copyright 2010 by Marc Haegeman
The Royal Ballet of Flanders celebrated its 40th anniversary this season. Within the local cultural state of affairs this is nothing short of a miraculous event which has to be welcomed with as much relief as joy. For Belgium’s only academically trained professional ballet company, these four decades have been neither easy nor obvious and more often than not healthy artistic aspirations were overshadowed by a chronic lack of funds. And they still are. The arrival of Australian Kathryn Bennetts as artistic director in 2005 resulted in a change in approach. Serious efforts to upscale production standards and profile did definitely contribute to put the company on the map – if, perversely, perhaps with more success abroad than locally. One of the main issues, however, remains the development of a repertory. In dropping everything anterior to 2005 Bennetts bravely made this responsibility totally hers. Yet the current season wasn’t in any way different from the preceding ones, in that it didn’t give us any real indication where the company is heading to and in what way it is going to survive the next 10 years. While solid productions of "The Sleeping Beauty" and "Swan Lake" were recently acquired, the emphasis lies clearly on performing the beloved Forsythe – to compare this season Flanders will have danced 12 performances of "Artifact" and 12 of "Impressing the Czar" against 8 of the new "Swan Lake" – and the newly added pieces don’t always inspire the same amount of confidence for the future.
This is Dawson’s second creation for the company and while it would be difficult to top his outstanding "A Sweet Spell of Oblivion" from 2007, "The Third Light" easily ranks among the most rewarding new ballets acquired by Flanders in the last dozen years. Inspired by the various connotations of “light” and set to an especially commissioned score for strings by Gavin Bryars, Dawson offers again a thoroughly captivating dance piece, which subtly blends plasticity, music and scenic design, unraveling an array of moods but also attaining heights of sublime beauty along the way.
Within an intriguing décor staged by John Otto and variably lit by Bert Dalhuysen (both are regular collaborators), Dawson uses Bryars’ mesmerizing music to let a group of five male and five female dancers appear in an almost uninterrupted flow, juxtaposing walks and runs, solos and combinations with seemingly inexhaustible inventiveness. While stylistically the Forsythe lineage is obvious, Dawson assures a more gratifying range of expressivity and emotional shading – and Dawson is primarily interested in dance. The ensemble appeared alert, swift, and brimming with assurance. At their heart was a riveting duet danced by Courtney Richardson and Wim Vanlessen, culminating in a striking moment of solitude.
For Balanchine’s "Theme and Variations," which the company first performed in 2005, the company has clearly gained in confidence to evoke the distanced memory of Marius Petipa’s Imperial Russian Ballet. Rehearsed by Patricia Neary and now with several seasons of "The Sleeping Beauty" behind them, principals Aki Saito and Wim Vanlessen performed the demanding variations with admirable ease and brilliance, stylishly suggesting the link between the two ballets.
Jirí Kylián’s 1981 Forgotten Land, set to Benjamin Britten’s "Sinfonia da Requiem," was given an irresistibly refreshing performance, equally compelling in physical excitement and emotional impact. Any quibbles about the dated theatrics were soon silenced by the dancers’ energy and character, overriding even the choreographer’s impersonal approach.
Yet, after the hopeful light that seemed to have been guiding “Grands égards” the following triple bill “Kylian, Fonte, Pickett” in March was in many ways back to the dark ages again, marked by an onslaught of what could be called Yankee-trash. Albeit including two world premieres, this programme was just another useless stab at “aren’t we trendy and cool?” but brought nothing of lasting value for this company.
"Reign" is a creation from American Helen Pickett, who danced more than ten years with Forsythe/Frankfurt before performing with the experimental theatre collective The Wooster Group. Out here nobody has forgotten Pickett’s appearance as Agnes in Forsythe’s "Impressing the Czar." Since 2005 she has been active as a dance-maker in the USA and "Reign" is her first endeavour on European soil. It has eight women trapped in obscurity and in a series of movements stubbornly unrelated to a tape collage of Rachmaninov and Mendelssohn snippets. For some reason most of the dancers appeared on pointes, while nothing significant was done with them. From the booklet we learned Reign was inspired by poetry from T.S. Elliott and for the first time his poems appeared a spiteful bore.
