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Stravinsky from the Royal New Zealand Ballet

By , May 20, 2011

STRAVINSKY SELECTION

ROYAL NEW ZEALAND BALLET

MILAGROS (after Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps”) Choreography – Javier De Frutos

SATISFIED WITH GREAT SUCCESS (after Stravinsky’s “Scenes de ballet”) Choreography – Cameron McMillan

PETROUSHKA – (music by Stravinsky) Choreographer (after Michel Fokine)  Russell Kerr / Designer (after Alexandre Benois) Raymond Boyce

Royal New Zealand Ballet Company

Vector Wellington Orchestra

Marc Taddei, conductor.

St.James Theatre, Wellington

20-21 May 2011

Opportunities both gloriously taken and frustratingly unrealized – that was my immediate reaction to the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s “Stravinsky traversal” during which we saw and heard settings of the music for two of the composer’s ballets, (including the infamous Le Sacre du Printemps) and a full-scale production of Petroushka, both works among the most famous of their kind of all time. Allowing time for my feelings to settle somewhat before writing this review hasn’t greatly altered my reactions, though I’m wanting to point out that I thought the evening’s successes spectacular ones, and that the rest was never less than interesting and absorbing.

Heretical though it may seem to balletomanes, I tend to sympathize with Stravinsky’s reaction to choreographers and dancers who wanted the composer to write music and conduct his scores to suit their needs. The veteran choreographer Russell Kerr, in part of an interview printed in the program, related an incident involving the composer conducting a production of Petroushka in the United States in which Kerr was dancing. “I do not conduct for the dancers; they dance to my music!” the composer retorted, when asked to delay a section of his score to fit in with some stage business. If that attitude seems like the music is put first and foremost, its principle is a welcome corrective to a lot of choreography I’ve encountered which appears to take little notice of aspects of the music to which the dance steps are allegedly set.

I thought it interesting with this idea in mind to compare the opening item on the program with the full production of Petroushka which concluded the evening. The former was Milagros, a work which had been performed before by the Royal New Zealand ballet, on tour of the UK in 2004. It was impressive to read of Javier De Frutos’s award-winning status as a choreographer – certainly his movement scenario seemed brimful with ideas, and in places resulted in powerful and memorable theatrical imaging. Nevertheless, I thought his over-wrought modulations of the dance’s ebb and flow ran counter in many places to the primitive, rawly-focused nature of Stravinsky’s score (played, incidentally from a pianola roll made in the 1920s, one whose tempi had been supervised directly by the composer, and was here realized in a recording by player/pianist Rex Lawson).

It was as though De Frutos was trying to do too much, blunting his moments of connection with the music’s rhythmic thrust with unfocused superfluous movement that, for me, didn’t match the tones and pulsations of what we were hearing. There were times when the archetypal impulses of the music reflected themselves all too tellingly on the stage (some of the interactions I found quite disturbing, in fact – a friend of mine at the interval used the word “misogynistic”, which feeling in places I agreed with, though the occasional savageries were gradually developed in both gender directions). But whatever rituals were being enacted (and some of the imagery was stunningly presented – the head-stacking, for example) I felt it was as if the choreographer had allowed too many echoes of previous settings (his fourth of this music, if the program note is to be believed) to blur the focus. Whatever the theme, setting or prevailing current, the music unequivocally gives all the clues – and these oft-swirling masses of bodies didn’t consistently and coherently hold my sensibilities in a tightly-concerted enough grip throughout.

There was no doubt as to the commitment of the dancers to the work, particularly in the individual characterizations and teamwork of Abigail Boyle and Brendan Bradshaw, with Lucy Balfour contributing an eye-catching solo, all of whom communicated plenty of energetic conviction, however equivocal the expressive results.I’ve heard and read enough opinions regarding the work and its performance to freely admit my own inadequacy of response. I only wish I could testify to my having more connection-points with what I saw.

After this (leaving aside the second work for the moment), I couldn’t help but feel the difference in both focus and intent coming from the stage with Petroushka, which took up the evening’s final performance segment. Suddenly here were dancers who seemed completely energized and driven by the music, just as if they were stunningly-realised visualizations of what Stravinsky’s themes, rhythms and textures were actually doing. In this case the choreography had been supervised by Russell Kerr, following the original dance-plan of Michel Fokine, but of course with the New Zealander’s “take”  on the proceedings. In fact Kerr had first choreographed and designed Petroushka with his colleague Raymond Boyce as long ago as 1964. What I found remarkable was the ability of each of the dancer to “personalize” his or her character on stage, even when acting in concert with others, so that the crowd scenes had a naturalistic quality in parallel with the stylishness of the dancing and movement. It was mightily impressive to look at, and astonishing to reflect on there being not a single trace of self-consciousness in evidence from any movement, gesture or expression.Normally the “character” parts in ballet steal the theatrical thunder, but Sir Jon Trimmer as the Charlatan was by no means acting and moving in a vacuum, in his engrossing portrayal of cynical enslavement of his performing puppets – his character and aura found ready responses from members of the company, as did the dysfunctional antics of his three marionette charges.

