Peter Breuer's dansical about Hollywood's Sex Icon
Salzburg State Theatre
February 20, 2010
by Horst Koegler
copyright 2010 by Horst Koegler
At 63, Peter Breuer belongs to the post-second world war generation of German dancers who had collaborated with choreographers of the Massine, Nijinska, Lander, Cullberg, Béjart and Cranko vintage. Of Bavarian descent he seems to have been breath-fed by his father, who was a ballet rehearsal pianist and conductor at the Munich State Opera. A product of that institute's ballet school, he auditioned for Balanchine when he worked in Hamburg during the early sixties and was offered a contract with the New York City Ballet when only 17. As the NYCB at that time was not allowed to hire foreign dancers, he had to apply for US citizenship to get a working permit, from which he shrank, afraid that he might be drafted into the Army to fight in Vietnam. With a recommendation from Victor Gsovsky he went instead to Düsseldorf, where he was immediately engaged as a half-soloist, being promoted already in his second year to soloist status after his break-through performance as servant Jean in Cullberg´s “Miss Julie”. Based upon that house for many years as a principal, he created roles in about 25 ballets by Erich Walter, perfectly happy to work with a choreographer of Walter´s innate musicality.
This did not prevent him, though, from accepting numerous guest-engagements with other companies, and thus it happened that he regularly appeared with the then London Festival Ballet, the West Berlin and Munich companies, La Scala di Milano and even with ABT, his favourite ballerinas during his long lasting career being Beryl Grey, Eva Evdokimova, Cynthia Gregory, Martine van Hamel and back at home in Munich, Konstanze Vernon. Trying his hand at choreography, he created several pièces d´occasion for gala performances, and was then engaged as ballet-director and chief choreographer at the Salzburg State Theatre for the 1991/92 season, where he has stayed ever since.
It is a notoriously difficult position. For as a city Salzburg nourishes the highest international ambitions, but apart from the weeks of the summer festival, which is concentrated on opera and concerts and an occasional drama performance, its resident ten months a year theatre season offers just the usual provincial routine repertory of opera, operetta, musical, drama and ballet in slim-line performances. Actually its cozy theatre of 707 seats houses a ballet company of just six plus six dancers, which may eventually be increased to twenty performers, who mostly appear in operetta and musical productions.
Anyway through his very solid, extremely musical and theatrically blazing performances he has built up a flock of ardent followers, which allows him to stage up to twenty performances of the one new ballet-evening he is allowed each season (plus some additional minor events like lectures, young choreographers or school excursions). Indeed his production of Pink Floyd's ”The Wall” was so successful that the company had to emigrate to a local cinema to satisfy the enormous request for tickets. A hundred percent man of all theatrical trades, he likes his ballets to provide meaty dramatic stuff, and thus has dealt with characters like Faust, Peer Gynt, Don Juan, Carmen, Tchaikovsky and Lulu, while he has announced Romeo and Juliet for next season. (plus “Kiss Me, Kate” for the neighbouring department).
His latest creation was “Marilyn”, which premiered on October 18 of last year. I didn´t originally intend to go but changed my mind when I chanced upon a DVD recording of the first night – which I found sparklingly alive, as if the dancers had been fed on dope. In its two parts of fifty minutes each, concocted by Breuer as producer and/choreographer and Andreas Geier responsible for the script and dramaturgy, it materialized like a high protein broadway show based upon dance – indeed so much so that I feel tempted to call it a dancical. It certainly is a cross-over production, with the music arranged by Franz-Josef Gruemmer and Teo Schulte from the Monroe films as are the video clippings by Thomas Zengerle. I attended the 18th performance on February 20 and experienced a house on the brink of exploding from high voltage energy.
Its 15 scenes follow each other like a seamlessly cut film in escalating tempo, performed on a stage set by Dorin Gal like a film studio, dominated by a huge screen on which excerpts from the movies, projected and furnished with paravents, mirrors and spotlights plus the usual production chairs and tables, reflecting a hectic workshop atmophere, with th action split between excerpts from the films and the life-style scenes of Marilyn´s biography – some played simultaneously, others staged like partners in a dialogue.