The second offering of the evening "Made Man" by New Yorker Nicolo Fonte was also attended by these notes that try to outsmart the audience as well as that bizarre fascination of so many contemporary dance-makers with ugliness and brutality. Another critical observation of social injustice in our world? Or the side-effects of global warming? Not even that. Fonte claims to be captivated “by the transposition of words, colours and ideas into movement”, while "Made Man" is supposedly “an overwhelming physical reaction we generate from the point of view: ‘one of you will betray me’.” All very clever, no doubt, but why didn’t he deliver any of this on stage? The setting suggested nothing but that glum grey area in never-land, which looks now as predictable as the limiting electronic score riddled with that obligate indistinct babbling (courtesy of David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Anna Clyne), and dance that resolutely kicks out with its one-track aggressive manner all finesse or simple human warmth.
"Made Man" is the sort of dance piece that makes you look in vain for any novelty or stroke of originality. It employs one woman and twelve men in skirts and black socks, and if Fonte doesn’t have them indulge in those formulaic semaphore arm movements, he has them walking in slow motion towards the edge. Nothing but praise for the male dancers here, especially Alain Honorez and Garrett Anderson, providing several moments to make the piece more interesting than it deserves to be, but all one wanted to cry at the end was: “What a waste!”
Unlike "Symphony of Psalms" and "Forgotten Land," Jirí Kylián’s "27’52”" from 200 is an awkward fit for the company. This is the sort of Kylián that relies upon streamlined, no-nonsense execution to generate kinetic excitement, lest the trappings run away with the honours. And so they mostly did. Too hermetic and self-aware, drifted too far from its bases to translate convincingly on dancers used to a different idiom, the last hope for salvation of a dreary evening was thrown away with the floor cloths.
The new staging of "Swan Lake," added last year, was revived for an all too short run. As the excellent "Sleeping Beauty" from 2006 it was tailor-made on Flanders by Marcia Haydée. The production looks superb with magnificent sets and costumes designed by Pablo Nuñez and although Haydée choreographed the ballet anew (except for the lakeside Act 2 and most of the Black Swan pas de deux) and she uses the score quite liberally, the text, drama and spirit of this "Swan Lake" are sound and safe. It is therefore a shame that not more time is spent on performing the ballet and fine-tuning its stylistic requirements. The dancers would appear a lot more comfortable in it than they did in this run. Especially the 1st Act, which is already not the strongest part of the production, looked rather fuzzy as if they needed to come to terms with it all over again. The lakeside scenes left a more convincing impression, yet I was more enthusiastic about the overall presentation at the premiere last year and the risk of losing its focus seems already very present now.
Altea Nuñez nonetheless made a fine debut as Swan Queen. Especially her Odette was well danced, alert and shivering with emotion, in spite of Ernesto Boada’s numb, routinelike Siegfried, who should be told that his role also implies some degree of dramatic involvement. Even if her Black Swan was too controlled and lacked sheer oomph, this was a performance that begs for being groomed, preferably with a more responsive partner. Alain Honorez portrayed Rothbart - in this production a mixture of a salamander with count Dracula and a prominent dancing role - with his usual sense of theatricality and dynamic style.
Despite the disappointments I felt this jubilee season was memorable for the “Grands égards” bill which demonstrated the skill and versatility of the Royal Ballet of Flanders in quite an ideal manner. Purely on the strength of how these dancers triumphed in such a programme we need to wish them another 40 years, at least!
Photos, all by Johan Persson.
Wim Vanlessen and Courtney Richardson in "Third Light" by David Dawson
Jessica Truesdale, Royal Ballet of Flanders in "Reign" by Helen Pickett.
Aki Saito and Wim Vanlessen, Royal Ballet of Flanders, in "Theme and Variations" by George Balanchine.
Alain Honorez, Royal Ballet of Flanders, in "Made Man" by Nicolo Fonte.