After a slow spell in 2007 Choreolab is back with a vengeance, just short months ago we all trekked out to St Polten to see the Choreolab 2008 and we've just been to Baden and back twice this week. I'm dreaming of not having to lug all my camera gear to the ends of the earth again, but the stage in Baden is very good and well-suited to the scale of Choreolab. The town is also very pretty.
This year is the ten year anniversary of what has become a marvelous tradition in the Vienna State Opera Ballet. Choreolab for the uninitiated is an annual event at which dancers from the Staatsoper can put on their own choreography. Other dancers volunteer to fill the parts and the Balletclub of Vienna under the direction of Ingeborg Tichy-Luger organises the venue and marketing. It is difficult to say enough about the dedication and inspiriation of choreolab founder Tichy-Luger. Let no one underestimate the work and will involved in bringing such an event to life once, let alone to its ten year anniversery.
This year, choreolab featured nine choreographers. I suspect ten were planned and one got lost on the way. No matter. The nine young choreographers together put on a substantial evening, divided into two acts and lasting almost two hours with intermission. Some brought major works and some minor works, but all were under fifteen minutes.
Let's approach the works in order.
To Ella - Choreographer Samuel Columbo
The Ella in question is Ella Fitzgerald to whose music the choreography is composed. Here we see several couples flirt and love in elegant cocktail ambience. The dancers are dressed in extraordinarily simple and attractive costumes, like the dresses from an Alfred Hitchcock film. Blue with white buttons and belts.
The feeling is casual and light. While one would be hard pressed to find much depth here, like Sunday brunch, To Ella charms and delights. The dancers enjoy the occasion to flaunt their good looks and some high kicks and everyone enjoys him and herself both on stage and in the audience.
To Ella could become a longer piece with a story between the couples. But it's just fine as it is.
Samuel Columbo is French and has been in Vienna for five years.
...and then she looked up - Choreographer Marie-Claire D'Lyse
Mademoiselle D'Lyse must win the prize for the most exquisite name in Australia. She has the charm to match. This is her first creation for the stage since her arrival in Austria nine years ago.
d'Lyse's piece is almost too easy to watch - four beautiful girls seeking themselves in grey and blue bodysuits, under dramatic lighting and to the dulcet tones of Imogen Heap. Even a little bit precious until one reads the program notes, it's a dancer's own biography:
the story is about a girl who...is completely oblivious and blind to the political, religious and all global issues that are facing us today. Three wise ones represent the collective conscience of society telling her, almost begging her to lookup and realise what's going on in the world while she is dancing around and looking down all the time.
Fine, somewhat Lermontovian, even maudlin you say. Well I say, at least she's telling a real story which is important to her about the awakening of conscience. The story is told with simplicity and elegance.
Her casting is spectacular, with three Brazilian beauties, Rafaella Sant'anna, Taina Ferreira and Flavia Soares perfect in the role of the three graces of wisdom. Ketevan Papava sensitively handles the protagonist's spiritual growth in cool and measured dance.
I'm very curious to see what Marie-Claire D'Lyse creates next. Will she be able to push her boundaries harder or will she remain lost in the beautiful? I could live with either result. Stay tuned for more news....
kuda - Choreographer Tin Kos
"a lost type doesn't know is what direction he should go."
Well, Tin Kos is all of nineteen years old and clearly is wondering what he should do. Probably dance. Here he jumps around, does some break dance moves and runs away to the music of the saian supa crew. If any single item didn't belong in the program this was it. For all his charm and his ready smile, Tin Kos is just not ready to share the stage with the other choreographers. kuda is nothing more than a romp around the stage.
I'm no great fan of child prodigies, especially if they are not prodigies. I hope this is not a direction which will be developed at Choreolab (ballet school pupils as choreographers).
It looks like with dedication and work, Tin Kos will be a good enough dancer. In spite of his inexperience, he did not offend in a role in Samuel Colombo's To Ella.
Everlasting Pictures - Choreographer Dan Datcu
At choreolab 08, the revelation was Romanian choreographer Dan Datcu who danced a striking duet with the powerful Rebecca Horner. This year, Dan Datcu took himself out of the production and added four other dancers to his reflective and moving work with Ms. Horner.
The longer and more involved piece included even more ambitious lifts and between meandering couplings and triplings. His dancers seemed to put themselves into the work. Alice Firenze was fire and Rebecca Horner was ice, to whom the others gravitate and fall away.
Alexis Forabasco struck a particularly strong note with his dramatic and craggy features.
The choice of music was powerful. Giovanni Solima's ambient melodic thoughts. The lighting was low and subtle as well, with muted tones to match the deep emotions.
Dan Datcu has a way with movement which goes beyond facile or pretty. He can directly communicate emotion through movement. He was the only one of the choreographers to work extensively with both air and ground.
"facing life and knowing what it is - loving it for what it is and giving it away at the end." Same tagline as last year, but this year filled out with some depth.
drei unbekannte (three strangers) - Choreographer Valery Kaydanovsky
Very stylish. Black clad men with white face and dark clown makeup. In the end,Three Strangers seemed more an exercise in style than an attempt to solve a substantial problem. As I spend a lot of time lambasting the choreographers at Tanzquartier for trying to solve substantial problems without any style (or horrible style), perhaps I should Valery Kaydanovsky some slack here.
