I go to the ballet alone. This, combined with the strange state of affairs that gives me mobile reception in the SOH Opera Theatre but not the Concert Hall, meant that I could tweet some of my immediate reactions to the Australian Ballet’s Concord triple bill as the evening progressed.
The one thing I didn’t tweet (and perhaps I should’ve) was the question that’s been bugging me all year: why is Concord called “Concord”, and how does the idea of agreement or harmony relate to what’s meant to be “a journey to the centre of modern ballet”? Is it too nerdy of me to want a satisfying explanation? (I’ve read the season brochure and the program book, and scanned the blog, which for all its excellent coverage of the development of the new works doesn’t seem to have stopped to ask this question…) But I’ll let the matter drop; glass houses and all that. In any case, this was a triple bill of three disparate pieces – there’s probably little point in forcing them together under some common theme.
Although the program book suggested the original plan had been otherwise, the evening began with Por vos muero (For thee I die) by Nacho Duato. I had seen this before (in 1998), but it was only the Australian Ballet’s repertoire list that reminded me of this. The Duato ballet that I did remember seeing was Jardi Tancat, from three years before that.
Part of me thinks that Por vos muero should have been left last on the program, because it was by far the most successful and satisfying piece of the evening. And that’s not just because it allowed me to spend 40 minutes or so listening to Jordi Savall and the Spanish repertoire he does so well. This dance work was intrinsically about dance itself. The refreshingly clear-headed summary of the ballet says it all:
“In the 15th and 16th centuries, dance formed part of the cultural expression of all people, including all social hierarchies. Por vos muero pays a tribute to the pivotal role that dance played in every social event during the Spanish Renaissance.”
This is a very simple but strong conceptual foundation. No surprise, then, that it works incredibly well. The dances and canzonas of the period provide a logical and grateful musical fabric – and much as I might lament that the music wasn’t live, I wasn’t exactly complaining. [The score incorporated poetry too; unfortunately the program didn’t include any translations, so I have no idea what this contributed to the overall work.] The choreography was marvellously musical, with just a hint of period gestures, more often in the patterns made on the floor than in the movements themselves. The costumes took us to realms of emerald green, violet and midnight blue within an overall darkness suggestive of old Spanish paintings. Again, there were discreet period touches. The women’s skirts, in particular, seemed almost formless, so unlike the highly structured garments of the Renaissance, but the magic was in the way they took shape when in motion. The props were similarly abstracted (masks for example) until real censers made an appearance with what, from stalls row J, smelled like real incense.
Scuola di ballo, which followed, was the opposite in every respect. Where Por vos muero was subtle, richly sensuous and beautiful, Scuola was highly coloured and heavy-handed. Even high camp needs a light touch if it’s to yield frothy comedy.
I’ve not seen the original (footage resides in the National Film and Sound Archive), so I’m not sure whether to point the finger at Alexei Ratmansky or Léonide Massine, who created the ballet in 1933. What I am sure of is that I like Boccherini, I like Françaix, I like Goldoni, and my impressions of Massine’s works in the past (Les Présages, Symphonie fantastique) have been very favourable. But I simply couldn’t find it in my heart to like Scuola di ballo.
Valerie Lawson’s fascinating program article about the “studio ballet” did Scuola no favours by bringing to mind far superior (Bournonville’s Conservatoire, Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun) or much, much funnier (Béjart’s The Competition) examples of the genre.
There was one very beautiful, admirable thing in Scuola – something for which I’m sure we can thank Massine. When the talented Rosine arrives in the class it is necessary for her to demonstrate her superior natural gifts. What’s telling (and lovely) is that she does this not with technical fireworks but with an expressive and musical adagio. Without going into specifics, I was very glad to see the message being given that razzle-dazzle does not equate with artistry, however much the former may make an audience erupt in squealing applause.
Por vos muero I could not fault; Scuola di ballo left me cringing. The final piece, Dyad 1929, prompted a mixed response. The music was the recent Pulitzer prize-winning piece by Steve Reich, Double Sextet. This work can be played by 12 musicians or by six with a pre-recorded tape. The program didn’t credit the 12 (or six) musicians, nor did it mention this rather interesting aspect of the musical score. I have a sneaking suspicion that it was six-plus-tape for this performance (although it may simply have been amplified sound that I was hearing), but I didn’t think to investigate the pit during interval and so can’t say for sure.
I’m going to be nice about the music, since it was commissioned by an ensemble for which I have a lot of admiration. Actually, I don’t need a pretext to be nice about it; this is a strong piece that deserves its accolades. But Reich’s pieces do have this one problem (for me). I like to close my eyes when I listen to them. Not because they’re soporific (as the unkind might say), but because I like to trace in my mind’s eye the subtle transitions of textures and harmony and to let the hypnotic aspects of the music take full effect.
So several times during the performance my eyelids drifted shut until some small voice reminded me that there was dancing to be watched! So take this with a grain of salt if you like: the choreography was very pleasing in its form and balance – let’s say its geometry – and impressive in its virtuosity.
My gripe with Dyad 1929 is with its stated concept, which is either half-baked or poorly explained. Where the inspiration and intent of Por vos mueros could be summed up in a few sentences, Dyad 1929 still didn’t really make sense after four paragraphs. Apparently aviation and the first flight over the South Pole was a key inspiration for choreographer Wayne McGregor, but you’d be hard pressed to see how that manifested itself in the final creative work. (Kate Scott’s blog post on the ballet admits that the other half of the diptych, Dyad 1909, was a much more literal realisation of McGregor’s interests.) Given that the ballet, in itself, had all the potential to be very satisfying, I’m wondering whether it wouldn’t have been better to ditch the supposed inspiration, tribute to the influence of Diaghilev, yadda yadda, and simply offer it as the abstract work that it seemed to be.
Ultimately this is a matter not of choreography or of dancing, but of how the art form is presented to its audience. Yes, we in this modern age love words about art – we’ve inherited that tendency from the 19th century – but sometimes less is more and sometimes being more straightforward (vide Por vos mueros) and less clever or contrived (Dyad 1929) pays off. They say, for writing, that if you can’t express your ideas in a clear, simple way, then your ideas are probably faulty. Allowing for the fact that a choreographer’s mode of expression is movement rather than words, I do wonder whether the success and power of Nacho Duato’s ballets is related (cause? effect?) to the fact that his themes and concepts can be communicated, in words, so convincingly.