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Edinburgh International Festival

Scottish Ballet

'Agon’, ‘Afternoon of a Faun’, ‘Two Pieces for Het’, ‘In Light and Shadow’

by Kate Snedeker

August 18, 2006 -- The Edinburgh Playhouse

In 2005, the Scottish Ballet returned to the Edinburgh International Festival.  In this their second successive Festival appearance, they have brushed away any remaining questions about their talent and quality.   The Festival program of  "Agon", "Afternoon of a Faun", "Two Pieces for HET" and "In Light and Shadow" is a perfect match for the company, showing off a male contingent that has in the last four months improved by leaps and bounds.

Over the last two years, the Scottish Ballet has made a convincing case that they can do Balanchine, and picking “Agon” for the 2006 Edinburgh Festival program was a bold statement about the company’s increasing confidence and talent.   The last direct collaboration between choreographer George Balanchine and composer Igor Stravinsky, “Agon”, with no sets or formal costumes, is a stunning display of what can be accomplished with the combination of the human body and the musical note. The choreography is full of angles, sliding steps, legs thrust into high arabesque and sudden stops.   Perhaps the most striking moment comes when a section ends with a ballerina leaping into the air to be caught by her partner in a slightly tilted arabesque just as the last note sounds.

“Agon” is fiendishly difficult, and to be effective every step must be danced on the knife-edge between comfort and disaster.  Tonight, while the performance was light years ahead of anything the company could have managed even a year ago, the company still has a bit farther to go before all the dancers are comfortable enough to step all the way up on to that edge.  However, given the improvement seen in other pieces that were performed in last year’s Festival and repeated in the Spring Repertory season, one looks forward to seeing an improved “Agon” in 2007.

The piece started strongly with the male quartet of Gregory Dean, Christopher Harrison, Adam Blyde and Erik Cavallari.  They were soon joined by eight women, who embarked on a section full of intricate, interlacing steps in which groups of dancers twisted around and under their own linked arms. Here the female corps began to look a bit soft, with an early stumble and a fall.  They were not helped by a slightly peculiar sound from the orchestra which seemed to be a bit off in a few sections.

But, if anyone in the company can bring Balanchine to life, it is Eva Mutso with her fearlessness, flexibility and sleek lines.  Her pas de deux with Erik Cavallari was one of the finest moments audiences have yet seen from Scottish Ballet.  This was cool, effortless dancing with knife-edge precision from both dancers.  Near the end, Mutso, supported by Cavallari, raised one leg slowly up to a full 180 split.  There was not even a whisper of a wobble.   If the rest of the company can keep up with Mutso and Cavallari, audiences are in for a treat.

Set to Debussy’s ‘Prélude á L’ápres-midi d’un faune’, Jerome Robbins’ “Afternoon of a Faun” turns the audience into the studio mirror for two young dancers intently focused on their practice.  The curtain lifts on a young danseur asleep on a studio floor.  As he stretches languidly, the still is broken by the silent arrival of a young ballerina.  As they dance, the invisible mirror becomes a third person in their pas de deux, each paying more attention to it than each other.  This intensity is only broken when the boy reaches over to place a gentle kiss on the girl’s cheek.  The spell broken, she departs as silently as she arrived, leaving the boy to settle back on the floor, one leg stretching up – a metaphorical climax…perhaps – and then dropping back to the floor.

Though the ballet is about young dancers, the roles are quite often performed by older and more experienced company members.  Scottish Ballet, however, placed their hopes on two young corps dancers – Christopher Harrison and Luisa Rocco.  It was a gamble well worth taking.  From Harrison’s indolent, arching stretches at the beginning, to the finale when Rocco raised her hand to her cheek in silent wonder at the kiss, the couple was spellbinding.  Well-suited to the roles and each other, they kept the dream-like feeling of the ballet going, never rushing in the slow, flowingmovements.  One hopes that Scottish Ballet will keep this ballet in the active repertory so that these dancers can gain more experience, and improve on their impressive debut.  The staging was done by Jean-Pierre Frohlich, with costumes by Irene Sharaff and sets/lighting by Jean Rosenthal.

Erik Cavallari returned in Hans Van Manen’s “Two Pieces for HET”, this time with Claire Robinson.  The pieces are pas de deux: the first to music by Erkki-Sven Tüür and the second an Arvo Pärt score.  He is in a black dancebelt covered by a sheer unitard; she is in a short metalliccamisole dress.   Backed by calm, occasionally haunting music, the pas deux are intense and physical.  The choreography is about contact – the couple hardly splits apart and there are no solos.   It was a piece of unexpected beauty, heightened by the fine performances by Cavallari and Robinson.  The designs were by Keso Dekker with lighting by Jan Hofstra.

The finale to evening was the company debut of Krzysztof Pastor’s “In Light and Shadow”.   The ballet’s title is reflected in the striking sets ( by Tatyana van Walsum) and lighting ( by Bert Dalhuysen).  The stage is framed by grey slabs that lean in towards the audience. The cracks between the pieces form openings for streams of lighting to flow onto the stage creating a web of light and shadow.

Aria, a pas de deux for two dancers in unitards, begins the piece, and was danced with fine control by Adam Blyde and Patricia Hines.  As they depart, the Bach score perks up and the full cast comes out to dance the Overture.  Van Walsum’s costumes are a hodge-podge of color, design and length, blurring time, place and even gender.   Some of the women wear dresses that look almost modern; other costumes have long skirts that pick up on the era of Bach’s music.  And then there are men in skirts and tunics.  But it all blends into a dynamic confusion that gives the piece a refreshing sense of timelessness.

Pastor’s choreography is grounded in classical ballet, but has an energy that reflects the spirited, but delicate nature of Bach’s music.  It’s dance for nimble feet, and the men stood out.   Christopher Harrison, in the third ballet of his opening night marathon, was worthy of note. He’s not a dancer I’ve really paid attention to before, but tonight my eye was rarely off him.  Another man who jumped into the spotlight was Luke Ahmet, who partnered Martina Fioroso in the Gavotte.  But the star here was undoubtedly Paul Liburd, who, his body gleaming with a sheen of sweat, leaped and twisted his way through a series of aerial barrel turns.  The only lament is that Liburd moved north so late in his career.

Last summer Scottish Ballet proved they were Festival worthy, though it was not the most fascinating of programs.  This summer they have come back with a fascinating quartet of ballet, performed with renewed vigor and a much-improved male presence.

I’ve had my doubts about the directions of the company, but if this is where Scottish Ballet is going, I want to come along for the ride!

But, a plea for better scheduling.  The company doesn’t venture to Edinburgh between the end of August and the beginning of January, and the January run is just one ballet, ‘Cinderella’.   It’s a shame that those Edinburgh ballet fans must wait more than seven months to see the company in repertory – by far its strength – again.  Please give us more than 10-12 repertory performances a year.  And to Festival organizers – there simply is not an excuse to put ballet of this class in the Edinburgh Playhouse, a theatre totally unsuited for dance, when the city is host to the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, one of the finest dance venues in the country.

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