‘Duato Forsythe Goecke’. Staatsballett Berlin

02 June 2012, Staatsoper im Schiller Theater, Berlin

This program, a triple bill by two choreographers with a strong body of work to their name, and one whose work I hadn’t previously seen, promised much but delivered little.

The evening opened with Nacho Duato’s Arcangelo, a meditation, the program told us, on heaven and hell. Made in 2000, Arcangelo is set to music by of the Baroque period by Arcangelo Corelli and Alessdandro Scarlatti. Choreographically and visually it had many of the touches that characterise others of Duato’s works—the turned up feet; the deep pliés in second position; the bird-like outstretched arms, often with palms facing down; the intricate partnering that produces unusual and striking shapes as bodies combine; and the mysterious appearance and disappearance of dancers through the black backcloth. And as with every Duato work, Arcangelo was beautifully and evocatively lit, this time by Brad Fields. Dancersof the Staatsballett in 'Arcangelo'. Photo Bettina Stöss

Dancers of the Staatsballett Berlin in Nacho Duato’s Arcangelo. Photo Bettina Stöss. Courtesy Staatsballett media site

But for Duato’s works to fully achieve the sublime qualities that make them the admirable works of art that they are, they need to be performed differently from what I saw. To tell the truth I didn’t feel an intense emotional connection between the dancers as they contemplated their state of being. And I thoroughly disliked the way the exits through those back curtains were so obvious—the opening tended to be flung apart and as a result the exit was not the seamless one I have come to expect. I had never seen Arcangelo before and wanted to like it but in the end I just felt flat, even after the conclusion when two dancers ascend to heaven pulled up by a length of black cloth.

In the middle of this triple bill was William Forsythe’s Hermann Schmerman, first performed in 1992 and set to music by Thom Willems. Again all the choreographic hallmarks of a Forsythe work were there—the outrageously difficult moves and combinations as Forsythe explores what the body can do within the classical medium. But it never seemed that the dancers had a strong enough classical technique—especially the right amount of ‘turn-out’—to make the choreography look like an experiment with movement vocabulary. Looking at still images of the dancers this doesn’t seem as if it should be the case, but onstage, where it matters, the look was wrong in my opinion. Perhaps it was the dancers’ apparent concentration on showy effects? The one dancer whose work I really enjoyed was Federico Spallitta who danced the pas de deux with Nadja Saidakova. His solo variation was sinuous and liquid and a delight to watch.

The final work, entitled And the sky on that cloudy old day, was by Marco Goecke currently resident choreographer with Stuttgart Ballet. Goecke says his inspiration was the music that accompanied the work—John Adams’ Guide to strange places, itself inspired by a book invoking the landscape of Provence in southern France. But the relationship between these thoughts by Goecke and the choreography remained unclear throughout the work.

Choreographically And the sky… appeared to deny the body as a total means of expression with pretty much all the movement concentrated in the arms and hands. The dancers were extraordinarily skillful in executing these movements, some of which were very fast to the extent that the arms and hands often became blurred. There was very little partnering although there was a good deal of placing the nine dancers (four women and five men) in patterns and groups. They used some interesting props, including fans made from feathers, which they occasionally used to hide their faces. But the point of it all was lost on me I’m afraid.

Dancers of the Staatsballett Berlin in 'And the sky on that cloudy day'. Photo Bettina Stöss

Dancers of the Staatsballett Berlin in Marco Goecke’s And the sky on that cloudy old day. Photo Bettina Stöss. Courtesy Staatsballett media site

The director (intendant) of this company is Vladimir Malakhov, whose dancing I have previously admired. In fact what I had seen of him before partly inspired me to book a ticket to see the show. He danced in both Arcangelo and And the sky… I prefer to remember him, however, as the stunning classical dancer I saw some years ago in New York.

Michelle Potter, 3 June 2012

‘Kings of the Dance’. City Center, New York

City Center, New York, 19 February 2010

Christopher Wheeldon’s comment was thought-provoking. In the film sequence that opened ‘Kings of the Dance’, Wheeldon remarked that the biggest challenge for choreographers working with the eight exceptional artists performing in this show was managing the different styles in which those dancers had been trained. Of the eight, Jose Manuel Carreño was trained in Cuba, Guilllaume Côté in Canada, David Hallberg and Desmond Richardson in the United States, Marcelo Gomes in South America, Joaquin de Luz in Spain, and Denis Matvienko and Nikolay Tsiskaridze in Russia. Wheeldon continued that it was a particular challenge when the dancers had to dance together in a single work, but noted that it had eventually worked well. In fact, it only worked sometimes.

