DanceView Times, New York edition
Letter from New York
Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) is most familiar to balletgoers for the three scores of his that Balanchine choreographed: the 1924 Kammermusik No. 2 (for solo piano and 12 solo instruments); the 1940 Theme with Four Variations [According to The Four Temperaments] for string orchestra and piano (which Balanchine, himself, commissioned from the composer); and the 1943 Symphonic Metamorphoses on a Theme of Carl Maria von Weber. Each of them resulted in ballets—respectively, Kammermusik No. 2 (1978), The Four Temperaments (1947), and Metamorphoses (1952)—that the dancers of the original casts have described as “spooky” or strange. (The Four Temperaments, which evolved from an idea by the painter and theatrical designer Pavel Tchelitchev, about a ballet based on the Medieval theory of determining humors in the human psyche, was first going to serve a different ballet, begun in 1941 and abandoned, called The Cave of Sleep, which was even stranger.) Because Balanchine never imposed qualities on music that were not already present there, I’ve always wondered how he knew to unearth these dark, mysterious ones, so strongly associated with psychological mayhem, in Hindemith—who, after emigrating to the United States from Nazi Germany in the 1930s, became known as a composer of lucidly Baroque structures and a conservative academician so tough that his in-your-face critiques often reduced his students to tears.
The answer was finally revealed this past Friday, in a sensationally focused and bracing one night-only concert staging by the American Symphony Orchestra of three short Hindemith operas from the early 1920s. The evening, conducted by the ASO’s musical director, Leon Botstein, was billed as “Opera Scandal 1920s,” owing to the extravagantly unorthodox nature of the mis-en-scènes, which prompted the Nazis to condemn Hindemith as a fabricator of “degenerate art,” despite his highly conservative musical language and his personal fascination with some of the same homogenizing processes of “volk” art that characterized the Nazis’ approach to culture. Yet the real scandal is that this evening constituted the trio’s U.S. première, well over eight decades after their composition. I’m not much of an operagoer, but I have seen Alban Berg’s Lulu and Wozzeck and several productions of The Threepenny Opera by Kurt Weill, Hindemith’s peer in post-WWI German tonality and, apparently, capacity for earnest passion infused with scorching sarcasm. It’s probably over the top to say that Hindemith’s early operas make Berg and Weill sound as if they were setting Shakespeare as told by the Lambs, but not excessively. From the libretti:
Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen Op. 12 (Murderer, Hope of Women), based on a play by Oscar Kokoschka
"The warriors and their leader, the Man, besiege the tower of the Woman and her maids. In a highly symbolic exchange, the Man and Woman express their instincts of fear and attraction. The Man brands the Woman with his mark; she retaliates by stabbing him. She allows him into the tower, where he revives and kills everyone."
Sancta Susanna, text by August Stramm
"In the darkened nave of a convent, Susanna’s intense devotions are interrupted by Sister Clementia, who urges her to tend to body as well as spirit by resting. As the wind whistles through the lilac bushes, the two nuns hear strange noises. Clementia discovers a young maid in a meadow with her lover. She brings the girl before Susanna. But as Susanna confronts her, the lover, a farmhand, enters and takes the maid away. The rush of wind as they depart extinguishes the candle, and her attempt to re-light it reminds Clementia of the young nun she knew years ago, who blasphemously kissed and embraced the image of Christ. As a result, the nun was interred alive in a wall, and the figure of Christ [was] covered with a cloth. Hearing this awakens all of Susanna’s repressed desires, and imagining she hears the voice of the young nun and of Christ, she strips the cloth off the crucified figure and repeats the blasphemy of the earlier nun. But a large spider falls into her hair, frightening her and causing her to hide beneath the altar. Clementia, appalled, waits until midnight for the procession of nuns to appear. When they do, Susanna orders the eldest nun to gather stones to make the wall for her tomb. Clementia and the nuns scream at her to confess, but Susanna refuses."
Das Nusch-Nuschi (Nuts, Nuts), An Opera for Burmese Marionettes in One Act, text by Franz Blei
(The story is so complicated that even a summary would be too long to reproduce here. However, its events include a servant’s serial seductions of four wives and an off-stage castration—accompanied, in the score, by the quotation of the love theme from Wagner’s Tristan—that stimulates high comedy among the other characters and is offered as part of the opera’s “happy ending.”)
The hair-raising thing about this music—which, especially in the Kokoschka opera, could be positively terrifying—was its success at conveying intense and frequently changing emotions entirely through sound, compositional structure, and pure singing. All one actually sees most of the time are musicians and singers, sitting or standing while they make music. In Sancta Susanna there was a simple yet also most effective entrance for the chorus of nuns, pacing gravely down the two aisles of Avery Fisher Hall, and in Nusch-Nuschi the reckless Tum-Tum leads the Emperor’s four wives, one by one, off into the wings, and then, with increasing exhaustion, back into view, in a very amusing silent byplay in the remote reaches of upstage; yet the action was so allusive that a child might have thought they were all going off to get a drink of water.
