'The Golden Age'
July 28, 2006 -- London Coliseum, London
The story of “The Golden Age” takes place in an unnamed Western European country, which I think we can safely assume is Germany. A group of veterans gathers to recall the past, and Alexander meets by chance a woman called Sophie whom he had briefly fallen in love with decades before. They are overwhelmed by this unexpected event and recall their past in the form of flashbacks.
Alexander (Mikhail Lobukhin), his friend Vladimir (Islom Baimuradov) and the rest of a Soviet football team have traveled abroad for an important match. At the stadium Alexander first catches sight of gymnast Sophie (Daria Pavlenko) training a group of little girls. He jokingly tries to emulate some of her movements to everyone’s amusement, but Vladimir seems uncomfortable with his friend’s interest in this foreign beauty. That evening the Soviet team is invited to a reception at the mansion of wealthy Mr. and Mrs. von Klein. (Andrei Ivanov and Alisa Sokolova). Sophie’s parents and her boyfriend Heinrich are present, the former chilly and reserved and the latter downright unpleasant. Guest of honour is Olga, (Ekaterina Kondaurova) ‘a film star’ with the looks of a present day super- model who takes a fancy to the handsome Vladimir who is clearly made uneasy by her interest. Is it shyness on his part or something else that makes him so ill at ease? Alexander eggs him on, clearly pleased as punch that his good-looking friend can attract such a stunner.
The next day things warm up even further between Sophie and Alexander with her administering some physiotherapy after he injures himself during a preliminary match. In the evening everyone goes off to watch Olga as the star performer at a cabaret club where she dances specifically for Vladimir. The group of acrobats that performs after Olga’s number are oddly out of place and dance poorly to boot. Sophie and Alexander slip away for a moment together with the contrivance of their friends while in their absence the party heats up with several of the ladies becoming the worse for drink. The following day is the day of the big match, danced with obvious relish by the football-mad Kirov boys, but the device of the score board revolving didn’t work for me because it made it impossible to tell who was winning. However, this may have also indicated the passing of time--when we next meet the protagonists they are swept up in the events of WWII.
The war has taken its toll on Sophie who is now a displaced person stranded along with the children she used to teach and a group of refugees including the von Kleins. When a curious child approaches an elderly man sitting slumped on the ground and realizes he is dead she runs back in horror. In order to minimize the trauma to the children, Mr von Klein seeks to distract them by performing a comic dance that becomes more and more manic. Exhausted by the hardships he is enduring, he has a sudden heart attack and dies. It the midst of all this suffering, Heinrich reappears and offers a means of escape to Sophie. She gestures towards the children and the other refugees: ‘Can they come too’ she seems to ask. Heinrich surveys the others contemptuously and strikes her to the ground before striding off.
Alexander and Vladimir are in a prison camp. They survived a mass shooting but both are in a bad way. In a desperate duet they drag each other across the stage in a frantic effort to escape, but it proves too much for Vladimir who dies in Alexander’s arms after kissing him passionately on the mouth. Has he harbored a love for Alexander that goes beyond friendship?
All of the action is cut with scenes of the newly reunited Sophie and Alexander played movingly by Gabriella Komleva and Sergei Berezhnoi, who captivated the audience with their warmth, dignity and charm. At one point in the action, Sophie finds she cannot cope with the intense emotion of meeting her former love again; she is taken ill and we watch film of her being treated in a hospital before recovering to continue her life at Alexander’s side. It’s real happy-ever-after stuff to compensate for those harrowing memories of the past. Mr. Gelber does to some extent wear his heart on his sleeve, but I don’t have too much of a problem with that, as it is so much easier to engage with a work of this sort when it is tempered with a genuine emotional input.
All the principal roles were danced exceptionally well with veteran performers Komleva and Berezhnoi enchanting us with their touching depiction of a love that stands the test of time. As the younger couple, Lobukhin and Pavlenko aren’t as engaging but both excel in the work’s more dramatic moments. Kondaurova looked dazzling as Olga in her spectacular costumes and Baimuradov as the complex Vladimir noticeably received the most applause at the curtain calls. Andrei Ivanov, who danced the role of Mr. von Klein, is fast becoming one of my favourite dancers; and the humour and humanity he brought to this role marked him as an exceptional actor as well as a brilliant dancer.
Choreographer Noah Gelber’s relative inexperience shows from time to time, particularly in those sections that are close to what Grigorovitch created for the Bolshoi in his production. I’m thinking of the nightclub scene in particular where Gelber’s fairly tame routine for Olga inevitably invites comparisons with the scorching duet Grigorovich devised for Bessmertnova and Taranda to the same music. The football match was a little disappointing too as this was a theme very popular with Russian choreographers of the past and wasn’t as well done as the danced soccer numbers I’ve seen by Moiseyev and Messerer. Some of Gelber’s choreography looks unnecessarily complex and in the cabaret scene; the six acrobats were clearly having problems. I have no problem with the multi-media ideas within the staging, but it is apparently something that ultra conservative critics and audiences have problems getting their heads around.
I am still unsure about the giant camera that was manoeuvred around the stage, and I have a strong dislike for bright lights being shone into the audience as it causes many people to look away and thereby miss some of the action on stage. Using the camera as a background for a portrait of Shostakovich at the end was a particularly apt finale to what is, after all, a celebration of his music. I would say that the highlight of the entire ballet was a magnificent pas de deux for the two lovers, which was admired by everyone I spoke to. The fierce interplay between the two men in the prison camp also demonstrated Gelber’s ability to express strong emotions in dance terms. As a former dancer with William Forsythe’s company, I half expected Mr Gelber’s work to be influenced by his erstwhile boss, but this wasn’t the case at all. This young choreographer is clearly finding a voice of his own.
The critics sharpened their knives over this ballet and I’m not sure why, as this was a work of great promise by a young choreographer obviously still finding his feet. Surely this sort of fledgling talent deserves some level of encouragement rather than the largely negative comments that have appeared in the national press. Mr. Crisp and his ilk may see the art of ballet as wall-to-wall “Swan Lakes” but would do well to remember that it is new work that is the lifeblood of the art of dance.
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