Basically, Kaydanovsky's piece survives on the very strong stage presence of Alexis Forabasco here. Forabasco breathes as if born for the role as the mean stranger, holding the audience in his hand the entire time. We dread his next cruel gesture, wonder what he will do next. At some level Forabasco's charisma here is camped up. He should consider harnessing this power for more traditional roles as well.
This is Valery Kaydanovsky's first work as a choreographer. I am curious to see where his next work. Choreolab has a tradition of developing stylistic choreographers. Nicki Adler created many of his early works here.
Broken Wings - Choreographer Vesna Orlic
Vesna Orlic's Broken Wings is a strange bird. Orlic reprises with Russian Ekaterina Davydova who was so good as the cool younger woman in Buenos Aires Hora Cero in Choreolab 06. Orlic pairs Volksoper dancer Davydova with Samuel Columbet, choreographer of the first piece tonight.
Columbet is expected to wear a tutu here and is a strangely androgynous swan. A very difficult role for a man to carry off credibly - broken wings is deadly serious, no silly version of Swan Lake for men. But Columbet surprises with the power, consistency and focus of his dancing. He doesn't struggle with the Orlic's difficult lifts. Davydova is not much smaller than he is - the benefits of upper body training while you are in the corps-de-ballet hopefully will not be lost on the other men in Staatsoper. Be ready when your time comes.
The piece is more difficult to evaluate. I saw it twice. The first evening it didn't seem to work, the second evening better. The biggest issue was the cold performance of Davydova. She just doesn't seem to give much emotionally on stage. There are parts where her icy princess persona is an asset this isn't one of them.
Orlic was trying to tackle big issues here:
In the beginning was Paradise. Clear water, green trees and the song of love birds. Then came the fifth and more dangerous rider of the Apocalypse and laid waste to civilisation. The birds wings were broken and love was banne from their thoughts.
A piece not lightly conceived nor lightly made. But what we saw on stage was not at the majesty of the conception.
I had a chance to hear from the choreographer some of the story behind the piece. The all black background was not at all what she wanted. She was looking for a white floor and sky blue walls. This was supposed to be heaven and not dying swans. In a vote among the choreographers for a dark or light stage and floor, Orlic and Columbet, d'Lyse were voted down by the other choreographers.
In Baden, broken wings was deeply flawed - like a broken Dying Swan. With an emotionally resonant ballerina and with a lighter décor I could imagine the piece as very powerful.
Tea for Two - choreographer Florian Hurler
Florian Hurler's Tea for Two felts more than a little self-indulgent. A bored girl lies in her bedroom waiting for life to happen: the sugar sweet Josefine Tyler in white. An older woman dances sophisticated steps at the back: charismatic Gabriele Haslinger. Sweet Josephine spies Gabriele, they shadow dance a little and then sit down to enjoy a luscious (post-coital) cigarette.
I am trying to think of something more to say about Tea for Two. A poignant story of sexual awakening and friendship with an older person who opened the world to the young lover. Frankly the story would fly better on two men than on two women. Even then there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the story. Alas the staging was maudlin, the dancing facile, the cigarette smoking cliché and superfluous (if you need cigarettes for effect on stage you are on crutches before you start).
Gabriele Haslinger Josefine Tyler smoke together
The older woman has symbolically passed on the gift of tobacco
to her young friend: mentors like that we can live without
As a life-long antismoker, perhaps I am not the best person to judge Tea for Two. Unlike most of the work this evening, Tea for Two did not benefit from a second viewing.
Cut - choreographer Eno Peci
Like Kaydanovsky's Three Strangers, Cut is exercise in style. Eno Peci is one of the stronger male dancers in Staatsoper and just hitting his prime. This year Staatoper ballet director Harangozo named Peci a lead dancer after his fine work in Roman Petit's Die Fledermaus.
Peci's Cut begins with eight spot lights turned on the audience half blinding us. The dancers dance among the spots, leaving us to detect silhouettes and poses but not to be able to clearly register the individual dancers. The photos you see here are clearer than what the naked eye saw.
Peci gathered a strong group of dancers around himself. Mihail Sosnovschi and Kiyoka Hashimoto particularly shine here. At first is Cut all seems somewhat casual and improvised. But a second viewing revealed that for the most part Cut is tightly choreographed. The music is also a strange collage of Johann Sebastian Back and Thomas Newman.
Unlike the preceding piece, Cut is professional work. Peci seems to be relying on the strength of his dancers - including himself - to communicate. He says the piece is "without words: abstract and modern". As a proof of concept it works.
Peci here shows his professionalism and showmanship. You could rely on him to choreography your music video or a piece of your opera. He'd find a way to make you and the dancers you choose look good. Whether the creative flame in him is strong enough for richly imagined productions remains to be seen. Cut is Peci's first work. As an étude, there is little to criticise.
