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Christmas and New Year dance in Germany

Posted on January 5, 2009


Maryinsky Ballet in La Sylphide and a Gala Performance – December 27 & 28, 2009
Stuttgart Ballet and Opera in Orphée et Euridice – December 29, 2009
Berlin Staatsballett in The Nutcracker and Tchaikovsky – January 1 & 5, 2010
Hamburg Ballet in Christmas Oratorio – January 3, 2010

The Russians have been visiting the southern German spa town of Baden Baden for centuries, drinking its waters and gambling in its elegant casino. It is a tradition still upheld by St Petersburg’s Maryinsky Ballet, which for the last few years has taken up residence in its massive Festspielhaus over the Christmas period. The 2009 season featured repertory performances of Konstantin Sergeyev’s Swan Lake, Vassily Vainonen’s The Nutcracker, a single performance of August Bournonville’s La Sylphide, and a final Gala programme. I saw the latter two.

The Sylphide was that produced by Elsa Marianne von Rosen, which the then Kirov Ballet acquired in the early years of Oleg Vinogradov’s directorship. Somewhat bland in its telling (the opening act seemed to be set in a dilapidated barn and the second act stage machinery failed to enhance the magic it should encapsulate), a course in Danish mime and style would do the company no end of good, as both Gurn and Madge were delivered too coarsely, too bombastic in the nuances of their dramas. As James, Leonid Sarafanov was fleet-footed, bright in his jumps, dazzling in his command of the role’s technical demands, but of its inner soul I found little. The ballet’s two female leads were a delight: Yana Selina as Effie, and Evgenia Obraztsova rippling through the Sylph’s petit allegro sequences, her upper body flowing with Romantic grace, playful and effortlessly musical in her emotional understanding of the role.

On the succeeding night, the Maryinsky presented its Gala programme. Opening with a series of divertissements in which Sarafanov gave a performance of Tarantella I have seen more subtly rendered by the Trocks; Ekaterina Kondaurova bravely tried to rescue the Scheherazade adagio from an ice cube of a Golden Slave; and Uliana Lopatkina attempted to show she was a natural comedienne in choreography by Christian Spuck that required her to crawl off stage; such items are best forgotten. In part two there were the delights of Jerome Robbins’ In The Night, his Chopin sequel to Dances at a Gathering. The ballet seems to explore the different facets of a single couple’s relationship in three loving duets which burble along by moonlight in never-ending invention to Chopin’s Nocturnes (beautifully played by Ludmilla Sveshnikova). Anastasia and Denis Matvienko showed the rapt intensity that only a married couple can in the opening duet; Kondaurova unfurled her endless limbs beautifully in the second and Lopatkina eddied through the gentle rushes of passions that the third’s inner-drama demands. To conclude, Theme and Variations, a microcosm of George Balanchine’s imperial vision, ideally danced by the Maryinsky company. Led by Vladimir Shklyarov and Viktoria Tereskina, she navigated the ballet’s summits with an authority that spoke of her impeccable Maryinsky pedigree, decorous in manner, delivered with regal ease: a true ballerina performance.

My trip to Germany also allowed visits to three other companies resident in the country. In Stuttgart, I saw a joint collaboration between the Opera and the Stuttgart Ballet of Gluck’s Orphée et Euridice, with choreography by Christian Spuck. It was, to my taste, rather too much like gilding the lily. Gluck’s filigree score, so innately dramatic, was swamped by choreography that piled metaphor upon metaphor and, ultimately, drained it. An overly-populated stage of chorus, dancers and soloists did not allow the score fully to breathe; L’Amour appeared as if she might open a Parisian brothel, her companions were five male dancers whose sole purpose seemed simply to flex their muscles and later lead Orpheus down into Hell. The chorus ran from one side of the stage to the other, without seeming rhyme nor reason. Of course there was nudity too. Watching the work, I thought how beautiful the Orpheus myth can be, of Trisha Brown’s marvellous Canto/Pianto shown in Edinburgh in 2007, and wished that Spuck had held back and allowed the music and the tale to speak more freely, with greater ease.

In Berlin, Vladimir Malakhov directs the company there and my sense is that, though the standard of dancing was indeed high, especially among the male dancers who clearly feed off Malakhov’s strong and continued dancing presence, his repertory choices were less happy. A Nutcracker by Patrice Bart (shown at the Deutsche Oper) imploded this most simple of narratives with a tale of a deposed empress, revolutionaries, an abducted daughter, naughty step-children, a randy governess, dancing clocks, and more Freudian sub-plots than are usually good for a child. The second act designs (by Luisa Spinatelli) were beautifully apt in their evocations of the national dances, but Bart’s choreography was too fussy, too concerned with creating a step for every musical beat. Boris Eifman’s Tchaikovsky, which I saw at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden the following week, was no better. The premise – that Tchaikovsky, upon his death-bed, hallucinates about his younger self, his loveless marriage and his unrequited affair with Madame von Meck – was hampered by profoundly unmusical choreography that scampered from pose to even more frenzied pose and a performance from Malakhov himself that occasionally lapsed into self-indulgence.

Sandwiched between these performances in Berlin, I travelled to Hamburg for a single showing of John Neumeier’s recent Christmas Oratorio, one of the most exquisite modern ballets I have seen. The basis for his vision is rooted in J S Bach’s oratorio and though the ballet charted the Nativity narrative, it did so with an implicit and never explicit spirituality. The figures, un-named save for Mother, Son and so on, had obvious biblical parallels, but Neumeier’s range was wide – the scriptures themselves, Fra Angelico paintings, medieval dream narratives – and each sequence, filled with meaning, appeared like a fresco at which you could gaze in your own, private contemplation. Above all there was the absolute clarity with which Neumeier responded to Bach’s rococo score and the superlative cast led by Anna Polikarpova, Silvia Azzoni, Carsten Jung, Lloyd Riggins, Peter Dingle and Alexander Riabko who made it, in every sense of the word, a divine performance.


Evgenia Obraztsova and Leonid Sarafanov in the Maryinsky Ballet’s production of La Sylphide in Baden-Baden. Photograph by Natasha Razina.

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