By Rachel Straus
VIENNA—The former Paris Opera Ballet Étoile Manuel Legris took the reigns of the Vienna Staatsballett in 2010, infusing a company that had developed a reputation for being a ballet museum with a shot of 21st-century dancing adrenalin. Legris’s modernizing hasn’t bruised his financial support: the Staatsoper budget for opera and ballet is 100M euros; there are performances 300 days of the year; most of the dancers have individualized, promo videos on the company’s website. With that kind of abundance, Legris can present many new commissions while at the same time continue to offer popular story ballets so as not to alienate his core audience.
On Nov. 22 in the neo-Renaissance Staatsoper theater, a third of the 77-member company performed Tanzperspektiven (Dance Perspectives), a showcase of four contemporary works first presented in February. The strongest work was the oldest, Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Ver Un Pays Sage (Towards a Wise Country, 1995), set to John Adams’s Fearful Symmetries (1988). As with Peter Martins’s 1992 ballet choreographed to the same music, Maillot’s primary motif is the off-balance extension of the body. Virtuosic ecstasy is the main event, and the 13 performers (especially former Kirov member Olga Esina) demonstrated that, no matter how high the speed or slippery the transition, they can move like Olympians.
Maillot, artistic director of the Ballet Monte Carlo, adds an antique motif to his Olympic vision by costuming his dancers in white, by creating a relay race (where each dancer literally hands his or her steps to the next), and by devising inventive lifts where the women appear to sail through the air like javelins. The work culminates with a pas de deux between Roman Lazik and Esina that is clearly a test of stamina: At the end, she crumples to the floor; he picks her up and carries her upstage, placing her behind a transparent, enormous hanging flag (created by Maillot). Lazik then raises his arms as if in victory. The couple apparently has arrived in the “wise country,” although why it is any wiser than the one they just traveled through with such expertise is not clear.
Windspiele (2013), set to Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D with soloist Iosif Kotek (Markus Lehtinen conducting), is a commission by Legris of choreographer Patrick de Bana, a onetime Bejart Ballet dancer. Perhaps the weakest work of the evening, it was also the most amusing, especially as danced by Kirill Kourlaev, a blond Muscovite who, judging from his company website video shot on an abandoned industrial site, fancies himself a ballet rebel happy to show off his astonishing jumps.
The piece is brash, sexy, and boy-band juvenile--a perfect vehicle for the shirtless Kourlaev, who spends much of his time center stage, glorying in his bounding leaps and open-armed passion for the self. At times two female dancers flank him on the stage sidelines, suggesting his backup singers.
The other works stimulated as much as confounded. According to the program note, the title of British choreographer David Dawson’s A Million Kisses to My Skin refers to the sheer delight of dancing. The baby blue leotards and tights might fit with that concept, but the work’s cool style and Shino Takizawa’s intense interpretation of Bach’s Piano Concerto in D minor did not. The neo-classical choreography features less kissing smoothness than sharpness, most notably when the men lift the women, who strike an arabesque pose, by opening their legs like scissors. Ketevan Papava was one of the few who appeared to be “kissed,” riding the strident melodies ecstatically, articulating her limbs with a child-like sense of daring.
Eventide (2013) by American Helen Pickett is one of those ballets that call to mind many others. Fokine’s Scheherazade is one (without the orgy or death), Marius Petipa’s La Bayadère is another, in its sense of courtly grandeur. The piece is a reworking of Pickett’s 2008 Eventide, made for the Boston Ballet. Apparently, she has added new music, though it is not clear whether it was more Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar (Offering aus Passages and Meetings Along the Edge), or more from another score titled Ramy aus Madar.
Benjamin Phillips’s three sets move from the literal (a dark court with chandeliers and velvet curtains) to the abstract (a Jackson Pollock-like painting with rainbow metallic hues). This combination of plush sets, darkly lit spaces, and east-west music is apparently intended to create a sensual atmosphere for Kiyoka Hashimoto to dance with lots of different shirtless men. Alas, the work fails to make an observer swoon; furthermore, the corps too often dutifully lines the sides of the stage, as if in Swan Lake.
Pickett, who danced for William Forsythe’s Frankfurt Ballett, deconstructs the artform’s canonical works without reconstructing them into a central idea of her own, a demonstration of how difficult it can be to create a distinctive voice in the post-modern style. Legris, who is trying to capture new essences of ballet with these works, is lucky that the less successful ones don’t spell the end of his ambitious initiative to make ballet new.
Copyright © 2013, Musical America