Rarely has the stage of the Staatsoper appeared so impressive. The curtain opens to reveal on three levels, a full complement of dozens of dancers, the women in gleaming white tutus, the men in black leggings and handsome white shirts. First impressions are often misleading. So it is with Serge Lifar’s Suite en Blanc.
The audience collectively takes a breath, expecting the full stage to explode in dance. No dice. All but two dancers slowly slink off to the wings. Over the course of the next half hour deserted stage is gradually built back up to full, but never does Suite en Blanc manage to equal the thunder of its opening salvo.
Quickly Suite en Blanc turns into a battle of the ballerinas, the ballerinas parade out one by one to show their dressage qualities.
Highly rated Ludmila Konovalova has finally found some costume designers who understand her figure and for once her kit doesn’t make her powerful body look like a female hockey player. She acquits herself well with Alexis Forabosco and Shane A. Wuerthner providing steady support.
Nina Poláková, normally one of the most expressive ballerinas in the Staatsoper, prances in at speed. An empty pastiche of Eduouard Lalo’s Namouna and Lifar’s absent libretto don’t leave Poláková much else to do than show off a silly smile. Strange to see such a deep dancer come off as vacuous.
Prima Olga Esina copes better with the absence of story. Esina is regal, each move effortless, beautiful, poised. She unleashes twenty fast pirouettes on us at the end of her solo to thundering applause.
In this endless talent show, Denys Cherevychko is up next. Cherevychko shows off with some amazing turning jetés. Clearly Chervychko continues to train hard: his rounded butt cheeks resemble the haunches of a racing thoroughbed. While Cherevychko’s confidence remains unlimited as ever, his bravura performance left me indifferent. A bit of texture and refinement would do more for his performance than additional acrobatics.
Next Irina Tsymbal and Roman Lazik dance a lyrical pas de deux. Tsymbal outshines all of the bigger names who preceded, with feeling, consant musicality and expression. Even Lazik shows off a surprisingly good ballon. I haven’t really ever seen him dance on his own. Even at this mature stage of his career, Lazik begun again to develop under Legris.
Maria Yakovleva put in a perfunctory but satisfactory performance to close out the battle of the ballerinas. Yakovleva was ever comfortable in the mask of the prima. Chalk one up for long shot Irina Tysmbal with favorite Olga Esina following closely.
While the costumes gleam, Suite in Blanc’s steps throughout are fairly anondyne. High leg extensions. Leaps here and there. Pirouettes and enjambés, like a ballet class. Curiously, Suite en Blanc was put together for the 1943 season in Paris to show off the capabilities of the Opera de Paris dancers to the occupying Nazis.
Lifar was the one personality the French got to keep from Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Balanchine and Fokine left to America. While Lifar is an important part of French ballet history (the Opera de Paris credit Lifar with founding the tradition of technical excellence at Palais Garnier), I’m not at all certain that his work holds more than historic interest. Lifar himself described Suite en Blance as “true parade of technique, a demonstration of developments in contemporary dance.”
Happily, Nils Christie’s Before Nightfall is as deep as Suite en Blanc is shallow.
Built on the music of Bohuslav Martinu’s Double Concert for Strings, Piano and Pauken, Before Nightfall is a trip into profound feeling. Dark colours, dim lights left us in the solitariness of the woods. Elegant costumes, with bare arms. The men bare to the midriff.
Ketevan Papava, the only principal ballerina not to perform in Suite en Blance (exception Dagmer Kronenberger) from round one, quickly made an impression with her long expressive arms. In principle, she was in a dream couple with Eno Peci. Alas, Peci while both beautiful and dancing well enough, didn’t seem to have his head in the game, so Papava had to carry all the drama of the opening set herself.
Nina Polakova returned but this time with an purpose. With an emotional line to follow, Poláková floated like an enraged leaf in winter winds. Her arms bent back, her back opened. This is the Poláková we know and admire: not a show horse but an artist. Her partner Roman Lazik fully entered into the moment, a perfect antidote to Poláková’s angst. One wonders if Legris is coaching him personally. He has become a different dancer.
