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Celebrating Sacre in Graz

In Graz the 2013 season was dedicated to the work of Nijinsky and the Ballets Russes. The crowning achievement is a three piece full evening of Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky with full orchestra.

A sumptuous rendition of Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloe opens the evening. As substantial a stage as is the Oper Graz, the orchestra pit is full to bursting while the female voices take up the the left upper lodge. The male singers are in the wings backstage. The musical performance is worth the price of admission on its own. Combined with ballet director Toulon’s complex visuals, this is an extraordinary work. Majestic dancer Bostjan Ivanjsic takes centre stage as Daphnis. The role is a complex one, exploring a young man’s sexuality – first timid, then more aggressive. He throws himself into a pool on stage and comes out soaking wet and fully nude, challenging the slightly bourgeois Graz Opera audience with full frontal male nudity.

The women challenge us equally. Dianne Grey represents mature female sexuality in a long red skirt and a revealing bodice. The costumes are amazing. Her long arms enlaced Daphnis again and again, hypnotically and sensually. I was less taken with Chloe, Jura Wanga, whose innocence and dilemma were less persuasive. Soft and timid touching of genitals interweave with passionate duets and trios, making one think hard about Western societal constraints on sexuality. Why are we so constrained about what makes the world go round? more so even than money which is just a currency for the buying and selling of comfort and pleasure.

Michael Munoz dances a rooster-like Pan with diabolic elan. Still the episode where Munoz offers the different young women a shiny necklace confuses. One young woman (Claudia Fürnzholer) dies after donning the necklace while another one (Laura Fischer) is happy wearing it and dances gleefully away with him. Long time Graz star Michal Zabavik has matured: he’s in very good shape while his facial features have hardened. Always handsome, Zabavik’s curved nose and full lips now leer imperiousness and disdain, as if he’d spent his life cutting deals among the power brokers on Wall Street. Usually a person only acquires such a hard edge in a city like Moscow or New York, not in sylvan Graz: Zabavik’s dark and brooding presence helps lift Oper Graz ballet to first tier international level.

Love and fidelity don’t make so much sense any more after watching Toulon’s Daphnis & Chloe. Those who stray seem to have a lot more fun. The power of Toulon’s treatment of sexuality is that it is not a full on empty headed bacchanal but is progressive and questioning.

Along with the choreography, the dancing and the music, stagecraft here is spectacular. A large white wall in the middle back of the stage is not just a visual prop but the entry point for different characters who clamber over and into the action. There is the pool in the middle of the stage which appears and then disappears. Atmospheric but thankfully subtle video projections deepen and texturize the stage. Toulon is a sculptor in full control of his materials. Sets and costumes from Vibeke Andersen were right on mark here and for all three productions.

Daphnis and Chloe is a performance one could watch over and over again.

After a short pause, the second half kicks off with an elegant Afternoon of a Faun from veteran Portugese choreographer Vasco Wellencamp. A peculiar choice of choreographer for the normally youth driven Graz company, Wellencamp taught everyone in Graz what real dance mastery entails. Every gesture, every hand shape was choreographed to the smallest detail. Nothing escaped his eye.

The stage offered a giant couch with a reclining Bostjan Ivanjsic, again shirtless. Subtly projected against the black back wall were silhouettes of trees, a moon shone down from overhead. Dianne Grey returns at the back of the stage to climb over a giant tree stump. One is nearly convinced that one is in the center of a dark forest. Astonishing atmosphere. But the giant couch remained strange: how did it get to the middle of the forest I kept asking myself.

Fortunately the performances put such silly but persistent questions out of mind. Bostjan Ivanjsic is a regal faun inciting the women to passion and dangerously physical. His chiselled physique lends itself perfectly to such body sculpting. Michal Zabavik returns as a hard edged man who wantonly ravishes the porcelain beauty of long legged Sarah Schoch. Serge Desroches and Dianne Grey enjoy a more equal and very passionate duo as the other pair. Wellencamp takes us into another mythical space of fauns, beauty and mystery. This was the second time I’d seen the piece in about ten days. With the live music I would happily go again to see Faun every day for the next week.

The Celebrating Sacre program in Oper Graz is one of the most musically fulfilling dance programs I’ve ever had the pleasure to enjoy. Ravel, Debussy and Stravinsky make a perfect three course feast. On the choreographic side, Toulon, Wellencamp and James Wilton are an equally well-matched trio.

Curiously as it is the eponymous highlight of the evening, if there is a weaker element to the evening it is James Wilton’s Sacre du Printemps. Before the 100 year celebration of Sacre begins we see a 3.5 minute long presentation of a list of the different versions of Sacre created around the world. The last fifteen years have been particularly fruitful yielding about 25 original creations including superb versions from Angelin Prelocaj in France and Renato Zanella in Vienna.

What is there new to say about the Rite of Spring where the maiden is killed by her fellows to satisfy the gods of fertility? Probably not much which is likely why James Wilton decided to turn sensuality into a political and military statement. The stage is a military encampment in the roman style protected by wooden poles: the minimalist effect is persuasive, powerful and elegant. Vibeke Andersen hits the set on the money again.

Here Michal Zabovic again plays the anti-hero as the brutual, Hitler-like leader of a mixed gender group of marines. He incites them to vicious exercises, ganging up on their colleagues and pummelling them to a pulp. Norikazu Aoki is spectacular as one acrobatic rebel against Zabovic’s totalitarian cause, leaping and tumbling across the stage until he is literally a bruised wreck. Serge Desroches is a more tragic figure as he succumbs to Zabovic’s abuse finally ending up a broken corpse, as a predatory Zabovic literally scoops out his guts and eats his heart. In Wilton’s Rite of Spring, society is entirely militarised and completely unforgiving. Given the current political structure of England, blindly supporting every heavy handed American intervention across the world against the will of the majority, I can see why Wilton thinks this way. His attempt to confront our diabolical politics is laudable. Unfortunately it should probably be to other music. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is not about militarism but about fertility and sexuality: Wilton’s has been sterilised by its politics.

Still the corps-de-ballet looks great, all dancing well in what is a long and physical piece. They seem to be enjoying themselves and the hard work. I’d not rush to see this Rite of Spring again – Wilton rather bored me by the end and in retrospect left me annoyed. But it’s still a fine execution of a flawed concept and certainly worth seeing once, even if one does not hunger to see it again and again like Toulon’s Daphnis or Wellencamp’s Faun.


  1. arnold toulon arnold toulon

    Congrats to Dominican-born Darrel Toulon for making his Homelanders and country proud! That you can still inspire through your genius ,and understanding of the many cultural faebles and classics of theater through dance and music,comes as no surprise.Your grasp of the essence and psychological twists of your present material, combined with your avant guard sensibilities, has always been evident.Keep the torch burning…

  2. Rhona Rhona

    I feel so very proud as a Dominican, knowing that one of us is doing such wonderful work in something he truly loves(I am assuming you do love it because I am loving the visual The Critic has conjured in my mind).

    Congratulations Darrel!! Continued success with all future shows.

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