Goldberg: The Brandstrup-Rojo Project

September 21, 2009

Linbury Studio Theatre
Royal Opera House, London

September 21–26, 2009

Reviewed by Margaret Willis


Tamara Rojo in Brandstrup’s
Goldberg. Photo by Johan Persson, courtesy The Royal Ballet.


Take one intelligent ballerina. Add a thoughtful, inventive choreographer and six dancers from differing facets of the art. Light up the stage with effective patterns, and finally let beautiful piano music pour forth, performed live and well. The result is Goldberg: The Brandstrop-Rojo Project, to Bach’s Goldberg Variations played by Philip Gammon. It was a sell-out affair with queues for returned tickets.

Kim Brandstrup, a gentle bear-like Dane, is known for his intense, often dark danced condensations of great literature. He is also someone who believes strongly that music dictates movement—that the dancers are instruments to its harmonies. So when the opportunity arose to work with Royal Ballet principal Tamara Rojo in creating something for ROH2—the experimental studio department of the Royal Opera House—the two welcomed it with open arms, and the result is a choreographic gem.


Brandstrup chose to enact the daily drama of a rehearsal studio, where the dancers’ rituals, like Bach’s 30 variations, set their own pace, develop, and return to an underlying musical theme. The set is a box-shaped room, lit initially by a very high window. Before the music starts, a figure climbs up a tall ladder to close it, symbolically shutting out the world, then shuffles off to a piano stool, where he hunches over, turning the pages for the pianist. Lines of light appear, outlining the few objects in the studio—two chairs, an old TV set, and the piano. Then the six dancers arrive, doing the things dancers do—listening to i-Pods, stretching, fixing shoes, swigging water. There are three classical dancers (The Royal Ballet’s Tamara Rojo, Thomas Whitehead, and Steven McRae); two contemporary dancers (Clara Barbera and Laura Caldow); Riccardo Meneghini with a judo background; and Tommy Franzen, a break dancer.

As they warm up, the classical couple begins to dance beautifully together, but there is an obvious tension between them: Rojo is desperate for loving attention from an arrogant and uncaring Whitehead. He clicks his fingers when he wants to dance—she obeys like a lap dog—and he constantly takes cigarette breaks without a backwards look. Rojo sits stock-still as others take to the floor, but she visibly expresses deep unhappiness. Some of the dancers watch the flickering TV, marking out the steps with their hands like a secret code. Or else they practice on “half-leg.” The contemporary girls are uniformly lyrical and skillfully stretched. The boys bounce off each other, their antics making the sad Rojo smile.

Whitehead’s absence gives the page-turner his chance. A creepy skulking figure, whose eyes have never left Rojo, he joins her as she marks out more of her dance. Steven McRae is known for his quicksilver, stage-skimming attack, but here he has a very different style—more grounded, lyrical, and laid back. In fact there are moments when his gently moving hips and arms remind one of Fred Astaire. But he still gets to spin fast and leap, and he also gets the girl. The piece ends with the two on opposite sides of the stage, staring at each other. He’s no longer an unseen figure in the workroom.