by Charlotte Kasner
London has become spoiled by regular visits from major international companies in the summer. However, probably sensibly avoiding the Olympics, The Bolshoi and Kirov are elsewhere and have left the field clear for the Peter Schaufuss Ballet’s “Tchaikovsky Trilogy”.
The appearance of Irek Mukhamedov after several years absence has been at the forefront of the publicity. Indeed, he is pictured (somewhat bizarrely) as Spartacus on the front of the programme. I reckon both he and Tchaikovsky have right to feel affronted.
Understandably alas, economics prevent the appearance of a live orchestra, but did the recording of “Sleeping Beauty” have to be so utterly dreadful? Tempi were all over the place and it became suddenly and uncomfortably loud towards the end of Act I and remained there for the rest of the evening. Louder did not mean better. It sounded at times as if the orchestra were playing at the bottom of a swimming pool. It was a problem to plague the whole week.
Stefan Wise is wasted as the Dream Master/Lilac Fairy. He had little dancing on which to be judged but he has a strong stage presence and did his best in spite of the embarrassing frilly lilac shirt. The King (Mukhamedov) manages to be the father of both Carabosse and Aurora. Some conflict of interest there surely? He at least has a little dancing but he spends a long time looking bravely noble at the side of the stage or comforting his Queen who wafts around but never gets the chance of establishing a believable character.
The amended fairy variations have no variety whatsoever, each dancer flapping and hopping through each with not even a nod to individual characteristics. Carabosse (Yoko Takahashi) is an odd little minx with a weirdly stiff pony tail and a costume that makes her look like a streetwalker, as do the rather inadequate fairies. At one stage, she tries to corrupt her little sister with a pair of sparkly black shoes in an inexplicable parody of “The Red Shoes”. She has a later battle with the Dream Master/Lilac Fairy but never epitomises evil. Oh yes, she is also the Black Swan. So is the King Rothbart?
Actually, it is very difficult to muster enough interest in this dreadful production to care. The choreography is dull throughout and greatly at odds with the music. The set is stark and costumes unflattering and cheap-looking. The Dream Master/Lilac Fairy acts as pander and literally pushes Aurora and Florimund onto the bed to consummate their liaison. Oh for the chance to see Alban Lendorf really dance, he is so wasted in this. Aurora has donned the red costume of adulthood, mirroring her mother, but sported little girl ribbons in two pony tails: combined with her pint-sized stature, this made their congress faintly offensive as Takahashi looked about 12 years old.
It is however mercifully short.
"Swan Lake" is a pretty robust creation and has survived much mauling over the last century and a half. There have been "Swan Lakes" without the swans (Northern Ballet), with a male corps de ballet and Odette/Odile (AMP), set in an asylum (Australian) and as a version of Hamlet (Bolshoi) etc. etc. They have been with and without Benno and with and without the jester. Mostly they work because the inner core and integrity are preserved.
But if Petipa and Ivanov suddenly materialised in the London Coliseum they would conclude from this production that we are living in some sort of balletic Dark Ages. The sound problems that afflicted “Sleeping Beauty”" reared their head once more but, and perhaps worst of all, I couldn’t help thinking how painfully dated it all felt. It is as if it were created in the 1960s, thumbing its nose at ballet and saying “yah, boo sucks, we can show lots of nipples and simulated sex on stage”. Siegfried and the Swan Girl dive on each other as soon as they meet, all hands and see-through costumes. And the dreary, monotone pallete makes the work look washed out.
Irek Mukhamedov's Rothbart in leather trousers and coat with a ruff of green cock feathers is one of the few highlights of the evening. Mind you, pretty much anything is an improvement on the owl. The man is still a star. The look of cunning and lust on his face as he turns to the audience having decided to seduce the Queen was priceless. In comparison, Zoe Ash-Brown’s Queen was a feeble Martha Graham look alike. She lacked presence, resorting to scowling and pouting to convey malevolence. She tugs at Siegfreid’s arms looking for all the world like a petulant older sister rather than a regal mother. She also seemed to struggle with some of the double work, although she could hardly have asked for a better partner.
