Dresden SemperOper Ballett
by Horst Koegler
copyright@2008 by Horst Koegler
Dresden, former residence of the Saxon electors and part time kings of Poland, now capital of the State of Saxony, is considered the Florence of the Elbe because of its lovely geographical situation in the valley of one of Germany´s legendary rivers, and its architecture and art treasures. Completely devastated by Allied bombing during the Second World War, the city is still in the process of rebuilding, but its famous silhouette has been restored and attracts now thousands of tourists from all over the world – among them the famous Semperoper, the theatre where Carl Maria von Weber and Richard Wagner reigned as music directors and many operas by Richard Strauss had their first performance. In many ways it could also be called the St. Petersburg on the banks of the Elbe river – in that case the Semperoper might be compared to the Mariinsky Theatre, matching its splendour as one of the most beautiful and tenderly loved theatres of the world. Alas, there the comparison ends, for it is opera which reigns as number one, while the ballet has always played second fiddle.
Actually what Dresden contributed to the history of dance happened outside of the opera-house – first at the Institute for Applied Rhythm, established by Jaques-Dalcroze at the nearby garden city of Hellerau (that is where Diaghilev brought Nijinsky and Rambert for the preliminary studies of the “Sacre du printemps” complexities and which is today run as an experimental forum, where the Forsythe company, based upon Frankfurt, has its second home) and then, during the Weimar Republic of the ´twenties and early ´thirties when Mary Wigman had her famous studio for contemporary dance at the Bautzener Street, to be usurped by the Nazis and restituted by her pupil Gret Palucca after the war and under the name of Palucca School became the center of dance education in the so-called (East) German Democratic Republic.
Since 1945 the Dresden State Opera (now again the Semperoper) – has seen a constant succession of ballet-directors and chief-choreographers, among them Tom Schilling, who later gained some reputation at the East Berlin Komische Oper, and lately Vladimir Derevianko, the ex-Bolshoi soloist – none of whom has been able to leave his mark on the company of about 60 dancers, so that the repertory was dominated mainly by guest-choreographers, among them John Neumeier and the late Uwe Scholz plus some Cranko and others.
In 2006 Aaron S. Watkin was appointed Artistic Director and since the situation has somewhat consolidated by a marked improvement of the daily classes and careful and longtime planning of the repertory. Watkin is one of the Canadians who slowly infiltrate German institutes: Reid Anderson in Stuttgart, Paul Chalmer in Leipzig and Jason Beechey as Rector of the Palucca School plus Dominique Dumais as resident choreographer of Kevin O´Day´s Mannheim company. At 38 Watkin, a Graduate of The National Ballet School of Canada, has danced with many companies abroad. both classical and modern, working his way from group to principal to become assistant to Forsythe and thus gain an usual wide scope of experience, based solidly on the classical technique - which functions as the base of what is now called the Dresden SemperOper Ballet. He has appointed David Dawson, with whom he has collaborated at various companies, as resident choreographer, and in a remarkably short time has strengthened the repertory through the import of choreographies by Balanchine, Kylián and Forsythe, with himself contributing a new production of “Sleeping Beauty”, which had a mixed reception, followed now by a unanimously acclaimed “La Bayadère,” and with plans for the complete Balanchine “Jewels” over the next seasons, as part of a “4 Colours” tetralogy, starting come March with “Red”, consisting of Balanchine´s “Rubies” as the highlight of a programme supplemented by two creations of the Canadian duo of Francois Chirpaz and Kirsten Cere and a new David Dawson plus Balanchine´s “Tarantella” Pas de deux (in Red?).
His new “Bayadère” is already the fourth complete German production of Petipa´s masterpiece, with a somewhat slimmed down fifth version at Birgit Keil´s Karlsruhe company (and as we reckon Vienna belonging even with its Austrian passport to the community of German speaking opera-houses we may even speak of six German “La Bayadère” productions in recent decades, which is certainly more than any other country outside of the Russian orbit offers - demonstrating the astonishing progress classical ballet has made in our pastures which so far had been considered as predominantly interested in modern ballet only, if not as the breeding-ground of ´tanztheater´). It is the more astonishing as the six productions all acknowledge their descent from Petipa and yet materialize as highly individual interpretations of his basic material – with Vladimir Malakhov in charge of the stagings at Berlin and Vienna, Makarova in Hamburg as a recycling of her original ABT version, Patrice Bart in Munich and the young Australian Terence Kohler at Karlsruhe – plus Watkin now in Dresden.
