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Barbara Newman on music and dance

Posted on January 23, 2017

A scene from Amadeus. Image by Marc Brenner e1485181299453

Mark Morris’ Behemoth has no music and lasts for 38 minutes. When his company brought it to the Edinburgh International Festival years ago, he told me “It’s a big task for an audience to watch that piece… And not one person walked out of the theatre.” Wishful thinking. At the performance I saw, you could hear seats slam up one after another as viewers crept away.

Most people expect music with theatrical dancing, and some of them only discover a celebrated score when they discover the choreography it accompanies. It’s a chicken and egg relationship that, at its best, is mutually enhancing. The Rite of Spring and Appalachian Spring were both composed to be danced. So were Agon and The Nutcracker. Frederick Ashton choreographed masterpieces to Franck, Mendelssohn and Chopin, Kenneth MacMillan chose Prokofiev, Mahler and Liszt. Morris made his reputation making dances to Handel and Purcell. But great music can also leave choreographers scrambling to keep up, and the greatest music will overwhelm all but the most creative.

George Balanchine drew the final haunting section of Vienna Waltzes from the heartbreaking harmonies and lilting sweep of the waltzes Richard Strauss composed for Der Rosenkavalier, an opera that many people may never have encountered before they see his ballet. If you produce Rosenkavalier, however, as the Royal Opera House has, the choreography for that lush music must extend the action’s atmosphere without distracting from it. The balance shifts once dance becomes the supportive partner in a production rather than its primary purpose.

A bittersweet tragi-comedy about love and time, Rosenkavalier investigates private emotions, confused identities and cold-hearted lust. A great deal of music isn’t sung, so the director, Robert Carsen, has involved 18 dancers – along with actors, children and dogs – to fill those sequences with action.

Fussy and sloppily realised, Philippe Giraurdeau’s choreography might be called serviceable. The waltzing ensemble that attends the Presentation of the Rose cannot move in unison and scarcely waltzes at all. The women spin like tops beneath their partners’ upraised arms and pose, immobile, while the melodies swirl around them.

Even less convincing as prostitutes than the Royal Ballet’s corps, in the Act III bordello these dancers flaunt their costumes with more enthusiasm than their bodies. They flutter their fingers to greet one another like twittering socialites and join the crude casual orgy absent-mindedly. Fading to insignificance as the evening wears on, they neither betray nor illuminate the score.

Music itself lies at the crux of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, which was first staged in 1979, at the National Theatre as it is now, and produced in 1984 as a film with dazzling choreography by Twyla Tharp. The fictional treatment of history maps Mozart’s passage from young prodigy to acclaimed genius to destitute cast-off as witnessed and manipulated by Antonio Salieri, the court composer to the Austrian emperor Joseph II. Suffusing his drama with Mozart’s compositions, Shaffer invented their intertwined ambitions – Salieri’s for public acclaim, Mozart’s for musical creativity – and their shared struggle for dominance in the 18th-century Viennese court.

If the choreographer, Imogen Knight, was tempted to litter the tale with gavottes and minuets, you’d never know it. Instead, wisely, she matched the sublime melodies with simplicity, weaving the Southbank Sinfonia and a small group of singers through the action and carefully positioning them, like expectant statues, around the dialogue exchanges.

The simpler her choreographic choices, the more effective they became. She conjured the Commendatore from Don Giovanni in a single imposing figure, still as a blackened tree. She organised a tipsy tableau resembling The Rake’s Progress to surround the dissolute Salieri and arranged a modest procession of three couples, each hand in hand, to capture the serene resolution of Cosi fan tutte. Sometimes she gave the music the entire stage; as Salieri scanned Mozart’s scribbled portfolio, each fragment of genius bloomed in the care of the Sinfonia. Flowing into our awareness unimpeded, Mozart’s imagination danced alone.

Everyone who loves dance or music or theatre should see this production. The live cinema broadcast on February 2 may be your best chance, because the performances have essentially sold out.

Pictured: A scene from Amadeus. Photograph: MARC BRENNER.

Barbara Newman’s books about ballet include Grace under Pressure; The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories for children; a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance, and its follow-up, Never Far from Dancing. She has written for Dancing Times since 1984 and served as the dance critic for Country Life from 1990 to 2016. She archives all her work at

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