The highlight of the show for me, as far as works involving more than one dancer were concerned, was Nacho Duato’s Remanso, which comprised Act III of the program. Remanso, a work made for three men in 1997, was performed by Hallberg, Côté, and Gomes on the evening I attended. Duato’s choreography is always distinctive and transcends particular methods of classical training. It allows an individual voice to emerge from the choreography rather than being pasted upon it or sublimated to it. Hallberg, Côté and Gomes responded brilliantly. They brought their undoubted talents to bear to present a thrilling performance that was both amusing and technically absorbing.

This kind of transcendence didn’t happen in Wheeldon’s own work, For 4, that followed the opening film. It was danced by Matvienko, Carreño, de Luz and Côté and, while each danced well, it was not the stylistically coherent piece that Wheeldon was obviously seeking. There were also eight distinct styles on show in the Finale when eight excellent dancers showed off their best tricks — a manege of turns or leaps or a series of grand pirouettes — although coherence was obviously not an aim here.

The middle act consisted of seven solos and one duet. They ranged from the quite cliched work by Igal Perry, Ave Maria, danced by Carreño, to the Mr Universe style of Dwight Roden’s Lament danced by Richardson.

Amongst these solos, however, was the sublimely beautiful short piece made by Frederick Ashton for Anthony Dowell in 1978 — Dance of the Blessed Spirits. It began with the dancer, David Hallberg on this occasion, standing on the top of a small platform with a few steps leading down to the stage floor. Hallberg’s body was lit to resemble a piece of sculpture in a gallery and his pose initially clearly recalled Michelangelo’s David. As Hallberg descended the steps and began to dance rather than to pose, the lighting came up to reveal choreography that was simple and yet in no way simplistic. It was an understated display of what constitutes the classical body, how that body moves and how with subtle twists of the arms and turns of the head it can become an innovation. Hallberg danced with classical perfection.

In the end, in a show of this nature it is the choreography that counts. On this occasion it was Ashton and Duato who gave this show its flair.

Michelle Potter, 24 February 2010

‘Por vos muero’. The Australian Ballet

The Australian Ballet’s triple bill Concord is currently in its Sydney season. It’s at the Opera House until 30 November.

Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929 is as startling as ever, although the cast I saw did not manage to achieve the same degree of technical precision and sense of purpose that made the opening night in Melbourne this past August such a brilliant occasion. Alexei Ratmansky’s Scuola di Ballo remains pantomime for those who like their ballet that way. As for Nacho Duato’s sublime Por vos muero, it continues to give and give of itself in a way that only the very best works of art can do.

Por vos in its Australian Ballet production goes back to the directorship of Ross Stretton who introduced it to Australian audiences in 2000. Who can forget the ravishing Felicia Palanca in the leading female role in that first season? Her passion for her role knew no bounds. But then who can forget Daniel Gaudiello on opening night in Melbourne this year with his capacity to show to advantage the intricacies of Duato’s choreography?

On the second matinee of the Sydney season no dancer really stood out, which allowed the opportunity to think more about the work itself, especially its seamless yet choreographically idiosyncratic duets, its use of humour and its delicious sensuousness. In fact it sent me back to the DVD to look more closely at how Duato had structured the work and at his use of props, especially the masks in his dance for six women and his decorative screens at the back of the stage space and the way they were used by the dancers to link each section.

But in addition I turned on the DVD’s subtitles and saw for the first time an English translation of the narrator’s Spanish words. The work stands brilliantly by itself—no translation of the words is necessary to feel that it is about love and passion in their many manifestations. Duato also explains on the DVD that everyone danced in fifteenth and sixteenth century Spain: dance was not thought of as an art but simply as a way of expressing oneself on pretty much any occasion. Such a desire to dance is also inherent in the choreography without our being told. Both the words of the narrator and Duato’s explanation simply confirm what we know. Por vos is an exceptional work.

But the words of the narrator are deeply affecting. As six dancers, clothed in stripped back skin-coloured costumes, move off and give up the stage for a final solo by the leading female dancer, whose consort appears in the closing moment to enfold her in his arms, we are told:

For thee I was born/Through thee I have life/For thee I must die/And for thee I die.

Por vos is an exceptional work.

Michelle Potter, 23 November 2009

Featured image: Dancers of the Australian Ballet in Por vos muero, 2009. Photo: © Jim McFarlane.

