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April 4, 2012 5:19 am
You don’t see murder mysteries too often at the ballet. Enter Christian Spuck, one of Stuttgart Ballet’s resident choreographers, who helps plug the gap with Das Fräulein von S., his latest creation for the company. Like The Nutcracker and Coppélia, it is based on a short story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, in this case an early example of crime fiction set in Versailles. But unlike his 19th-century predecessors, however, Spuck doesn’t just follow the story. His parting gift – he is leaving at the end of the season to head Switzerland’s Zurich Ballet – is that rare beast: a three-act ballet for the post-Forsythe ballet world, deconstructed, puzzling and inventive in equal measure.
The merits of Act I are theatrical rather than choreographic, but Spuck’s stage direction is masterly. Louis XIV’s Versailles is shown in black and white, the setting for an eerie ballet noir in which Mademoiselle de Scudéri, the narrator, sets out to solve a series of murders. The culprit, we learn, is a goldsmith, Cardillac, so in love with his jewellery that he kills the owners to get it back. Blindfolded women in glistening tutus play his jewels, and in a strangely beautiful scene, we see Cardillac take them out of their glass cases and manipulate them like dangerous yet empty objects of desire.
Versailles itself is portrayed as a puppet theatre, all distorted poses and grotesque tableaux, and much of the neoclassical choreography is performed with the dancers’ backs to us, like a series of digressions within that closed world. The real storytelling is done by the diminutive French actress Mireille Mossé, who acts as the speaking alter ego of Mademoiselle de Scudéri, played by Ludmilla Bogart. It’s a controversial approach, but the result is a fascinatingly Brechtian spin on ballet narration.
As soon as Act I is over, however, Spuck turns the story on its head. Act II consists mainly of a series of abstract neoclassical pas de deux, while Act III switches gears again, channelling William Forsythe’s Impressing the Czar. Like Forsythe, Spuck mixes characters in period costumes and dancers in modern black tutus and tights. On a stage dominated by a carousel of revolving doors, they form bustling ensembles in which the characters blend and disappear while the narrators go through the doors again and again. It’s a whirlwind of absurdity, and while the choreography lacks the tension, the inevitability of Forsythe’s work, the overall effect is exhilarating.
There isn’t much room for character development amid the chaos, and while the many soloists were impeccably stylish, the corps de ballet looked under-rehearsed, by contrast with their animated, cohesive performance in La Sylphide the previous night. The star of the night was Mossé, who took charge of the production with her peculiar, assertive voice and uncanny presence. The ballet ends on her shrieking laugh, like a challenge to the audience, and Das Fräulein von S. is the kind of challenge it’s hard not to want more of.
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