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Staatsballett Berlin / Three Choreographers and Hidden Gems

An evening, in which three choreographers, three movements, threes pieces of dance are shown is always a treat. The combination of different visions and sensibilities makes for a thrilling event at best, and a curious one at worst, with varying degrees of entertainment value on the spectrum. Those who oversee such a concept have many considerations to bear in mind. Timing is important, coherence and flow of the show are also a concern. The length of the programme is another important aspect, as well as how the programme is paced. Having been present at several of these shared evenings, whether on the side of the audience or involved in another aspect of production, I must say that this programme by the Staatsballett Berlin was delightfully successful. This article describes each choreographers work, focusing on the style in which the company presented all three pieces during this one evening.

The first piece is Castrati by choreographer Nacho Duato. Mr. Duatos list of achievements in the dance world runs long and thick with importance, including multiple works included in the worlds biggest companiesrepertoires. Castrati was created in 2002, and is primarily inspired by the castration of male singers that was a common practice centuries ago. This was a time when the pursuit of higher levels of skilled performance within the aesthetics of such a craft, came at the price of bodily mutilation. However, to say that this one experience is all that the piece explores would be to miss the central dichotomy between perceived success and dedication to ones own craft and the implications of this on ones self. Whether this is currently reflected in the mental and psychological stresses of our city- dwelling, art-seeking days, or in the removal of entire body parts in dayspast, the main theme is one of cost. The piece begins with the strength and fast-paced virility that one would attribute to men, and given the all-male cast, it is not a stretch to assume the work explores a mostly masculine perspective. However, as the intensity of movement grows one forgets the stage is filled with only male dancers, especially when their costumes (created by Francis Montesinos) are essentially long skirts over a body piece. The slowing down begins soon enough and the fragility of the central character is revealed, the one whose body will never be the same and neither will his interactions with the outside world. Now inside the fragility of the nude-colored outfitted male dancer, Vivaldis music seems less urgent as background and more overwhelming as the singing and strings take hold of the soundscape. On the floor, surrounded and defenseless, this main character is at last helped. What started out as a group of strong individuals pursuing their own purposes becomes a collection of fellow humans willing to help one another. With bloodied hands, after having been shielded in a circle of his fellow performers, family members, medical staff, or friends, this main character is seen, legs raised up to the ceiling, his whole body shaking, physically and visibly in pain from his recent castration. We are left with this anguish as the curtain is brought down and there is no relief in the form of a happy ending or clear resolve. It is gruesome, it is even gory, and all the while, it is what it is. Questions such as could he have chosen differently?and would he have chosen differently were it not for the path he has taken?are no longer of importance. It happened. It is done. How we feel is nearly as lonely and sad as the words in Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater, whether we understand them literally or not. The stringy lightness sometimes associated with Vivaldis music does not interfere here, and that I would assume, is also part of the point Mr. Duato intends to make.

Next up, bright lights, multiple dancers, pastel-washed though vibrant colored outfits appear on stage, as the lights come on to show an open space and white floors. The dancers stand there for a whole minute, which in dance terms is a fantastically long time. But worry not, for we are soon to be thrilled by the always clever, sometimes too clever, movement of contemporary master Ohad Naharin. To write about the leader of Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv, the developer, and creator of the Gaga Technique for dancers, is to brush up against all thats been said and what little is left to comment on in regards to his work. Succinctly, the many dancers move through their deep fourth positions like only a Gaga-trained dancer could. They place such intention on positioning and transitioning that it would leave dancers, fluent in other techniques, in awe of how one can care as much about the path from A to B, as one does about A and/or B. The sometimes chaotic spacing resembling city life – nothing new there – is broken by the organizing of bodies onstage in lines both vertical and horizontal that takes on the meaning of competition, individuality, and even as a means of exposing insecurities. After isolated instances of self- reflection, dancers are seen displaying body parts to the audience, one by one. To anyone who has ever delighted their senses as they sat through Pina Bausch’s Kontakthof this is the reference of a lifetime. The enjoyment that someone would know to masterfully induce a knowledgeable audience member through the tunnel of one of the worlds most important voices in all of contemporary dance is thrilling. The fact that this moment is still funny and clever to individuals who have never even heard of Pina Bausch before is a statement to the timelessness of both choreographers. The same timelessness of bodies on display, of searching for connection with other fellow humans, of showing our assets so that we may be accepted, from cavemen and women, to Tinder. What are NOT on display are the bright moments in Naharins choreography; they happen so often and are so numerous that he chooses not to make them a big deal. The broad ranging soundtrack that he lays his movement over is fairly expected, although the success of this music combined with the movements is less predictable. From AGF to the Beach Boys, the music is present and important, but it never distracts us from the main attraction – the work, the dancers, the development of this vocabulary into the world in which we are briefly invited – renders Mr. Naharins choices flawless. Best yet, when the movement is subtle, it is smart. And when it is smart, it does not show that it knows it.

Finally, Jiří Kylián’s work is presented, the 1991 Petite Mort. Created as a way to remember Mozart on the two-hundredth year of his death, it is as relevant now as it was then. With six men and six women dancing with swords and massive sheets of fabric, Petite Mort personifies beauty.

In creating a world in which the master composer himself could have lived, Mr. Kylián’s piece is just simple enough, pretty enough, interesting enough, even short enough to keep us in awe of the beautiful visual staging of the magical sounds Mozart created in his lifetime. The choreographer here manages all aspects of creation so skillfully, he even has the piece of music chosen exist seamlessly within this understated world he presents. There is no overdoing it with Mr. Kylián, because as a man of impeccable taste, he would never create something excessive. Female dancers glide across the stage in specially built black gowns that are actually a type of float, a construction on wheels that the dancers can stand behind and move on. The imagery evoked by the music – big ballrooms, music created for the minority of patrons who could afford to have it created for them; Wolfgang living on the outskirts of his patronsfortune whilst struggling with finances himself – is alive and well in the shape of this imaginative and hilarious prop. At the end of the dance, the gowns slide back onto the stage from the wings, by themselves, as the curtain comes down. It is a statement. What it is a statement of, is a guessing game you and I could play.

These three works are not new and have in fact survived long after their premiere. What makes this evening special is that they are presented side by side. What makes this evening important is that a relatively new company like the Staatsballett Berlin (established in 2004) has the human material to tackle these important, well-known pieces and perform them skillfully. What makes this evening one of sheer enjoyment, is that although the subjects explored were greatly varied, from castration of male singers, to city living through the celebration of life and death, and beauty in remembrance of a master composer, every work resonated deeply with us. The movement from darkness through to light and quirk finally reaching beauty in a more somber place, makes a great deal of sense. As for the choreographers (every single one of them a well-established entity in the contemporary dance world), it still matters that they were not household names such as Balanchine, Bejart, or Forsythe. This was a fantastically executed programme, danced with the technical precision and artistry from a company that certainly belongs in the highest tier of internationally acclaimed ballet companies.

Image: Ohad Naharin, „Secus“,
Staatsballett Berlin © Holger Jacobs