Can you imagine Rameau’s courtly 18th-century opera ballets being danced simultaneously by modern-dress ballerinas playing out cute narrative dances and a group of young South Africans in native dress throwing themselves around the stage? At the BBC Proms anything is possible.
As John Eliot Gardiner puts it, the show is “gumboots versus ballet pumps”. Ten years ago Gardiner was invited to South Africa to help in training a small group of charity-funded young musicians, the Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble, and the project has progressed so well that he decided to bring them to Paris and London.
Sunday’s Prom was a concert of two halves. Before the interval Gardiner’s usual colleagues – the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists – performed Campra’s Messe de requiem, itself a memorable event as the music is so varied (here is a requiem with a smile on its face and a spring in its step) and Gardiner squeezed every possible drop of expression out of it.
Then two performing areas came into play. On the main platform Gardiner conducted his own forces in exquisitely detailed accounts of selected dance movements from Rameau’s stage works, while modern-dress dancers from the Compagnie Roussat-Lubek enacted charming little scenarios, present-day versions of what Rameau’s audiences might have seen.
Down in the arena the other performing space was taken by the young – some of them very young – players from Soweto and their director, Rosemary Nalden. In their hands Rameau exploded with joie de vivre, lifted even higher by the leaps and somersaults of Dance for All, a young group of dancers who threw themselves into their South African routines with an unflagging energy that left the audience feeling exhausted, never mind anybody else.
Finally, everybody came together on the main platform – string players intermingled, dancers sharing choreography, Gardiner keeping them all on the go. The whole uplifting occasion was an extraordinary example of how performers from different cultures could come together and find in the music of one long-dead composer an outlet for all their creative energies. It was the kind of evening the BBC Proms can bring off like nowhere else.
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