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'CLARA', 'Howl'

by David Mead

May 26, 2011 -- Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London, UK

Emotions run deep through Cathy Marston’s “CLARA”. The problem for composer and noted pianist Clara Wieck-Schumann was that she always seemed to be being pulled different directions. She had a difficult relationship with her domineering father, renowned piano teacher Friedrich Wieck, who was determined she should devote herself wholly to becoming a virtuoso.

Clara escaped when she fell passionately in love with Robert Schumann, who she subsequently married, although only after going through the courts, her father persistently refusing permission. Weick was later to suffer from depression and was committed to an asylum after attempting suicide. By then, a young Johannes Brahms had arrived on the scene. He idolised Schumann, but also fell in love with Clara. Whether their relationship ever went beyond friendship is ambiguous, although Marston’s ballet suggests it did. Add in the wonderful piano music of all three and you have all the ingredients for a striking narrative ballet.

As in “Wuthering Heights” and “Juliet and Romeo”, though, Marston avoids a straightforward narrative preferring to look for different angles as she explores the relationships and emotions of the principal characters. As in those earlier works her focus is very much in the woman in the story.

Tsai Hui-chen gave an expressive interpretation of a strong yet vulnerable Clara. The work starts with her standing alongside the piano, the one place, perhaps, where she felt safe and where she could escape what the fates had in store for her. Very quickly, though, her love and suffering are uncovered for all to see. The best dance comes when Marston gets all intimate and closes in on a couple. There are some forceful duets for Clara and her father, and Clara and Schumann, in which the dance swings from surprising and quick to languid and full of tender caresses. With Schumann, danced by the powerful Erick Guillard, there was the sense that sex was never far away.

The rest of the company amplify the emotions of the main characters and that inherent in the music. Several motifs recur and make reference to the piano. The dancers’ arms frequently curve as if playing the instrument, while the ensemble often forms up as a barrier between the couples or dances in a way suggestive of piano keys.

It was all most absorbing even if, especially for those more used to traditional ballet narrative, Marston’s approach sometimes results in a lack of clarity. It is true that, Clara apart, it is not always clear who is who, or the meaning behind individual scenes, but then straightforward storytelling was never the aim.

The music, a selection of ten piano works by Clara, Schumann and Brahms was played excellently by Sonja Lohmiller, accompanied by baritone Benoît Capt.

“Howl” by guest choreographer and director of New York City-based Gallim Dance Andrea Miller could not have been more different. Inspired by an installation in the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao by Chinese artist Cai Guo-qiang that shows a pack of wolves running together before crashing into a wall, Miller considers ideas of group pressure, inevitability and the loss of individual identity. Having read that, I understand where Miller is coming from, but I’m far from convinced I would have guessed otherwise.

Dressed in white costumes that looked like straightjackets and white skull caps the dancers looked like escapees from some old-style mental institution. There was bedlam in other ways too, the choreography including much rushing round the stage in a group before collapsing into a pile of bodies. Whatever they did, whatever happened there is always a grin. They had indeed lost individual control. It was packed with energy, and there were odd innovative moments, and some occasional; disturbing moments, but it quickly all became rather tiresome. In her four years in Switzerland Marston has transformed the Bern company into an excellent troupe; unfortunate then that “Howl” does not even come close to showing the dancers at their best.

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