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SND Premiere: Everest from Mario Radačovský

The first thing you see these days when you walk out on the main alleé in Bratislava, is a huge advertisement across the front of the opera house for an ultra modern show. The image is of a woman looking up, surrounded by what appear to be mystical creatures. The name of the show: Everest.

I was certain that the very sexy poster – all over Bratislava – was for a visiting performance, an updated Lord of the Dance. But I was very wrong. Everest is home grown.

After two years in Bratislava, Slovak National Ballet Director Mário Radačovský has staged his second full length evening work. His first Warhol was a strangely mainstream look at an artist who was a determinedly avant garde. I’m not sure if others ever made more sense of it than I was able. Warhol was one of the first productions to grace the new stage of the Slovak National Opera (SND) and did properly fill the grandiose new space with its three story decorations.

Solists And Choir in Everest Ballet of SND

Soloists and Choir During Everest Ballet of SND in Bratislava:
multimedia plays a huge role: notice the large projection

photos: Ctibor Bachratý for SND

With Everest, Radačovský has set his sights far higher. Everest seeks to communicate four stages of existence: life, death, after-life and resurrection. But the theology is definitely more pagan than Christian. Everest begins with the crawling and fluttering of Lemurans, the half-animal half-man inhabitants who antedate Atlantis.

To meet these lofty ambitions Radačovský has used more lights and smoke than the flashiest Andrew Lloyd Webber production in the West End. In technical terms Everest is as ambitious a production as I’ve seen in a ballet theater.

Indeed, Everest is an heir more to the musical than to ballet.

To that end, Radačovský recruited as collaborators Slovak pop legend Pavel Hammel (Prúdy) and drama director Patrik Lančarič. Other members of the core creative team included the lyric writer Vlado Slivka, photographer Andrej Balco, film director Marián Kleis (here as originator of the libretto) and set designer Marek Hollý. Both Hollý and Slivka come from the world of advertising.

So Everest is the creation of two advertising pros, a television director, a theatre director, a pop composer, an alternative photographer with Radačovský a lifelong high dance performer.

Natalia Nemethova in Everest SND
Natália Némethová Performing in Everest, Ballet of SND

If that sounds like an eclectic mix it is. I’m not certain if the schizophrenia between high art and commercial art ever does resolve itself.

I’ve read Slivka’s lyrics carefully. They are alternately beautiful and banal.

Sad Clown is a good example:

Moon is still silent
Having turned off our dreams
Wrapped sorrow in black talk
The silent strange fool

The sun still shines
Fails to see it should stop
Scorches and shines on our world
But the light in the eyes is gone

Every day is full of desires
Suddenly they disappear
Hope is vain and life is mean
It takes everything away

Alas, the last two lines about life being render the whole lyric maudlin. Perhaps the original Slovak is better.

In musical terms, the upside of Everest is a live choir (actually not part from the SNO but a religious choir from nearby Pezinok). The downside is the score. Unlike the lyrics who rocket back and forth between camp and profound, the music remains resolutely shallow. The pop cliches of sad moans and synthetic chords don’t match at all the wonders we see on stage. For me, the recurrently cheesy pop soundtrack is the bane of the show.

In the beginning, Everest contrasts the bustle of the city and ethereal retreat. In the city sections the dancers tear back and forth on the stage, stopping only to turn one another upside and down and run further.

In the ethereal retreat, the fog machines are left to run while lasers move slowly up and down through what looks now like rocking clouds. An amazing effect.

Solists and Choir of Ballet SND
Soloists and Choir Veiled by the Fog During Everest, Ballet of SND

Up until half time, though we see scant little dance after the crawling of the Lemurans. The piece is more made up of still-life and effects. The effects are so strong that one feels one is inside a life size videogame just in front on stage.

In the second half, there is more movement, but for the most part the choreography seems more like something out a music video than a good use of classical dancers. There’s a lot of rolling around on the stomach and pushing one’s self off the ground.

Again we meander through the clouds and lasers. One can become thoroughly entranced in the technology as one floats through rolling mountain clouds with the dancers.

Finally the full cast strolls slowly out and lays candles at the front of the stage. As a group they perform a synchronised choreography. As beautiful as the gestures are one wonders if it might be better to offer counterpoint here as Balanchine does in his group figures, rather than an identical motion.

Katarina Kosikova Solists and Choir of Ballet SND
Katarina Košíková with Soloists and Choir in Everest Performance, Ballet of SND

Regardless, I was suitably impressed and really began to enjoy the dance. At the back of the stage, there is a miniature mountain. Some of the dancers head back to it and dance their way up to the top. With all the dancers clad in white with ethereal expressions on their faces, it’s like a co-ed Bayadere as they ascend.

On the main stage, a beautiful little girl wanders, occasionally met and comforted by Košíková. The girl’s fragility and loneliness and expressiveness moved the entire audience. Superb casting.

But this splendid scene was the end and not the beginning. When the lights come down only the candles burn alone at the front of the stage. A wonder how after all the lasers and fog, a lighted row of forty simple candles can touch an audience so deeply.

Performances

No character single character communicates enough emotion that one really falls fully into the story.

In particular, lead dancer Katarína Košíková is very cool and emotionless. Her dancing is more like a fine figure skating performance: her arms simply don’t speak.

Katarina Kosikova Everest SND
Katarína Košíková in Everest Performance, Ballet of SND

As she is on the stage most of the night, this is a real problem. A dancer of magnetic charisma and eloquent arms might change one’s perception of the whole piece. Very strange that Košíková comes off so cool. She is a voluptuous dancer with a beautiful figure.

While her partner Peter Dedinský is underwhelms less than Košíková, one does not feel his presence strongly. He is adequate but not compelling. In the second cast, I have higher hopes for Barbora Kubátová who danced conspicuously well in the corps on the night of the premiere. There were two or three other long armed dancers in the corps-de-ballet who looked like they might deserve a chance at the lead.

Barbora Kubatova Frantisek Kvacak Everest SND
Barbora Kubátová and František Kvačák in Everest, Ballet of SND

It may be I’m just not perceiving the music correctly and Radačovský et co. already have a major international hit on their hands. I hope so. Still, there is a long hiatus between now and the spring performances during which substantial changes could be made. If I were the producer, I’d keep the concept but change the music almost throughout the whole piece. I would be inclined to keep the choir but make better use of them. Then on a stronger score, I’d up the dance quotient significantly. Finally I would cut a few scenes to tighten the piece.

At that point, Everest’s summit would be in plain sight. The Slovak National Opera might have a touring hit on their hands.

For now, I feel Radačovský has just reached Everest’s basecamp. But without serious changes he won’t reach the peak.

In all cases, I resolutely applaud his ambition to do something which breaks out of the ordinary. Radačovský has not taken the easy path to restage yet another grand classic. Or to pat together the traditional minimalist Forsythe or Kylián reproduction so popular on the world’s ballet stages now. As an ex-NDT principal, it would only be so easy for him to do.

Instead Radačovský aimed directly for the world mainstage with a peculiar hybrid ballet and musical and moved an entire company to follow him on this perilous path. Despite its flaws, Everest is a brave and daring production for the Slovak National Opera and offers much hope for the future.

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