Alban Lendorf is allowed precious little dancing as Siegfried. Why oh why? Even so, he manages to establish a credible character with a fresh innocence despite spending a lot of time writhing around on the bed or the floor. If I'm being picky, he fails to get his heels down in allegro and can be messy in fifth but perhaps this is due to the pressure of keeping up with the recorded music.
The jester is not popular with London audiences and has often been seen as a boring Soviet-era intrusion, although it does at least usually offer the chance for some virtuoso dancing. This production compounds the felony with two jesters, neither of them worthwhile. They also both wear scary executioner hoods, barely lightened by weird, bouncing ibex horns. Again, why, oh why?
The second act is much better than the first, with more dancing, and more of an effort at telling the story. But it is too little too late: no context has been created beforehand so there is nothing other than personal loss at the end when Siegfried doesn't get his girl. We don't know why it is such a tragedy that he has been tricked by the Black Swan, or perhaps we are expected to wait until Nutcracker? Someone seems to have shot a swan up in the flies so Siegfried is left to wallow in feathers as the tabs come down. The audience meanwhile are left to wallow.
The evening opened with a reprise of the end of “Sleeping Beauty”: Aurora and Florimund are on the bed, having consummated their union. The Dream Master then engineers a dream where Aurora inexplicably becomes Clara, well, inexplicable to anyone who didn’t see the first two ballets, which is part of the problem with the trilogy. You need to see all three to make anything of it at all. Thereon, the plot progresses as one might expect.
Clara dreams of receiving a “Nut Sky Cracker” toy and he is duly delivered by the Dream Master/Drosselmeyer. Her television watching is not immediately clear and it is also befuddling that the Nut Sky Cracker appears as a life-size automaton and as a doll simultaneously. I know all is possible in the weird world of dreams, but it’s confusing to the audience nonetheless.
The ubiquitous German nutcracker toy can become cloying to say the least; try going to the United States at Christmas. ENB produced a Michael Jackson and a Barbie, which at least was topical, but there seems to be no logical reason to replace him with The Stig. His cheap motorbike helmet in no way made him look like a spaceman, and it didn’t exactly help matters when it fell off as Johan Christensen embarked upon a particularly ambitious breakdancing head spin. He spent much of the evening reverting to type before suddenly becoming human again. The problem continued when he (officially) took his helmet off as he became the “Prince” (surely the logic of the trilogy would lead one to expect Lendorf to dance the role?), his shock of blonde hair making him look like a child from Village of the Damned. The ballet then hit another recurring issue, why was Christiansen then given such little opportunity to show off his skills?
I am sure there are those prepared to forgive Schaufuss for replacing many of the traditional aspects of these three ballets, after all, the classics are not sacrosanct, but replacing snow with what looked like dandruff? Yes, really! The “snowflakes” scurried on in hideous cycling shorts and skirts topped by white fright wigs shedding flakes in which they proceeded to paddle.
The second act became even more bizarre as poor Irek Mukhamedov found himself dressed in a lime green bolero topped by an unspeakably awful lime green wig. The hideousness was only matched by the Sugar Plum Fairy who was wearing a shocking pink tutu with matching shocking pink shoes, the former apparently made of crimplene. She doesn’t even get to dance her variation. Instead the pas de deux is danced by Clara (not the same character even if danced by different people as in some productions) and the Nut Sky Cracker, Megumi Oki making more than a decent stab at the fiendish gargouillades, which Schaufuss had the decency to leave in.
As expected, the recording was bowdlerised and much too loud.
Looking back, each of the ballets had some ideas of merit and there is conceivable justification for the Freudian-links made between them. But what I find difficult to condone are the tasteless designs, the largely inane choreography, the underusing of excellent dancers, and the appalling music. It seemed such a terrible waste of everyone’s talent, and a week that will stick in the memory for the wrong reasons.
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