Posted on April 30, 2013
The black and white photographs of the dancers of the Ballets Russes in Natalia Goncharova’s designs for Les Noces, posed in the gardens at the back of the Casino in Monte Carlo in the 1920s, are a reminder of the works created in the principality by Serge Diaghilev’s company – works that have enriched the dance repertoire ever since. Jean-Christophe Maillot, the current artistic director of Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, attempts to maintain the spirit of Diaghilev – partly by supporting the work of emerging choreographers, partly by providing a platform for other companies, and partly by his own drastic reconstructions of classical ballets, with his LAC being the latest contribution to the company’s repertoire. His most recent project is the establishment of a ballet academy for talented young dancers.
To date the 2012–13 season has provided the Monegasques with visits from, among others, Tanztheater Wuppertal, George Momboye, and Maguy Marin, and promises the Ballet of Cambodia, The Royal Ballet (its first visit in over two decades) and Maillot’s most recent work, currently gestating. So far, the season has witnessed two world premieres: Alexander Ekman’s Rondo and Ina Christel Johannessen’s Blind Willow on a Triple Bill that included Maillot’s Vers un pays sage (Towards a Wise Country). The first two ballets will put in a second appearance this July, where they will be joined by a new work created by one of the company’s dancers, Joeren Verbruggen, who is tentatively beginning a second career as a choreographer.
Like Verbruggen, Ekman began his career as a dancer but emerged fully-fledged as a choreographer in 2006, since when he has been garlanded with awards for his work with Nederlands Dans Theater, Bern Ballett, Cullberg Ballet, and the Royal Swedish Ballet, to name but a few. Invited to choreograph for Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, Ekman responded with Rondo, danced to unidentified excerpts from Mozart and Beethoven. It is his attempt to interrogate rhythm in its various guises. (Plenty of scope there, you might have thought, but you would be wrong.) It begins well enough, with an intimate opening set in front of the curtain and then expands into a reveal across the entire width of the stage where the audience is forced to focus on the legs and feet of the dancers, and particularly on the percussive potential of their pointe shoes. This effect gives way to the opening of the entire set, which is dominated by five upright pianos stationed at even intervals across the stage. These large and cumbersome items then become the object of the dancers’ attention: thumped, kicked, vaulted over and generally abused for the rest of the ballet.
The piano may be a percussive sounding box, but it is so much more – an expression of an entire musical culture: of tonality, of harmony, of melodic progression. To see the instrument physically assaulted makes the dancers look incapable of the intelligence, sensitivity and skills that the instrument itself demands. The muted response from the audience was because it had witnessed sound and fury signifying not very much. The opening sections of the ballet demonstrate that Ekman is perfectly capable of witty, imaginative work drawing on a wide range of dance sources and imagery in popular culture, but the remainder is an indulgence that should have been stopped. What would Diaghilev have done if he had commissioned the piece?
Johannessen’s Blind Willow could not have been more different: at one level it is brim full of dense, articulate movement danced to a sophisticated soundscape with multiple authors, and at another it is a complex psychological drama, hinting at subtle and shifting relationships, replete with gestures that capture the vulnerabilities of an inner life. The central female figure, the Blind Willow, is heroine and victim, a vulnerable and yet tenacious protagonist, the centre of emotional gravity, to which others are both drawn and yet repelled. Johannessen’s audience is engaged in complexity, never knowing quite where to look as it is impossible to register all that is happening on stage at a first sitting.
If there is a feature that unites the two new ballets presented last December, it is the significance of the set. The designer Kristen Torp provided Johannesson with a bare stage and a flexible dark back wall, like a pleated skirt, choreographed into the action in shifts of fluid movement as the ballet progresses. It provides the entrances and exits from which the dancers emerge and then disappear; what we see on stage is not the whole story.
This is choreography of a high order, as recognised by the warmth of its reception at the premiere. Commenting after the event, Johannssen was sanguine about the fact that her work would be performed on only a few occasions – in December and July – and then for all intents and purposes will disappear into the company’s back catalogue. All that matters is the journey for herself and her dancers. She accepts with equanimity that her work would have no significant shelf life. It is difficult to imagine artists in other disciplines being willing to consign their work – work laboured over with infinite care – to oblivion. Is it only the next project that counts?
The ballet on the same programme that has remained in the company’s repertoire since its creation, in 1995, is Maillot’s Vers un pays sage, which he choreographed as an affectionate and vibrant tribute to his father, a painter, after his untimely death. Danced to John Adams’ Fearful Symmetries it embodies the score and his father’s creative energy. It shifts through different phrases of innovative and athletic movement, drawing on a neoclassical vocabulary, with only an unexpected and dramatic moment of grief and loss at the end of the ballet. Understandably, it has become one of the company’s signature works. It is compelling choreography and very different from Maillot’s postmodern and playful reconstructions of Petipa’s ballets. Accustomed as they are to such fare, what will the Monegasques make of Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon, when The Royal Ballet performs there in June? To watch a straightforward narrative may well come as a blessed relief. It will certainly be a novel experience.