Since the opening of the Glyndebourne Festival in 1934, there’s been a British summertime phenomenon known as country house opera wherein the upper echelons of British society spend the day watching live opera in converted country estates. Black tie is de rigueur, and performances are punctuated by extraordinarily long intervals so the audience can enjoy a picnic in the gardens. One of them, the Grange in rural Hampshire, invited Wayne McGregor to become their founding director of dance.

The result was dance@thegrange, a four-and-a-half-hour-long performance (including two intermissions) on June 7 that presented the talents of eight dancers from the Royal Ballet (including Francesca Hayward, Sarah Lamb and a guest appearance from Alessandra Ferri) and 10 from Company Wayne McGregor. Alongside the dancing, Rick Guest’s photographic exhibition of dancers adorned the walls of the estate’s main mansion, and Jane Gordon Clark’s sculptures of Royal Ballet principal Ed Watson lined the corridors.

“The idea is about blurring boundaries,” McGregor explains in the program notes. “If you think about the shoulders of greatness that we’re standing on, they could be Merce Cunningham’s shoulders or Frederick Ashton’s — these days it doesn’t matter. We want to show that you can see a beautiful, classical pas de deux alongside something more gritty and contemporary and follow the golden thread that runs between them.”

The first section of dance@thegrange saw four excerpts from McGregor’s oeuvre, along with Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, Frederick Ashton’s Meditation from Thaïs and a brand-new work by Charlotte Edmonds. There were no pauses between pieces — allowing no time for applause or curtain calls — which forced examination of the disparate works as one continuous whole.

After the first interval, Company Wayne McGregor performed the entirety of McGregor’s Atomos, and the grand finale after a second dining interval was McGregor’s Bach Forms, which saw the Royal Ballet and Company Wayne McGregor join forces onstage.

In purely visual terms, McGregor’s dynamic, hyperflexible style doesn’t vary greatly between the two groups (the difference is in the details) and the linking together of both sets of dancers in Bach Forms was remarkably fluid, with classical dancers partnering contemporary and vice versa. Perhaps the most telling of McGregor’s repertoire inclusions, though, was the only new commission, Edmonds’ Jojo.

Edmonds has been on the Royal Ballet’s Young Choreographer Programme since 2015 and was its inaugural beneficiary. She’s also made pieces for the Dutch National Ballet Junior Company, Yorke Dance Project, the Genée International Ballet Competition and in November 2016 she created a show of new work alongside Robert Binet at the Royal Opera House’s Clore Studio as a celebration of their mentorship by McGregor. She only left school three years ago (after studying at the Royal Ballet School and then Rambert) and thereby represents a voice of the future.

Jojo, a contemporary solo set to Chinese Man’s Pandi Groove created on a classical ballet dancer, Joseph Sissens, gelled in a very comfortable, spontaneous way, albeit more Michael Jackson than Marius Petipa.

For Edmonds, this is seen as nothing out of the ordinary. “My generation is exposed to that mix already and my natural instinct is to fuse the two together,” she said when we spoke in the canteen at the Royal Opera House a few days after the show. “We’re getting to a stage where lots of different mediums are being incorporated into dance and you’ll find that choreographers aren’t just dancers, they might be theatre directors, musicians or whatever. Things used to be black and white, but nowadays everything’s merging together and that reflects society, I think.”

Are we looking at a future where distinctions between classical and contemporary dance genuinely no longer exist? You could argue that it’s already happening. Look at the paucity of traditional classical works in Paris Opera Ballet’s 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 seasons, for example, or Royal Ballet Flanders employing Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui as artistic director, or Berlin State Ballet, from 2019, introducing the co-directorship of Sasha Waltz and Johannes Öhman.

Edmonds doesn’t necessarily see it that way. “I grew up watching classical ballet and there’s still an audience for it,” she says. “It’s a question of finding that balance between moving the art form forward and appreciating what classical ballet can be.”

Perhaps the venue for the new series itself (which sees Marianela Núñez co-curating alongside McGregor next year) provides some clues as to what lies in wait. Saved from demolition by public outcry in 1975, the Grange is a 1665 estate that now hosts centuries’ worth of opera to a primarily older and well-heeled audience who, from the outside, appears to be the epitome of conservatism. That the organizers took a chance on modern dance (as opposed to a showcase of tutus) was a surprise, and the fact that the opera-loving audience took to it so well was perhaps even more so.

Maybe the differences between disciplines that some in the dance world cling onto so passionately just aren’t that important to the public. Ultimately, it is audiences who will decide the relevance and commercial success of whatever form contemporary dance and ballet might take in the future, and maybe that was McGregor’s point all along.

— GERARD DAVIS

DI FALL 2018

The Royal Ballet’s Joseph Sissens in Charlotte Edmonds’ Jojo
Photo: Ravi Deepres and Alicia Clarke