The Royal Ballet: 21st-Century Choreographers review – racing out of the blocks

t is a statement of intent that the Royal Ballet’s first show back for 2021 is focused on living creators, not classics from the vaults. We’re starting afresh, and the dancers are full of hunger and finesse, diving into new vocabularies and ways of storytelling.

Christopher Wheeldon’s well-loved Within the Golden Hour is a safe opener, with its twinkling costumes, the minimalist swell of Ezio Bosso’s score and the kind of dance you can melt into – in Francesca Hayward and Valentino Zucchetti’s serenely slow pas de deux you can almost hear your heartbeat decelerating. But the rest of the programme suggests artistic director Kevin O’Hare is interested in things beyond pure beauty.

Like dysfunctional marriages, 例えば. At least that’s the backdrop for Kyle Abraham’s Optional Family: A Divertissement. It’s a world premiere, but really a 10-minute teaser for a longer work that Abraham – a leading name in the US – is making for the company next year, and it’s an intriguing glimpse of his sketchbook.

We start with voiceover, a couple telling each other how they really feel: “You bore me”, “If only I’d listened to my mother and married someone of substance”, 「「… years of putting up with passive aggressive kisses” – now, passive aggressive ballet is something I’d like to see. When the curtain goes up, there’s no strained domestic scene, but dramatic triangles of light thrown on to a black stage, an industrial-ish soundscape of strangled percussion and Natalia Osipova in an ostrich-feather skirt.

It’s an exercise in trying to read the tone between Osipova and Marcelino Sambé: cordial, codependent, exasperated; he walks away, she wildly chaînés after him (Osipova has a fulsome, off-kilter freedom about her tonight). But then there’s a third wheel, corps de ballet dancer Stanisław Węgrzyn, spinning low to the floor then launching into a ballet batterie. This is typical of Abraham, the unexpected turns in his style, absorbing influences from street dance to classical; supple torso, contemporary floorwork, some hardcore ballet technique, shifting just like the relationship between these three dancers.

The second half of the show comprises two pieces by the Canadian Crystal Pite, new to this company but made last decade for Nederlands Dans Theater. You recognise Pite’s signature. The Statement (2016) explores the link between text and movement, with a script in voiceover written by Jonathon Young, her collaborator on the acclaimed Betroffenheit. Four dancers (Joseph Sissens, Kristen McNally, Calvin Richardson and Ashley Dean, all strong) gather round a boardroom table in a world of unfathomable bureaucracy and shady crisis management, Kafka meets Kurt Jooss’s The Green Table. The movement mirrors, then embellishes, then extrapolates from the text, finally leaving words behind as the confusion about who’s manipulating whom (文字通り, in dance terms) mounts. It’s funny and sinister.

In Solo Echo (2012), set to Brahms, Pite’s choreography is emphatic, with urgent attack in every step. Cesar Corrales – newly promoted to the rank of principal – is an explosive dancer, usually demonstrated in virtuoso jumps and turns, but Pite’s steps put that power to use in another way. Inspired by Mark Strand’s poem Lines for Winter, this is not a dreamy, romantic snowscape, more like driving yourself through the hardest months and not always making it. It’s a sombre ending but it’s a hopeful programme, one that lets these impressive dancers be seen in a different light.