Béjart’s Le Concours at Vienna’s Volksoper: A Sweet Confection

May 31st, 2011 § 0

Le Concours is an amusing confection of a ballet put together by Maurice Béjart at the height of his fame in 1985. Béjart’s own Ballet of the XXth Century danced the premiere of Le Concurs in Théâtre du Châtelet, a temple of contemporary dance.

Le Concours Olga Esina Gregor Hatala Erika Kovacova
Volksoper Le Concours: Olga Esina, Gregor Hatala, Erika Kovacova
Photo © Vienna Staatsoper

But Le Concours is no work of high art, but rather a simple theatrical murder mystery told in the language of dance. Cleverly Béjart sets his murder mystery at a dance competition which easily explains the constant pirouettes and the lifts. Curiously in real life Béjart turned down every invitation to do dance jury duty, finding ballet competition barbaric. In line with the dance theme, music is a very arch pastiche of Giselle, Sleeping Beauty, La Bayadère, Swan Lake and Coppelia bound by atmospheric orchestration from Hugues Le Bars.

At 58 years of age, irony is a more natural expression than passion. Béjart is one of the last of the great choreographers to feel that ballet and modern dance would become a mainstream art form, taking a place in the daily newspapers beside music, fashion, television and film. And so Le Concours was created: not as a masterwork or a deep expression on life but an ironic glance at life’s beautiful surfaces.

Le Concours owes a deep debt to pop culture, with a protagonist drawn directly from Alain Delon’s incarnations of trench coated police inspectors and Peter’s Falk’s Columbo. Do not search for any more meaning in Le Concours than in a good detective drama: there are only moments.

As ballet contestant Ada and murder victim, Olga Esina is a revelation. Esina has comedic talents one would not expect after seeing her as various Giselles, Swans and Bayadères. Perhaps our long armed sylph has wearied of perishing to heartbreak or schizophrenia every night in the grand ballets.

Given some passable dramaturgy and some delicate attention, Esina truly comes to life. Esina was particularly delightful as a lithesome showgirl to Igor Milos’s masterful magician.

Other noteworthy performances: squared jawed Gregor Hatala certainly looks the part of a stocky cop but lacked intensity and focus the night I saw him.

Samuel Colombet as the French juror and chairman of the jury seemed drawn from life. He’s ready for cinema. Serbian dancer Gala Jovanovic nearly stole the show as the American jurist. Many of her excessive enthusiasms apply just as well to certain Austrian balletomanes. But Jovanovic did not need to work so hard on letting us know that she finds her character kitsch and silly. She needed only be the character herself and let us find the humour ourselves.

As the celebrity TV choreographer, Eno Peci falls doubly into the same trap himself. In love with himself and his own work, his character’s actions are funny. Absolutely no need to ham his episode up relentlessly. What should have been an ironic delight slanted towards tiresome shallow parody.

Ketevan Papava as Ada’s mother, grande ballerina La Brambilla measured her performance more carefully, convincing as both a dancer and a terrifying mother. With every show, Papava gets better. If they could find a tall enough partner for her, there’s more and more reason to rescue Papava from various gypsy and Mirtha rolls and offer some of the leading roles she danced in the Marinsky.

Kamil Pavelka acquits himself passably as Ivy, Ada’s boyfriend although his passion seemed a bit too measured for first love. Former Staatsoper ballerina Susanne Kirnbauer had no difficulty portraying Miss Maud, Ada’s frustrated first ballet coach. Serb dancer Igor Milos was a fabulous magician, with good dance technique and solid magic tricks. Milos straight performance allowed the comedy to arise from the situation and not from exaggerated grimaces.

As Ada’s best friend, normally staid Slovak dancer Erika Kovácova frightens the entire house with an unrestrained bout of madness on stage. Her straight performance helps keep Le Concours on track.

Le Concours is a perfect piece for Vienna’s Volksoper, well chosen for the public of that venue, who loves a good laugh and an easy evening in the theatre. Performances should be full and Le Concours could easily go into permanent repertoire. It’s a nice respite for the dancers in a season of high art Staatsoper premieres.