As with Russell Kerr’s performing lineage and its links to both Stravinsky and his inspirational impresario Serge Diaghilev, designer Raymond Boyce’s formative experiences were with comparable traditions. He studied at London’s Slade School of Fine Arts, where one of his tutors, Vladimir Polunin, had been a scenery-painter for Diaghilev’s Company, and from him Boyce learnt the Russian scenery-painting style. From 1959 to 1997 Boyce designed productions for the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company, working with the company’s founder, Poul Gnatt, during those early days. In this latest Petroushka the focus of the setting was very much on unity – while the painted sets projected a kind of artificiality very much of their time, the designs served to focus upon the illusory nature of the story-line, reminding one of Lady Macbeth’s reference to a “painted devil”. In only one place I thought more pro-active lighting might have advanced the story’s cause, which was the hallucinatory effect of the charlatan’s picture in Petroushka’s room – more aggressively-focused spot-lighting on the image and momentarily darkened surroundings would have heightened the nightmarish aspect of the moment and imparted some edge to the somewhat naive-art, two-dimensional comic-book reproduction.

Besides Sir Jon’s wonderfully disturbing Charlatan (some of his expressions the stuff of nightmares for susceptible sensibilities), the three principal dancers gave thoroughly absorbing portrayals of their roles, each straddling the worlds of reality and make-believe with disarming alacrity. Medhi Angot’s Petroushka caught all of the character’s awareness of his plight as a puppet with a human heart, conveying for us his tragic despair at his loss of love and life, before reappearing, ghost-like at the end, to tease our sensibilities. Both Tonia Looker as the Ballerina and Qi Huan as the Moor brought plenty of skilful motoric impulse to each of their characters, contrasting their somewhat cardboard cut-out personas with Petroushka’s more complex and vulnerable consciousness.

I’ve left until now my ruminations regarding the middle ballet Satisfied With Great Success because I found it something of a puzzle, as much for what wasn’t done as for what we saw. Firstly I think the expectation created by the advance descriptions of some kind of interaction between historic footage of the composer in New Zealand and live stage action would have, in the event, left some people nonplussed. Whether previous or subsequent performances of this work used more of this much-touted “50 year-old film footage” I’m not sure, but I thought the juxtapositioning between the film and the live performance lame in effect, to say the least. I’m presuming that the film’s (a) slow-motion quality and (b) reverse continuity and imaging (the composer walking backwards through an orchestra whose members were positioned as if in a mirror-image) was in aid of imparting some kind of dream-dance ritualization to the scenes thus caught – well,maybe.  As it turned out (and contrary to my expectations), the film sequences proved to be mere clip-ons, with little or no interactive relationship between the footage and what the ballet actually did – and so, what was the point of it all?

Here was part of a visual record of the twentieth century’s arguably most important composer conducting some of his music in New Zealand – why couldn’t the ballet sequences have played out their “deconstruction, visual imagery and complex relationships” (the choreographer Cameron McMillan’s own words) as a series of connective impulses acknowledging these visuals? – whether fast, slow, forwards, backwards or still-framed, recording a significant aspect of our musical past? As a tribute to Stravinsky what was shown was somewhat less than token, and as a depiction of the composer’s relevance to “today’s world of creation and performance”, well, the exercise for me was practically a non-starter.

Regarding the ballet itself, there were some lovely moments, both solo and concerted (I liked the diagonal lines of bodies moving in accord, as well as various manifestations of strong duo work) but I thought some of what was presented only intermittently in accord with Stravinsky’s music (Scenes de Ballet). An example was a glorious Copland-like orchestral outburst of intense emotion at one point, superbly delivered by Marc Taddei and the Wellington Orchestra – but for all the reaction on stage, the music may as well have not been there – as was the actual case with another episode, where the dancers stepped intriguingly through uncannily silent vistas. Even more than with Milagros I had difficulty discerning an overall choreographic focus to Satisfied with Great Success, and wondered what the composer might have thought of his title-quote applied to the work in hand.

Back to the evening’s “Great Successes” – the overall conception and realization of Petroushka, the amazing sonic impact of that  pianola recording of Le Sacre du Printemps, the few glimpses we got on film of Stravinsky here in New Zealand, the musical direction of Marc Taddei and the playing of the Wellington Orchestra for the second and third ballets (a few brass “blips” here and there in Petroushka notwithstanding), and the chance to experience at first hand something of the excitement and commitment of those early ventures into ballet production via the presence and efforts of Russell Kerr and Raymond Boyce – for me THIS was the most telling manifestation of (I quote the program notes once again) “the relationship between past and present through 21st century eyes”. For that alone, thank you, Royal New Zealand Ballet.

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