The libretti are also written in such a way that, in the first and last opera, the characters are usually communicating in the present tense, which conveys a tremendous immediacy to what they sing. Hindemith had a genius for preparing musical crescendi so that they seem completely logical in context. (In that, he was very different from his contemporary Carl Orff, whose Carmina Burana tends to drop in climactic kettledrums with numbing disconnection, like so many hammer blows.) Only in Sancta Susanna, essentially a work driven by memory that culminates in a single action, like Martha Graham’s Herodiade, does Hindemith lower the flame, passing through various degrees of resignation, longing, fear, and interior preparation. However, again, without any crucifix or other religious iconography visible, a child attending the opera wouldn’t have a clue as to what was going on. By the time the castration is reported, some members of the audience might be a bissell enervated by all the climaxes; still, the next time I see The Four Temperaments (molecules of whose score were audible in these operas), I’m going to look with brand-new eyes and hear with newborn ears.
Christopher Dean is a choreographer for figure skaters, and he wants to do something rare and difficult: to make theatrical numbers in which the dance, rather than the skater, is the star. His background is first-class: with his longtime skating partner Jayne Torvill, he won an Olympic gold medal in ice dancing in 1984, earning perfect 6.0s from every judge for his choreography of Maurice Ravel’s Bolero. He and Torvill have produced several skating shows and have collaborated on a film with the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and Dean, alone, has choreographed for ballet dancers of the English National Ballet. For the past two years, Dean and his outstanding creative team of Torvill, Sandra Bezic, and Michael Seibert have choreographed the touring revue “Stars on Ice,” sponsored by the JM Smucker Company of Orrville, Ohio. The 2004 edition, produced by the beloved Olympic champion Scott Hamilton, which performed last Thursday at Madison Square Garden, presented a roster of Olympic stars in both individual numbers, for which the skaters, themselves, were responsible, and in TGIF, a lively, guys ‘n gals suite for the group to songs of Joe Jackson, choreographed by Dean, who also devised the evening’s introductory number and the transition material, based on the theme of “time,” some of it accompanied by jokes told by an announcer over the loud-speaker system. The first joke—something to the effect of “Sonja Henie will not appear tonight”—fell a little flat with the audience in the section where I was seated, partly because some people had to ask who Sonja Henie is, and partly because, for the ones who knew her name, the real joke behind this commercial version is more bitter, viz. John Curry will not appear tonight.
Dean is a serious theatrical artist trapped in a bind. He’s working on an international commercial level, collaborating with the greatest skaters (most are Olympic medalists) and several of the finest ice choreographers of our moment, who, apparently, have thrown in their lot with Dean to produce a skating revue of quality. (The names of Torvill, Bezic, and Seibert are only found in fine print in the souvenir brochure.) Furthermore, the 2004 edition reflects both the heartfelt directness and the boyish humor of Scott Hamilton, who performed two numbers of his own and joined the finale, nailing several of his characteristic back flips, much to the entire audience’s delight. This means that Dean is working in a situation where he cannot be subtle: his choreography has to sell the Garden, only a small proportion of whose audience can recognize the figure skater’s vocabulary; it has to provide a (usually comic) respite to the virtuosic numbers of the individual stars; it has to reflect the directness of Hamilton’s own personality; and, somewhere far down the line, it has to please Dean’s own taste.
So when I say that his triumph as a choreographer consisted in getting such amazing and diversely trained skaters as Todd Eldredge, Alexei Yagudin, Kristi Yamaguchi, Elena Berezhnaya, Anton Sikharulidze, Jamie Salé, and David Pelletier to throw in their lot with one another and perform as an ensemble, I’m speaking of a real, managerial achievement. It is not yet an artistic achievement, though. The problem, at least for me, is that in yoking these champions together in the ensemble numbers, as charming as some of them were, Dean blunts what makes them special as skaters. His fellow countryman, the late John Curry, whose short-lived skating company remains the standard for skating choreography among those who saw it, did not do that: it explored what else those skaters had to offer, and its music—primarily drawn from the classical repertoire—cued the audience that its choreography had formal ambitions far beyond those of either competition rules or commercial rewards. John Curry’s ideals will never be repeated; he was misunderstood in his woefully brief lifetime, and, apart from the few nonprofit skating companies around North America who are his legacy, he is more or less forgotten today. He wanted to elevate figure skating as an art, on a par with classical ballet. In choreographing for the English National Ballet, Dean must have similar ambitions. In the decade and a-half that I’ve been following his work, he also has shown astonishing gifts for formal invention and musical wit. He is a hope, without a doubt, and his Joe Jackson suite displayed his gifts brilliantly. But it didn’t open up the brilliant skaters who danced it: it closed them off as stylized personalities. I realize, of course, that they had their individual numbers in which to develop and that the number of people at the Garden who care about the art of ice choreography can probably be counted on two hands. And, of course, the skaters were able to be paid at a rate that is something like commensurate with their worth. Still, it seems such a waste of the future to anyone who has seen the films of Belita as well as those of Sonja Henie, not to speak of the Olympic performances of Torvill and Dean. –Mindy Aloff
Credits Letter 22
Susanna, Op. 21 (1921)
Op. 20 (1920)
“Stars on Ice”
at Little Sister
Away with Me
Lake (excerpt, Act II)
for an Olympic Champion
4 x 2
You Come Back to Me Again
You to Your Seat
You Ever Been in Love [?]
That a Shame
last updated on January 11, 2004