Dancing about Titian

It was March this year when the news came through that Titian’s “Diana and Callisto” had been saved for the nation. Acquired for £45m, this most elegant of Renaissance paintings will now continue to be on public display with its two companion pieces already in the collections of the National Gallery in London and National Galleries of Scotland.

The timing was perfect. Over the summer Titian’s three mythological masterpieces are to be the focus of one of the most wide-ranging events in the London 2012 Festival. “Metamorphosis: Titian 2012” is taking these old masters and making them the inspiration for new work in five art forms – music, dance, art, design and poetry, a real pentathlon of the arts.

The project was initiated by the National Gallery, which started to look at ways of marking the Olympics five years ago. Curator Minna Moore Ede says her aim has been to create a total art form in the spirit of Sergei Diaghilev, the Russian impresario who, a century ago, brought together the composer Stravinsky, dancer Nijinsky, choreographer Fokine and artist Bakst on dance projects that still resonate.

In a similar vein, “Titian 2012” will involve some of today’s leading creative artists in a triple bill of new ballets to be performed at the Royal Opera House in July just before the start of the Olympics. New work has been commissioned in all the art forms and the prestigious list of contributors includes two Turner Prize winners, composer Mark-Anthony Turnage and poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy.

The scale of the project becomes clear in talking with Monica Mason at the Royal Ballet. “From our point of view the most unusual aspect of the project is the number of choreographers,” she says. “We have pairs of choreographers working on two of the ballets, and the third will have three. When we met in my office, they looked at me as if I’d lost the plot, but after a discussion, and probably an argument or two, they came back and said they had everything sorted out. I’m doing my best to keep hands off.”

For Mason personally, “Titian 2012” represents as much an end as the start of something new. After a decade as director of the Royal Ballet she is retiring this summer, bidding farewell with a venture that will involve seven of the choreographers with whom she has worked most closely and almost every dancer in the company. Her final show will be, as she says, “a bit of a blast”, and she can congratulate herself on having contrived to fit in almost everybody who matters.

In essence, there will be three teams. Each ballet will involve one composer, one artist and up to three choreographers, and each team will be responding to one of the three Titian paintings – “Diana and Actaeon”, “The Death of Actaeon” and “Diana and Callisto” – all from his series of “poesie”, depicting scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and painted for Philip II of Spain.

Moore Ede explains that all the works of art, old and new, can be seen at the National Gallery from July to September. “We will display the three Titian paintings in one room, and there will be separate rooms off that for each of the three living artists. Chris Ofili will produce a series of paintings, Conrad Shawcross and Mark Wallinger each a single work. There will also be a choreographers’ room in which footage from the rehearsals will be shown to give examples of the shapes, gestures and poses they are creating.”

Stand in front of Titian’s “The Death of Actaeon” at the National Gallery and what do you see? The image is straightforward enough: the hunter Actaeon, having unluckily stumbled on the goddess Diana while she is bathing, is shot by her arrow and torn to pieces by his own hounds. The moral is unmistakably of the hunter hunted. But does the picture represent action or a moment frozen in time?

Moore Ede stresses that Titian’s paintings show more than merely a still image. “In ‘Diana and Actaeon’ Titian captures the goddess just as she is casting the spell on Actaeon. When the painting was X-rayed, it showed that Titian had moved the figure of Actaeon, so that this became more of a threshold moment, just as he is stumbling across the glade. The great painters are always able to show you not just a frozen image, but a phrase of music. Think of Leonardo’s ‘The Last Supper’, where you see a ripple of reactions across the picture.”

To go from works of art to the flowing movement of ballet, it is surely music that provides the key. There is an honourable tradition of interpreting paintings through music – Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is a favourite orchestral showpiece and Stephen Sondheim has derived an entire musical out of Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” – here the composers face the double challenge of responding not only to the Titian originals, but also to the new art works being created around them.

It is hardly surprising that the results are shaping up to be very different. Jonathan Dove, composer of the highly successful opera Flight at Glyndebourne, says a narrative was the natural choice for him. “As I see it, my brief is to tell the story. My operas are all narrative based, and [choreographer] William Tuckett has produced narrative ballets, so a love of story-telling is what we have in common. We will have two singers who come to embody the spirits of Diana and Actaeon, and Alasdair Middleton has written a libretto in a mix of Latin, Greek and English. Though I’m not expecting the audience to listen as they might in an opera, the text will carry an emotional charge that should reach them.” Dove’s team is the project’s biggest and they have settled on a democratic way of working, meeting in advance to agree the plan for each section of the ballet.

For Nico Muhly, a young American composer much in demand at the moment, contact has been mostly long-distance. “We Skype a lot,” he says. “The best thing I can do is put myself at the mercy of everybody else, so I am not creating impossible challenges for the choreographers [Kim Brandstrup and Wayne McGregor]. I want to be a fun person to work with.” His score will look back to the period of Titian by incorporating elements of the 16th-century English composers Gibbons and Byrd.

“My music rarely stays in one place for long,” he says, “and everything will be in a state of constant transformation. Somehow, metamorphosis is a very musical thing. It occurs sooften in Greek and Roman mythology, often in a violent way, and composers have picked up on that physicality. I certainly don’t feel that Titian’s ‘Death of Actaeon’, with the storm cloud in motion and Diana’s bow being tautened, is at all still. The painting has an implied kinetic energy.”

Perhaps, in the end, the tensions between stillness and movement in art are as old as Ovid himself. Thinking back over her long career in dance, Mason reminisces that her early experiences included working with Ninette De Valois on a ballet based on Hogarth’s drawings of “A Rake’s Progress” and another on the subject of Job heavily influenced by the illustrations of William Blake.

“Where this project is different is that the choreographers are also working with living artists,” she says, “and for all the artists this is the first time they have worked in the theatre, so there are new experiences on all sides.” New experiences, an Olympic celebration, a Diaghilev-inspired total art form, a state-of-the-nation pageant of the arts in Britain, a festive salute to mark the successful purchase of a great painting: “Metamorphosis: Titian 2012” is many things to many people.

Metamorphosis: Titian 2012’, National Gallery, London, July 11-September 21 www.nationalgallery.org.uk

The triple bill of ballets are in performance at the Royal Opera House, London, July 14-21, www.roh.org.uk

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