As has become a habit, ballet director Legris made sure that the same level of coaching was available to his stagings as would be at Paris Opera. It’s very likely hotel and coach’s fees are a step higher than the accountants at Vienna Staatsoper would like to see for the ballet. But the results are worth it.

Dance director of Ballet du Rhine Bertrand d’At came into town to work with Esina and the rest of the cast. d’At danced and worked directly with Béjart for 15 years. Manuel Legris himself had danced the role of the inspector with Aurélie Dupont in 1999 in Le Concours premiere at Opera National de Paris, under Béjart’s own firm hand.

One starts to see a pattern in Legris’ relentless premieres in Vienna. He doesn’t feel he has arrived yet – Legris is still on his way. Vienna is a dress rehearsal for the directorship of the Opera de Paris. If not in the next few years, then in ten. Better for us, that Legris’ time in our heavenly purgatory stretches on and on and on. And good for Legris too: the water is better in Vienna, the air not so smoggy, the sidewalks not so crowded as in Paris.

Vienna Staatsoper’s Homage to Jerome Robbins: Broadway meets High Art

May 15th, 2011 § 0

In his latest dance confection for Vienna, Staatsoper ballet director has brought us three hiterto never danced in Vienna pieces from master showman Jerome Robbins (née Rabinowitz). Robbins has the most eclectic collection of awards of any of the great choreographers, from an Oscar for film direction (West Side Story) to Tonys for Broadway musicals (Fancy Free, The King & I, West Side Story, The Pajame Game) through a French Legion of Honour.

Robbins likely does not deserve the last one, as the most active namer of names in his testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1953, leading to the blacklisting of dozens of colleagues and acquaintances (effective professional death).

Fundamentally a showman, first as a performer and then as a creator, Robbins felt that there should not be a divide between commercial artists and high art, i.e. a successful Broadway choreographer should be allowed to set ballet. The three works chosen by Legris showcase Robbins’ work as an avant-garde choreographer, a Romantic ballet master and a Broadway showman in turn.

Glass Pieces

Who has one time heard the trombone of Glass Pieces from Philip Glass will never hear the trombone the same again. Each puff resonates through twenty beautiful figures moving at speed, changing the world with a precise gesture.

Homage to Jerome Robbins Vienna Staatsoper Glass Pieces 2
Homage to Jerome Robbins at Vienna Staatsoper. Glass Pieces.

Glass Pieces drives the viewer into a profoundly meditative state. Colours, some light, sound, we are children again staring into a xylescope.

The piece opens casually enough with an army of colourfully dressed pedestrians crossing back and forth across the stage. Periodicaly the crowd are interrupted by pairs, pink, emerald, blue. Each pair tunes its affection in a different way.

Natalie Kush and Shane A. Wuerthner were particularly touching in pink. She so small and fragile and optimistic, Wuerthner taller and cool. The last times I’ve seen him dance he’s been paired with dancers like Olga Esina who overwhelm him. His own talents shine brighter with a more petite dancer.

Kiyoka Hashimoto and Masayu Kimoto dance well together, in what has been a season of revelation for Kimoto.

Olga Esina makes her own appearance late in the lead role opposite Roman Lazik. Glass Pieces is written just for her kind of awesome ballerina. Esina’s endless limbs, noble carriage and schooled movements bring grace to the piece and she glildes across its surface as if on wings. Glass Pieces demands of a dancer to be one with the music and this Esina masters. She is the perfect muse, here no emotional demands to distract her from herself.

In darkest shiniest bordeaux Roman Lazik partners Olga Esina. Once again, Lazik shows himself a perfect partner attentive to her every step but one wishes that one day he himself would dance his own steps for himself.