Watkin has stated clearly his aims in declaring that one of his considerations was to concentrate on “2 acts with a total running time of 2 hours 20 Minutes (including a 25 minutes intermission)”, trying “to keep the momentum of the ballet up as it always bothers me that in most versions between each scene we have to wait in the dark with no music for several minutes for the sets to change or have a 3rd act just for the Temple scene. My set designer took that into consideration when designing the set so that we can move directly from scene to scene with no breaks which I believe gives the ballet a rhythm that allows the spectator to flow easily through the story.”
And fly we certainly did, from our bird´s view overlooking the Bayadere-country to discover some new developments which had been taken place under the new reign. Most of all a sort of Indianization through a stronger emphasis on the Indian elements in the costumes, the dances and the rituals. Of course ideally the music sounded still rather French in its Minkus arrangement, with conductor David Coleman not changing the Harnoncourt way – i.e. using Indian instruments instead of the normal orchestral orchestration, though adding some new colorizations plus a violin solo for Hamsatti in act 2/4 and a final apotheosis love pas de deux for Nikiya and Solor, celebrating the unification of their souls in Nirwana. There have been cuts of the girl with the water jug solo, the corps de ballet with parrots and the Indian drum dance in the engagement ceremony. The first dance of the Devadasis (Bayadères) is performed barefoot with ankle bells. Newly arranged is also the final wedding ritual with the exchanging of flower garlands, but in general Watkin has respected the traditional choreography of Petipa in the two great dance scenes, closing the first act with the engagement ceremony of Hamsatti and Solor and opening act two with the ´Kingdom of Shades`, which looks breathtakingly beautiful as it is performed by the 24 Dresden dancers. Actually I was thinking that it was this scene in which what is now called the Dresden SemperOper Ballett matched the majesty of the house´s architecture – which means a lot as Gottfried Semper certainly ranks with the Galli-Bienas, Palladio and Appia to the world´s most eminent theatre architects.
In general one can say that the performance clearly told the story, with the mime scenes decently acted (truly dignified portrayals of Marc Boermans as the High Brahman and Ralf Arndt as the Radsha Dugmanta of Golconda) and special emphasis on a subtle colour dramaturgy, with green and red clothes as fighting forces of the elemental powers. If there was one role which I found rather exaggerated it was Ekavir, the friend of Solor – not the fault of its performer, Oleg Klymyuk, but in his obsequious attitude Watkin made him look like a permanent floor wiper.
With Natalia Sologub as Nikiya and Britt Juleen as Hamsatti the two rivalling women were really of strongly contrasting temperaments, though technically on equal footing: Sologub from Bashkiriya, pliant and languorous; Juleen from Miami sort of aggressive and ferocious, both arguing fiercely their claim for Solor´s hand. Sologub with her finely chiselled features is all delicacy and softness, vulnerable and yet with an innate elegance, her body pliant and radiating a distinctly feminine grace. Juleen, with her long legs and tall torso, is of different breed and very conscious of her superior education, with a strong, almost steely technique – a Hamsatti with an American college background. As Solor Jiri Bubenicek comes from a different school: for years he had been a Neumeier principal in Hamburg (twin-brother of Otto, who is also a principal in Hamburg). Brilliantly intelligent and genuinely musical (due to his Czech upbringing), he has improved technically considerably since moving to Dresden, his manege of double assembles exploding like a series of fire-crackers. He is also a talented junior choreographer as he has proved with some workshop contributions both in Dresden and Zurich.
Well, one hopes that the Dresden SemperOper Ballet is now set on a more solid path than in the past. Interested readers who understand German might like to know that in connection with the new “Bayadère” a highly informative illustrated brochure has been published in the series of ´Dresdner Hefte´: “Sprache des Körpers – Tanz in Dresden”, actually a condensed history of dance in the city – it is very cheap, and enquiries might be directed via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos, all by Costin Radu, from top:
Members of the ensemble in Act 1.
The corps de ballet in Act 2.
Natalia Sologub and Jiri Bubenicek as Nikiya and Solor in Act 2.
Natalia Sologub in Act 2.
Britt Juleen as Hamsatti and Jiri Bubenicek as Solor in Act 1.