Saturday, 26 June 2021

Celebrating Beethoven's 250th Birthday

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Dutch National Ballet Prometheus and Grosse Fugue Livestreamed from Amsterdam 8 June 2021 19:15

Just over 6 years ago I attended a panel discussion advertised as a State of the Art Panel Discussion: Narrative Dance in Ballet in the Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre (see My Thoughts on Saturday Afternoon's Panel Discussion at Northern Ballet 21 June 2015 Terpsichore). The panel was chaired by Mike Dixon and included the critics, Mary Brennan, Louise Levene and Graham Watts, Christopher Hampson, the artistic director of Scottish Ballet and dancers Tobias Batley and Dreda Blow.   The reason it has stuck in my memory is that one of the panellists alleged that it was impossible to choreograph ballets to Beethoven.

I was itching to put him right because I had seen a performance of Sir Frederick Ashton's  The Creatures of Prometheus by the Royal Ballet's Touring Company (now known as The Birmingham Royal Ballet) at the Royal Opera House on 12 Dec 1970. The cast included Doreen Wells, Derek Rencher, Alfreda Thorogood, Christopher Carr, Wayne Sleep and Brenda Last.  It was part of a mixed bill and as far as I can remember it was danced to, and received enthusiastically by, a full house.  Sadly there were only two performances but that often happens to ballets that are created for special occasions such as anniversaries.    

Ashton was not the only choreographer to create a ballet to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Beethoven's birth.  On the other side of the North Sea, Hans van Manen created Grosse Fuge for the Nederlands Dans Theater, It was premiered at Scheveningen on 8 April 1971.   Unlike The Creatures of Prometheus, Grosse Fuge continues to be performed regularly.   According to the programme notes it is one of the most sought after of van Manen's ballets.   It is currently in the repertoire of the Birmingham Royal Ballet.   On 8 June 2021, it was part of the Dutch National Ballet's Beethoven double bill.  The other work in the programme was Prometheus which was a collaboration by  Wubkje Kuindersma, Ernst Meisner and Remi Wörtmeyer,

The two ballets were very different.   Kuindersma, Meisner and Wörtmeyer used The Creatures of Prometheus which was the only score that Beethoven wrote for the ballet.  It requires a large cast that included several of the company's principals, an elaborate set and costumes and a full orchestra.   It broadly follows the myth in which Prometheus steals fire from the gods and gives it to mankind for which transgression he is sentenced to eternal torment.  Grosse Fuge requires 8 dancers and a very simple backdrop and lighting.   Speaking to the audience before the show, Ted Brandsen, the company's artistic director, said that Grosse Fuge is as fresh to modern audiences as it was on the day that it was first performed.

Beethoven wrote The Creatures of Prometheus for the Italian choreographer Salvatore Viganò in 1801.  That was 20 years before La Sylphide in which Taglioni danced en pointe for the first time. Viganò is remembered for coreodramma which is literally "dance drama".  His ballet would have been very different from a modern one.   Beethoven's score may well have been ideal for a dance drama before an audience that was familiar with classical literature but both the music and the story are unfamiliar today.  It was a challenge for the choreographers to produce a work based on that score and myth that would appeal to audiences today.

In my eyes, they succeeded and, I think, two reasons.  First, the choreographers had a remarkably gifted cast. Timothy van Poucke who danced Prometheus is young and energetic but he also has an expressive countenance.   Particularly memorable in that regard was the scene with Luc Smith and Raul van der Ent Braat representing humanity in its infancy.  Van Poucke seemed to express amusement turning quickly into exasperation at humankind's antics.  There was a poignant moment with the entrance of Floor Eimers, a tall, graceful and almost regal figure representing womankind.  There were impressive duets and solos and it would be unfair to single any of the artists for special praise.  The other reason for the success of the piece was Tatyana van Walsum's designs.   The backdrop was particularly striking.   It seemed to morph in texture and colour from scene to scene.  At one point parts of classical statutes, a rockface at a third, the facades at Petra and eventually fire.  

Having followed their careers closely since they joined the Junior Company I was delighted to see Riho SakamotoYuanyuan ZhangMartin ten Kortenaar, Sho Yamada, Daniel Silva, Nathan Brhane, Nancy BurerGiovanni Princic and Conor Walmsley in Prometheus.  It has been great to see their progress over the years which in some cases has been meteoric. I congratulate them all.

Eimers appeared in Grosse Fuge together with Maia Makhateli, Qian Liu and Salome Leverashvili. Dressed simply in white they regard the entry of Semyon Velichko, James StoutEdo Wijnen and Young Gyu Choi in long black skirtlike garments that underscored their strength and masculinity. In so far as those garments signify status they are removed and the men are left with their underpants.   At one point the women grab the tops of the men's pants.   According to the programme van Manen designed the costumes so I assume that the debagging of the men and the grabbing of their shorts must have significance.   The ballet was danced against a plain background at times with a beam of light.   Jean-Paul Vroom designed the set and Joop Caboort the lighting.

As they were forbidden to leave their seats during the interval. the audience was treated to Rose which was directed and choreographed by Milena Sidorova.  I have been a fan ever since I saw her Full Moon which she created for Bart Engelen to the music of the Dance of the Knights when he was with the Junior Company (see Junior Company in London - even more polished but as fresh and exuberant as ever 7 June 2015).  I have now discovered Spider which she created when she was very young.   In his welcome, Brandsen described Rose as "very much not Beethoven".  The music is Brent Lewis, Doris Day and CAN.   The action takes place in a cocktail bar.  It begins with a young woman (clearly in distress) pouring out her heart to a barman impersonating a donkey. It is followed by some impressive duets.  It ends with the cast on their feet dancing against a plain backdrop.

Shots of the audience at the end of the performance show an auditorium that was, perhaps, a quarter full. Though necessary, social distancing is such a misery.  Despite the paucity of numbers, the crowd still made a lot of noise.  As often happens in that theatre there was a standing ovation.  There was a special roar when van Manen appeared.  In a delightful touch, the grand old man applauded his artists. I miss that audience, that company, that theatre and that city so much.

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