"The Grey Area," "La Valse," "The Concert"
by John Percival
Time was that the annual Edinburgh Festival might have different major ballet companies filling its three weeksI recall for instance Sadler’s Wells, New York City and Cuevas in succession playing six nights each, plus matinees. That practice has long gone, and some directors over the years have almost ignored dance.
The present head man, Sir Brian McMaster, goes in for short, varied engagements by companies of different size and quality. There are gaps between, but assiduous dance fans can find much more activity than in earlier years in the independent and overlapping Fringe Festival.
This year I saw three out of five official presentations, involving two visits (a six-hour journey each way; the trains used to be quicker). I’ve already reported on the Pennsylvania Ballet’s disappointing “Swan Lake” which opened the Festival; a recompense on that trip was catching Sasha Waltz’s “Impromptus”. Created in April 2004 at her usual base, the Schaubuehne am Lehniner Platz, Berlin, this is set, unusually for Waltz, to lyrical 19th-century music played live, which has encouraged her to a far more dance-filled structure. The music in question is by Franz Schubert: five piano impromptus played by Christina Marton and four songs by Judith Simonis, mezzo-soprano; these musicians, at the side of the large stage, managed to sound good even in Edinburgh’s vast, dreary Playhouse.
The stage itself, with the set design of Thomas Schenk and Sasha Waltz, was covered by two tilted flat areas with a similar structure upright behind. On this Waltz deploysoften only one or two at a timefour female and three male dancers drawn from Argentina, Canada, China, France, Israel, Portugal and Spain. Their solos, duets or ensembles often involve complex or twisted movement, yet the total effect echoes the simplicity of the score. Changes of clothing, the use at different times of boots or bare feet, slapping red paint on themselves or the floor, two women taking an on-stage bath (rear view only)all these things vary and complicate the action, yet there is an over-all feeling of the group simply taking turns to dance, separately or together. The dancers were all good (I wish it was possible to identify who did which) and what they had to do always held the interest. I have long admired Waltz’s work but this was far the most enjoyable creation I have seen from her.
Nearly three weeks later the Dutch National Ballet closed the Festival with a triple bill containing the first British showing of a ballet by David Dawson, “The Grey Area”. Born in London, Dawson graduated from the Royal Ballet School dancing “Les Sylphides”, joined Birmingham Royal Ballet and English National Ballet (his roles included Bluebird and Ashton’s Oberon), then Dutch National Ballet where he began choreography.
After two further years in William Forsythe’s Frankfurt Ballet he stopped dancing, aged 30, and has now been for three years a freelance ballet-maker; affiliated to the Dutch National as one of their three resident choreographers but he has also worked for the Kirov (!), Boston, Finland, New Zealand, Sweden and West Australia, with Dresden, Flanders and Monte Carlo lined up for next year. How odd that no British company has yet engaged him.
He made “The Grey Area” in 2002, his first work on leaving Frankfurt, and it was awarded the 2003 Benois de la Danse for best choreography (a duet from it consequently opened a Benois gala at Sadler’s Wells in February 2004). The Edinburgh programme note quotes him as saying he doesn’t see dance as a vehicle for story telling: “My pieces are more concerned with the dancing itself”. In this instance however he admits a specific influence, his grandmother’s death just before starting: “It made me wonder what place she was going to. I wanted to make a space that would be very beautiful, where she could go and where the dancers would be like angels.” Add his initial wish for the five dancers to be themselves and express their physical and emotional sense of being on stage, and the predominantly quiet, gentle nature of the movements and floor patterns explain themselves. The music by Niels Lanz manipulates phrases from Bach into cool shapes that reinforce Dawson’s personal development of classicism. This is not a big work, but a pleasing one. The main duet, towards the ballet’s end, is given to Yumiko Takeshima (who also designed the simple clothes) and Raphael Coumes-Marquet.
The programme began with Balanchine’s “La Valse”, in which I thought the leading woman, Sofiane Sylve, her partner Dragos Mihalcea and Nicolas Rapaic as the Death figure, more apt than the Maryinsky casts lately seen at Covent Garden. Jerome Robbins’s “The Concert”, ending the show, was perhaps a little exaggerated in performance, but still great fun. I much liked Altin Alexandros Kaftira as the husband, and you certainly can’t accuse Larissa Lezhnina, who took the lead, of lacking personality.
Volume 3, No. 33