Since the Opera House reopened, the Royal Ballet has shown us some wonderful individual performances in masterpieces of the past. If you want interesting and exciting new work, though, the place to look is not the main stage but the smaller performance spaces, the Linbury and the Clore. There have been several different series already - the Royal Ballet's own New Works, the Back Garden Project, and so on - and last week the ROH Artists' Development Initiative presented Cohabitants, a double bill of new pieces by Tom Sapsford and Cathy Marston.
The Clore Studio, if you haven't been there yet, is a dance studio with bench seating down one side. Everyone sits in such close proximity to the action that there's a real sense of involvement for the audience, and for a work like Sapsford's Last Night at the Empire this works very well. The choreography is derived from real and imaginary music hall 'turns'. Luke Heydon is in charge, bringing a sharply vivid characterisation both to his own act and to his manipulation of the rest of the cast - Victoria Hewitt, Sian Murphy and Samantha Raine. Most of the items are comedy, and these are more successfully brought off than the couple of more serious sketches. Sian Murphy even gets to sing, in duet with pianist Jason Carr. It's all quite amusing and entertaining, but doesn't leave me with much impression of whether Sapsford is really a choreographer.
No such doubts, though, about Cathy Marston. Traces, for nine dancers to music by Yann Tiersen, is an impressive and serious piece. It has a complex structure, often with several things going on at once, and it deals with relationships and time. Not all the 'traces' were apparent to me on one viewing, but I don't think that matters: it would be possible to watch it as a linear narrative and it would still make sense. The dance is inventive without being forced, musical, and emotionally true - and how often these days do you see a new piece of which you can say that?
The cast included some of the finest of the Royal Ballet's younger dancers. By now we know what to expect from Laura Morera and Jenny Tattersall, and Martin Harvey is gaining quite a reputation in these small-stage pieces. Ricardo Cervera continues to attract the eye by his musicality, but more of a surprise were Bennett Gartside's serious commitment, and the delicacy of Rachel Rawlins' dancing - the first time I've seen either of them in soloist mode. And Edward Watson is as intriguing as ever. Marston cleverly keeps him in reserve till late on in the piece, so that when he finally explodes into action it's even more effective.
There's a rather dead patch about two thirds of the way through and the piece is probably a bit too long, but these are minor problems which could easily be fixed. I don't want to overpraise Marston's achievement - we're not in 'hats off, gentlemen' territory - but it was a very real pleasure to see such intelligent and individual work.