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Jochen Ulrich’s Michelangelo: a masterwork of music and creation

Jochen Ulrich Michelangelo cast Linz
Jochen Ulrich Michelangelo ensemble cast in Landestheater Linz

The stage juts out into the audience, as the curtains open we see a tableau vivant of a sculpting studio in motion. The orchestra fills the deep back of the theatre. It’s almost like Shakespeare’s in the round Globe. This is the first of several successful staging decisions of the evening. With the orchestra pit closed and the orchestra at the back of the hall, LandesTheatre Linz becomes a magnificent concert hall.

Once again Jochen Ulrich has led a new ballet with the music. Here he chose Arvo Pärt’s Collage” über Bach”, “Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten” and “Spiegel in Spiegel” and finally Pärt’s “Lamentate for Piano and Orchestra”. From Britten we have the Requiem. Despite the two nominally very different composers, sonically the evening holds together perfectly. It a complete and powerful ballet score.

Fortunately, both subject and dance are up to the music this time round. In Michelangelo, across the centuries Ulrich has found une âme soeur. Like Michelangelo, Ulrich has lived an often lonely and tempestuous life of creation. Ulrich does not sculpt with stone but with live bodies.

Michelangelo’s problems are Ulrich’s very own. The personal relationship to his subject stirs Ulrich’s deepest powers.

Ulrich’s underlying conceit is to divide Michelangelo’s role in three dancers. This time the three incarnations are not sequential but simultaneous. Michelangelo’s id dances with ego and his superego. A real artist does hold several personalities inside him or herself, from charming to vicious, from naif to lascivious, so the division quickly seems quite natural and sensible instead of contrived.

Much of the first act is a moving sculpture of naked men as Michelangelo learns his craft from Ancient Greek models and later creates his David. Michelangelo then copes with success and patrons who frequent his atelier and seduce both him and his lovers.

White gowned women appear and fill the studio with another tragic energy: all of Michelangelo’s women are madonnas and harlots.

Ulrich bravely attempts to relay Vittoria Colonnna’s discussion of art and religion with Michelangelo. Long time Ulrich muse, Irene Bauer offers a deep and reflective performance as Colonna but even she struggles with this bit of the libretto. Verbal nuance and philosophy are complicated to communicate through dance.

Ultich’s rendition of the creation of the individual masterpieces like David, Study on Piety and Leda with the Swan are the strongest moments.

At the end of the first act there is a troubled scene with a man in ecclesiastical robes who represents Michelangelo’s patrons. His arrogant patron convincingly portrayed by Ziga Jereb steals Michelanglo’s lovers. The bedroom scenes on both sides of the projected stage lack the clarity of the other scenes and border on the sordid.

Sakher Almonem Martin Dvorak Irene Bauer in Michelangelo
Sakher Almonem Martin Dvorak Irene Bauer in Michelangelo
Sakher Almonem Michelangelo beloved Wallace Jones Martin Dvorak Fabrice Jucquois
Sakher Almonem Michelangelo beloved Wallace Jones Martin Dvorak Fabrice Jucquois
Irene Bauer Anna Sterbova Michelangelo
Irene Bauer Anna Sterbova Michelangelo
Ulrich Michangelo ballet tableau
Ulrich Michangelo ballet tableau

In the second half Ulrich is victim of his own success. He has shown us the process of creation. He has revealed the complicated relationship with lovers, collaborators and patrons. Michelangelo can only repeat itself, in rounds of new works but the same torments.

Dvorak and Wallace and PG the orchestra do much to animate their roles. Dvorak in his long robe and long beard and long hair seems to carry Michelangelo’s spirit in him. I imagine it’s a dream role for him: to finally incarnate one of the greatest and most tormented artists in history. As if at last he can play his true self. Dvorak portrays Michelangelo’s spiritual and artistic essence.

Wallace represents Michelangelo’s physical side. With wide eyes and succulent lips and lithesome frame, we believe in Wallace’s incarnation of Renaissance sensuality. Jucquois’ portrayal of Michelangelo’s love is more strained. While his movement is adequate he lacks the reflective depth and resonance of his colleagues.

The pas de trois and cinq with the three Michelangelo are occasionally magnificent. Bauer as the muse works around the great white monument. The eternal blank canvas or blank paper which torments and obsesses every artist. How to fill it adequately. Stefan Weinert’s art direction is precise and deserves praise for its transparence. With a bare minimum of costume and decorations, Weinert builds imaginary palaces, sculpting studios, the Sistine Chapel. The great white block which fills a third of the stage is the only substantial props. Ulrich’s dancers with their attitude and poses create all the rest.

Weinart and Ulrich have not collaborated for four years. Once hopes they will not leave their next work together so long. The right art director helps a choreographer achieve greatness as Georgian art director Simon Virsaladze did much to help Juri Grigorovich’s work.

Wallace Jones is in top form and particularly gorgeous in Michelangelo. He handles the most challenging lifts of the other male dancers including the not insubstantial Dvorak and Jucquois with aplomb. The dance between the men is some of the strongest male on male choreography I’ve seen.

Ulrich’s Michelangelo is a masterwork and and well worth the 1.5 hour train ride to Linz from Vienna. While at Landestheater Linz don’t miss dining in Promenadenhof the which stays open after the performance with a direct entrance from the theater to avoid the November rain.

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