Homage to Jerome Robbins Vienna Staatsoper Glass Pieces 1
Glass Pieces: Olga Esina and Roman Lazik

In the corps-de-ballet, Andrey Teterin is easily the most impressive of the men when in the middle or the back of the pack. He is let down only by his uncertainty when front and center, a strange lingering stage inhibition. If he ever overcomes it, Teterin will be a force with which to reckoned, with his strong lines and forceful jump.

In The Night

In the Night is guided by a piano solo, a rather limpid Chopin Nocturne. This is art of the simpering kind. Across a starlit stage, Robbins reveals three couples, in purple, in brown and in pink. Each dances a tender pas, with the occasional ethereal lift. The piece never really took off, as none of the pairs grabbed any hearts.

Andrej Teterin returns to adequately partner Natalie Kush who is radiant at her second leading role of the evening. Teterin is again let down by the uncertainty of his steps at the most important moments.

Olga Esina and Roman Lazik take the stage second. Again, Lazik is attentive. Again he fails to participate in the piece himself, a cipher for his ballerina. Esina struggled with the trite emotions, ending up as in the first piece, like glass. The long flowing gown from In The Night hides her natural attributes and Esina is a dancer like another.

The final couple Irina Tsymbal and Vladimir Shishov match one another perfectly, Tsymbal’s gentle curves fold into Shisov’s powerful arms. Shishov lifts Tsymbal like a feather. Always a passionate performer, Tsymbal shines with a strong emotion to communicate.

It appears Vienna Staastoper still does not have the right partner for Esina, one who would push her to the next level. The closest physical match would appear to be ex-husband Shishov but both are dancing better since separated. Perhaps Eno Peci could do Esina justice.

The Concert, or the Perils of Everybody

In the final piece, The Concert or the Perils of Everybody we see a lot of Peci.

He delights the audience as the murderous and adulterous husband. Behind a false nose, Peci is unrecognisable. He wears the role of an unhappy husband like his own dressing gown.

Homage to Jerome Robbins Vienna Staatsoper The Concert 2
The Concert: Franziska Wallner-Hollinek and Eno Peci

He is well-paired with Irina Tsymbal as the ballerina, object of love. Franziska Wallner-Hollinek incarnates his grande dame wife perfectly, her native Vienna upbringing and aristocratic profile serving her well.

Denys Cherevychko plays against character for once as the shy young man. Ludmila Trayan inspires no end of laughter as the energetic young woman, whether sitting next to the pianist or pushing people off their chairs

Igor Milos, Gabor Oberegger, the lovely Maria Alati and Marta Drastiková round off an excellent comic ensemble performance.

Homage to Jerome Robbins Vienna Staatsoper The Concert 3
The Concert: Marta Drastiková, Dumitru Taran, Irina Tsymbal, Gabor Oberegger

The Concert is a very strange piece oscillating from straight parody to Prufrock-like dark reflections on existence. The funny moments seem rather silly at first until the unhappy husband kicks his would-be lover the ballerina, shortly after pantomiming the murder of his wife. The women are moved around like inanimate furniture.

There seems to be some curious underlying mysogeny in the piece bubbling just under the surface. Women are beautiful but annoying. Probably true. But then men are annoying too and don’t even have beauty to redeem them.

Parody of dance fills The Concert: whether in the Hungarian dance of the men or the extended ballet episode where the energetic girl can’t hold her place in the corps-de-ballet.

Dancers get so tired of Swan Lake, Giselle and Sylphides that there is nothing they love more than a good bout of dance parody, whether in Don Quixote or Robbins’s The Concert. They were all delighted to perform here and in the end, Robbins does have a point.

It’s damn hard to live and wherever you look, whether at a concert or a ballet or even in your own home, everything and everybody is annoying. Even your own mistress.

Hopefully we can see another side of life but in this dance version of the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock there is much to enjoy. Tart like the fizz on champagne but like champagne best consumed in moderation.

All Photos Copyright: Wiener Staatsballett/Dimo Dimov

Staatsoper will be performing Jerome Robbins’s work throughout September 2011 and March 2012. For specific performances, see The Staastoper website