Liudmila Konovalova and Mihail Sosnovschi put in a perfectly satisfactory performance as the third couple but with less flare than Papava-Peci or Poláková-Lazik. In contrast, the supporting couples were astonishingly good, particularly Ionna Avraam whose talent continues to menace the stars ahead of her and the three men Richard Szabó, Masayu Kimoto and Davide Dato. The trio of men danced with incredible passion and intensity. At that pace, any of them could easily have taken the place of Peci, Lazik or Sovnoschi.
The final work of the evening was Roland Petit’s L’Arlésienne. Petit is most famous for Death and the Young Man (1946). Also a tragic love story, L’Arlésienne came much later in 1974. With a casting of real life couple Maria Yakovleva and Kirill Kourlaev, hopes were high for an incredibly moving and powerful experience.
The curtains open on half a dozen women in peasant dress costume dancing a jig with a half a dozen men looking like Italian sailors. The backdrop is a huge Van Gogh painting.
The Baltic damsel beside me leant over and asked if this wasn’t a famous Soviet work. I can understand her confusion. George Bizet’s loud and relentlessly cheerful Suite Number 1 and 2 hits you over the head like a marching band.
It turns out Kourlaev’s Frédéri is experiencing premarriage jitters. So we share a few rounds of the jitters with him. By the time Kourlaev is naked to the waist and running around the stage losing his mind, the intensity picks up a bit but Kourlaev seemed to be holding back a bit, not dancing with his usual abandon. Perhaps he has not fully recovered from a recent leg injury. Ironically, despite their real life love, Yakovleva and Kourlaev are not a particularly expressive couple on stage.
The evening is called “Masterworks of the Twentieth Century”. A more fitting name would be “Productions danced by Opera de Paris during Manuel Legris’ time as a dancer”. The only one worth rescuing is Before Nightfall.
I could see why the Opera de Paris might want to perform this evening to reflect their history. But I don’t see why we should face tired French works, when there is a world of fresh choreography out there and many true Masterworks of the Twentieth Century to perform first.
I would have to put the evening down as Manuel Legris’s second small misstep as artistic director of the Vienna State Opera Ballet, after Marie Antoinette. Everyone is human. What worries me more is that Legris seems to be working with an eye more on Paris than on Vienna. A program like Masterworks of the Twentieth Century would be welcome in Paris like Marie Antoinette, just the right calling card for someone who aspires to the post of Artistic Director of the Ballet of Opera de Paris.
General Director Dominique Meyer of the Vienna Staatsoper has just signed a five year contract extension. Hopefully he can keep Manuel Legris’ mind on the work at hand in Vienna. The best calling card for Legris would be to turn the Vienna State Opera Ballet into a world class company performing original work, not a second string clone of the Opera de Paris.
Fortunately Before Nightfall is a strong enough piece to justify an evening out.
Once more former artistic director Gyula Harangozo deserves a mention for the legacy of beautiful talented dancers he left Manuel Legris to work with. Almost all of today's and tomorrow's stars who look so good now were recruited by Harangozo. Nice work.
For those inclined to more contemporary work, there will be eight original works shown February 26 to 28 in the beautiful Odeon Theater in Choreolab 2012: Young Choreographers of the Vienna State Opera. For many of the dancers on the program, this is their first chance at a substantial piece of choreography. Choreolab is always an exciting evening as all the work is new creation and there are almost always at least two main stage quality productions.
Volksoper will borrow some dancers from Staatsoper for another original production, Carmen Burana by new Volksoper ballet director Vesna Orlic with her colleagues dancers András Lukács and Boris Nebyla on March 2. The score includes Ravel's Bolero, Debussy's Afternoon with a Faun and Carl Orff's eponymous Carmina Burana. Volksoper dancers like Florian Hurler, Samuel Colombet, Ekaterina Fitzka and Gala Jovanovic who are normally confined to operetta and musicals will have a chance to show their stuff in original choreography.