Iguazu - choreographer Karina Sarkissova
Choreolab veteran Karina Sarkissova's piece iguazu was chosen to close the evening. If she doesn't hold the title yet, Ms. Sarkissova is certainly about to become the most prolific choreolab choreographer of all time. This is her fourth piece in three choreolabs. But art is more about quality and not quantity.
Sarkissova continues to commit the same transgressions over and over again:
- overpowering the dance with music
- grandiloquence without depth, i.e. empty showiness
- trafficking in cliché without remorse
- selling nudity with a curious American prurience and prudery
Let's take her sins one by one. Musical grandiloquence: times three with fragments from Gustavo Santaolalla, Gaetano Donizetti and Inva Mulla-Tchako. To that potent mix, she added her own voice over beginning with a religious prayer addresses to "Our father". It turns out that Sarkissova meant her own father but that I would think she meant god gives an idea of the grandeur she is reaching for. Only in the film Titanic have I seen music to match Sarkissova's tendency to overwhelm her art with the soundtrack.
Lack of depth. Here we have a woman on stage with a guitar with four men to do her every bidding, dance for her, carry her around on their hands, worship her and put her back on top of her alter. This very silly fantasy of a world enslaved to one's self was all set to fall flat on its narcissistic face. Then Irina Tsymbal showed up in the lead role. Sarkissova is getting better at both casting and coaching her dancers. Irina Tsymbal single handedly rescued Iguazu with her intensity and her evident pleasure in her male slaves. Absolutely compelling on stage and drop dead beautiful in the role.
The cliché. Tagline for Iguazu:
no one can predict the next moment. you can turn from hopeless to ecstatic just in one second because of one glance, when someone's eyes are talking to you...
How Sarkissova manages to live her entire life as an ecstatic fifteen year old girl is a miracle. It's dangerous living like that. It ends in broken hearts and broken lives. What exactly this tagline has to do with what we saw on stage in Baden remains a mystery to me. Apart than it sounds good. Calculated effect again, but it does not seem reflected in the art.
Nudity. Sarkissova has the strangest relationship to the female body. Once again she has her dancer nude, but with a flesh bra on. On one hand Sarkissova is almost entirely aesthetically dependent on the music and near nudity. On the other hand, she is unwilling to actually revel in the human form and show us what she is selling.
Particularly offensive this time (for those who are comfortable with the human body and take joy in its forms and don't find anything prurient about it) is that there was no reason for false nudity. Sarkissova could very easily have made just as sexy a costume without the heavy handed flesh bra. She just needed to put a little red bikini top on Tsymbal and she was off to the races.
In conversation with Ms. Sarkissova she has told me pretending to show us the human body is her explicit wish and nothing else will satisfy her than fake nudity. This prurient puritanism is so American and provincial and so very, very out of place in the middle of old Europe.
Basically iguazu for better or worse - perhaps better, I like the film myself - is like outtakes from Conan the Barbarian (the original with Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Earl Jones). I can imagine Sarkissova on a good day choreographing the witch scene with the amazing Cassandra Gava.
You can take the girl out of Moscow but you can't take Las Vegas out of the girl.
In the end Iguazu is an undermanned Las Vegas number. Ending on iguazu is not an accurate reflection of the overall character and strength of the evening. On the other hand, where else would one put Sarkissova's work?
In fairness, I see quite a bit of development in Karina Sarkissova's work here. Iguaza is well cast. Working with a larger group this time which at least gives Sarkissova's grandiloquent and melodramatic conceptions a fighting chance at credibility. There is great commercial demand for choreographers who can put together solid flashy shows which pack houses, whether in Las Vegas revues or Paris's Folies Bergère. Much more than for subtle and complex and innovative leading edge dance, whether contemporary or classical.
So for those keeping track, overall score Choreolab 09:
- one masterpiece in progress: everlasting pictures, Dan Datcu
- two fine if not mainstage works by returning choreographers: Samuel Columbet, Vesna Orlic
- three promising debuts: Marie-Claire d'Lyse, Valery Kaydanovsky, Eno Peci
- some juvenilia not worth mentioning
- one Vegas revue fragment: Karina Sarkissova
Six out of nine for laboratory work is a very good score. Overall, the varied lengths is much better than the flat ten minute cap we had in Choreolab 2008. I still miss the one or two masterwork style pieces at twenty or twenty five minutes of the early choreolabs. This could work well with some five minute miniatures from debutants.
Choreolab is a fabulous initiative.* Something similar be part of every major classical company around the world. Some are already doing it, but those who aren't should. A very happy tenth anniversary and I for one look forward to another ten years of Choreolab.
* On an organisational note, I would also like to praise Ingeborg Tichy-Luger's choice in wine for her dance events. It's always the same and always very good. Longer parties with less food and better wine is a potent combination for joie de vivre. Life is so short - and it's nice to see someone getting the small touches right.
All photographs copyright Alec Kinnear. The stage crew are to be highly praised for the speed of the transitions between pieces. The lighting crew should be damned for making the whites far too hot all night.
More photos can be seen and prints can be purchased online in the full Choreolab 09 gallery.