The protagonist is enacted by two dancers, the real Marilyn super-star and her alter ago as Norma Jeane, the simple and naïve girl she was born and longs for to become again. It makes a good effect when both are dancing together, and Breuer characterizes them in boldy different strokes. Further persons appearing are her psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Greenson, her mother Gladys, various girl-friends, her coach Paula Strasberg, the dramatist Arthrr Millar, the photographer Bert Stern, the baseball quarterback Joe DiMaggio, the actor Clark Gable, the film producer Billy Wilder and Robert Kennedy, plus hordes of supers, fellow-actors, secretaries, paparazzi and society people. While some of them are automatically identified (for instance the men she married like Arthur Miller, DiMaggio and the photographer Bert Stern) I had some difficulty to recognize the man from the Kennedy clan and Hollywood star Clark Gable). Anyway it´s a bunch of highly differentiated people, and in the big ensembles I hopelessly failed to count how many they were – up to thirty, I guess. They constantly have to change their costumes, and the wardrobe staff have to work like well-oiled machine.
The show proceeds without any hiccup, enrolling like a natural spectacle of flood and tide, with blazing highlights and tear-stained sobs. If there is a musical ´Leitmotiv´ it is Marilyn´s much variated song “I want to be loved by you” – which she certainly experiences to the fullest, without ever being able to turn it into a steadfast affair. And thus the emotional climate bobs up and down in a temperature zigzac chart until she finally dies from an overdose of drugs and is duly buried in a coffin covered with the Union Jack, but gets revived by hordes of fans trying to be like her (and reminding me much of the funeral orgies at the occasion of Michael Jackson´s death).
As the director/choreographer Breuer has staged the show by borrowing from his vast experiences acquired as a producer of musicals. And though it is clear that he is a classical man, who hails from the danse d´école, he has jazzed up its vocabulary by numerous injections from the lighter genre and especially from the rock´n´roll era of the fifties with its different sorts of social dances like the boogie, the hully gully, the jive and stroll and baby doll extravagances. It is obvious, though, that it dates from the pre hiphop age and I was quite amused when I seemed to discover quotations from “Fancy Free”, which Breuer has danced during his guest-stints with ABT. I was especially impressed by his keen sense how to build snowballing ensembles, as I generally admired his unerring flair for structuring individual numbers which follow each other in an unstoppable succession of escalating drive, lending the whole evening an air of thrilling tension. He seems to have learned his lesson from colleagues like Hanya Holm, Bob Fosse. Gower Champion, Michael Bennett and the inevitable Jerome Robbins (one of this biggest Salzburg successes was “West Side Story”).
As a company they hail from all over the world, a truly global troupe, in which everybody is paid the same monthly salary of a meagre 2000 Euro (on a fourteen months annual base – and this in as a notoriously expensive tourist city like Salzburg). They are all hardworking professionals and they perform their roles with enormous gusto. Marilyn superstar is Anna Yanchuk, a striking blonde who was educated at the Kiev conservatory, sexy and a vivacious temperament, and yet inspite of her vigorous performance she is even more affecting in her sufferings (she is said to be an accomplished Giselle, and I wish that Breuer might one day create Blanche Dubois from “Streetcar Named Desire” for her).
In contrast to her sophistication Kristina Kantsel plays Norma Jeane, who got her basic training at various Moscow schools as a sort of ingenue character but leaves no doubt about her technical efficiency. Breuer has built the role of the psychiatrist Greenson into a really caring doctor of almost limitless, if rather helpless empathy, and Josef Vesely, a native Sydneyan who for eleven years danced with Peter Schaufuss´s Danish company at Aarhus, lends it a touching and warmhearted quality. As Arthur Miller, Marian Meszaros comes from Bratislava, and his pas de deux with Marilyn is undoubtedly the highlight of the evening, a piece of iridiscent beauty (and I well believe that he is an exuberantly youthful Joseph in Breuer´s staging of Richard Strauss´s rather convoluted “Legend of Joseph” , which Massine created in 1914 for Diaghilev). Other members of the company hail from England, Spain, Italy, Hungary, Sweden, Rumania, Ukrania, Rio de Janeiro, New Zeland and even Germany, but they all have matured into accomplished Salzburg theatre artists. Mozart, anyway, would have admired them for their sheer theatrical bravado!
Photos, all by T Zengerle:
Anna Yanchuk as "Marilyn"
Anna Yanchuk and members of the Salzburg Ballett
Marilyn Anna Yanchuk and Marian Meszaros