregor’s career had been marked by his subversion of movement and his penchant for cross-disciplinary collaborations. His is a dance vocabulary that is full of contrasts, combining speed with clarity of movement, fluidity with angular moves and sharp edges. Sometimes, his choreography may also incorporate elements of classical ballet, and Chroma presented an opportunity for the dancers to build upon classical movement, while exploring and revealing new facets.

Design
Chroma also marked the first time John Pawson – one of the UK’s most prominent architects – would design for the stage. Famous for his minimalist aesthetic, Pawson was approached by McGregor, and went on to build a space that, in Pawson’s own words, creates “something comfortable for the dancers to move and for the audiences to see”. The end result was a set that acted as a container for movement and light, so audiences could be allowed to detect the changes in the dancers’ bodies as they moved. Or, if you prefer it, a Zen music box.

Name
McGregor was initially inspired by John Pawson’s visual essay Minimum, and by the idea that one could attain the “essential” space by a process of subtraction. The choreography was then shaped to become clear, pure, which is precisely what the name Chroma describes: purity of colour, or “freedom from white”.

Music
McGregor felt that the music from Joby Talbot’s Hovercraft, a piece the composer had originally created for the Kensington Symphony Orchestra, was a great fit for dance. He met Talbot to discuss what other pieces might complement it, in terms of ideal length. At the time, Talbot had been working with orchestral rearrangements of songs by the White Stripes, so three pieces – “Aluminum”, “The Hardest Button to Button” and “Blue Orchid” – became part of Chroma. It’s difficult to imagine the score without this energetic, screeching backdrop to McGregor’s edgy choreography. Chroma was initially so closely associated with its score that it was nicknamed the “White Stripes ballet”, taking a cue from and inspiring a whole new gamut of pop ballets.

Premiere
Chroma made its world premiere in 2006 to great acclaim. The collaboration between Pawson, Talbot and lighting designer Lucy Carter was hailed as a success. Unique among McGregor’s commissions for The Royal Ballet, given that it was performed completely off-pointe, the ballet won the 2007 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Dance Production in the UK. The original cast featured some highly individual roles and surprising pairings. There were the pencil-drawn lines of Alina Cojocaru and Edward Watson, clarity of movement and speed from Tamara Rojo and Steven McRae, plus an exquisite, more classical duet for Sarah Lamb and Federico Bonelli. Since then, new casts have been making these roles their own and continuing to explore the piece, which is at its most involving when all dancers meet, finding a way to co-exist within the confines of the Zen-like space.

World Domination
Chroma has been very successful not only because of its ideal mix of design, music and choreography, but because of its potential to challenge preconceptions about both ballet and abstract dance pieces, bringing together two different sets of audiences. Since its premiere, the ballet has been revived three times at The Royal Ballet, and has been taken on tour to China (2008), North America (2009), Cuba (2009) and Taipei (2011). It has also been staged at the National Ballet of Canada (2010), San Francisco Ballet (2011), the Bolshoi Ballet (2011) and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (2013).

This April, The Australian Ballet becomes the seventh company in the world to perform this modern classic. Several seasons and many companies later, this Wayne McGregor masterpiece of sharp contrasts, and of contemporary relevance inspired by architecture, still retains the power to mesmerise and to engage.

See Chroma as part of our upcoming mixed bill – opens in Sydney on 29 April, in Melbourne on 6 June. Tickets here