Ebb and Flow

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One of my favourite landmarks by the Thames

To the Peacock Theatre yesterday afternoon to see ENB school’s performance. Well, to be honest, mainly to see my friend Chris Hampson’s new piece for the men, Flow. I always have to remind myself how young these dancers are. When they graduate, musicians can get away with being a bit teenagery, geeky and badly dressed with a slouch even though they can play the oboe rather well, but dancers have to be fully finished human beings as part of what they do, and hell, were they good yesterday.

A single moment stands out and haunts me from the whole show. It was in Ernst Meisner’s joyous piece done to the Rachmaninov two-piano suites. Surrounded by Stravinsky, John Adams & Bach, Rachmaninov on two pianos could have sounded a bit arch and fruity but it didn’t, because the choreography rode the waves of the music so you felt like you were surfing it, not watching it. The single moment in question was when a line of dancers formed stage right, and in unison, turned their heads to watch an imaginary object pass overhead. The ‘imaginary something’ was a musical phrase. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in a ballet, so simple it hurt.

There was something similar in Chris (Hampson’s) piece to the Bach C minor double piano (violin) concerto.  A simple flowing arm movement found the music in the music in a hundred ways, and in the slow movement, the soloist turns his head slowly to the back, then looks quickly to the front when the solo instrument enters, as if he has suddenly ‘seen’ the music.  A security guard in the audience was so taken with what he had seen that I saw him in the lobby trying out the recurring arm movement in different ways, amazed at what it felt like to move to music. Actually, that didn’t happen, I dreamed it last night, but that’s how intoxicating it was to watch.

I’d never really got into John Adams’ music before seeing Hallelujah Junction at the Linbury, which I loved, and Christopher Tudor’s piece to another Adams’ score made me realise this is my kind of music. Just wish there’d been more of it.

It’s no reflection on Michael Corder’s choreography, which is always  musical and sensitive (and the dancers did it excellently), that his piece to Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks annoyed me. It’s not him, it’s Stravinsky, or rather ‘Stravinsky’ (as Taruskin might put it). I’m bored with ‘Stravinsky’, bored with the fawning ideology that presents him as the natural progression of music in the twentieth century, from which there can be no rhythmic going back. I spent the piece trying to work out what annoyed me about it, and concluded that the trouble with music that is consistently unpredictable is that it’s also consistently forgettable. The metrical ambiguity and change and melodic fragmentation leaves you with nothing but a series of passing snapshots, like watching a crowd in an electric storm at night.  It’s not even that I particularly dislike the music, it’s just  more analogous to a painting than to a dance. It has texture and flashes of colour, but no temporal quality. You can only stand as an observer and take in a moment at a time and then pass to the next one.

And so to Giselle Act II, which was the second half of the programme. Again, nothing against the dancers who did brilliantly, and I think the concept of doing a whole Act of a classic is great. But oh lord, this  Giselle of all things needs to be taken apart like an old sports car and put together from scratch.  It’s presented as a classic ballet blanc when even in 1841 it was nearer to Phantom of the Opera or Wicked. Giselle is the gothic ballet par excellence, so has enormous resonance for an era obsessed with  Twilight, but this production  glosses over that in a schoolmarmy, worthy way so that ironically, all the life really is taken out of it – the true corpse is the ballet, not Giselle the person.

There’s also something about listening to a recording of the music (complete with reverberant acoustics that suggest a concert hall a hundred times larger than the Peacock) that gives an auditory  unity to the score which ruins the surprise and melodrama of it.  I’ve  just been re-reading Marian Smith’s excellent Ballet & Opera in the Age of Giselle, and her argument based on utterly convincing evidence, is that we miss the point if we don’t understand how much Giselle borrows from the methods of opera.  The score is in many places made up of recitative-like interjections and abrupt changes suggesting verbal drama, but once it’s been engineered and passed through a sound system, and in the absence of life in the form of an orchestra or conductor it is flattened and straightened out into an acoustic sausage that is 80% sawdust. And what on earth is that darn fugue doing in the middle of this production? There are those wilis, being all 19th century and weird and gothic, when suddenly they do a kind of  Mark Morris style celebration in the forest to a fugue that is surely the most pointless episode in the history of ballet.

But that’s a side issue, a symptom probably of being in the middle of writing a dissertation on relationships between voice, gesture, music & communication. You notice these things when you look for them. In total, it was a magnificent afternoon, and I was in awe of the dancers’ extraordinary abilities and commitment. It’s for this that I’ve preferred spending my life in the dance world rather than music.

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