‘Concord’. The Australian Ballet

Por vos muero, Scuola di ballo & Dyad 1929, 21 August to 1 September 2009, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

Tzu-Chao Chou & Lana Jones in Dyad 1929. Photo: Jim McFarlane. Courtesy: The Australian Ballet

Tzu-Chao Chou & Lana Jones in Dyad 1929. Photo: © Jim McFarlane. Courtesy of the Australian Ballet

The Australian Ballet finally hit the jackpot! In the dying months of its four year long celebration of the Ballets Russes, Wayne McGregor arrived in Melbourne and created his Dyad 1929—a work that is truly in the adventurous spirit of the Diaghilev period.

Dyad 1929 is made for a cast of twelve dancers, six women and six men. It is danced against a white backcloth, patterned all over with regular rows of black dots, which extends to a floorcloth. A thin horizontal bar of acid yellow light is raised and lowered in the extreme downstage area during the piece. Occasionally yellow light floods onto the backcloth. This ‘stage concept’ is by McGregor and the work’s lighting designer Lucy Carter. The dancers are costumed by Moritz Junge in close-fitting leotards, or all-overs, or trunks and tops in various combinations and patterns of white, black and fawn. The overall design concept is startling and exhilarating, as is the music—Double Sextet by Steve Reich.

But it is the choreography that lifts Dyad 1929 beyond the startling to the brave and the challenging. There is a matter-of-factness in the way the dancers enter and leave the stage. A la William Forsythe they walk, simply but decisively, on and off. Once on, however, their bodies become an experimental field. They are pushed, pulled and stretched. They crumple, bend and fold. Sometimes the movements look hard-edged. At other times they look more curvaceous. And what seems quite extraordinary is that often movements that are commonplace in a particular situation are put into completely new context. A stretching exercise commonly done at the barre becomes part of a duet, for example. And again extraordinarily, McGregor occasionally follows a twisted movement with a classical, centred one so that the eye can better discern what is central to each.

Standout dancers in two viewings were Lana Jones, cool and poised in a duet with Tzu-Chao Chou, and Danielle Rowe, more softly sinuous in a duet with Adam Bull—Jones a diamond, Rowe a pearl, both using their prodigious technical capacity to dance this audacious and demanding choreography. They dance purposefully, but also with what borders on ecstasy so intently and intensely do they articulate the choreography. This is what dancers crave: to be challenged to use their bodies to do the seemingly impossible, and thus to understand more about their art form.

This triple bill with the overarching name of ‘Concord’ opened with Nacho Duato’s sublime Por vos muero. Por vos remains a compelling work swinging between a stripped back look at human relationships, which we see in the three duets that open the work, to highly theatrical moments as in the scene in which six men in brocade cloaks swirl across the stage swinging censers that fill the air with incense. Daniel Gaudiello gave a particularly strong performance. It highlighted all the remarkable nuances of Duato’s choreography.

The third work on the program, also part of the Ballets Russes project, was a new production of Léonide Massine’s 1933 work, Scuola di ballo, in this case  choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky. Ratmansky adhered to the narrative and choreographic structure of Massine’s work but, in terms of movement, the work looked more like a homage to August Bournonville. Ratmansky emphasised beaten footwork for the men and his pas de deux contained very few lifts, especially big overhead lifts. In typical Bournonville style the man for the most part danced alongside his partner. This was especially noticeable in the pas de deux between the characters Rosina and Carlino, which was prettily danced by Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in one cast and Danielle Rowe and Ty King-Wall in another.

Scuola‘s comic elements were a hit with the audience but I am not convinced that attempting to reproduce what was clearly not Massine’s best ballet was a worthwhile endeavour. What it did was remind me that not all ballets from the Ballets Russes era (whether from the Diaghilev period or from that of his followers) are worth recalling. Restaging or reproducing works as museum or celebratory pieces only works if the original was a piece of major importance in the first place. I don’t believe that Scuola di ballo was. Ballet has moved on. Thankfully.

And thankfully there are choreographers like Wayne McGregor to show that the way ahead can be as adventurous as it was under Diaghilev.

Michelle Potter, 23 August 2009

Footnote: Showing in Melbourne at the same time as ‘Concord’ is an exhibition documenting the career of Salvador Dali. Included in the show, which is at the National Gallery of Victoria, is film footage of Massine’s 1939 collaboration with Dali on the ballet Bacchanale for Sergei Denham’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. It makes an interesting comparison with Scuola di ballo and comments on Bacchanale and its reception by Frederic Franklin, one of the original cast, are  easily found via any search engine and are eminently readable.

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