Listen to this article
Berlin is an exciting place at present: not only is the city finally taking shape after nearly two decades of dismantling the legacy of division, but in dance terms, after the painful amalgamation of its two companies in 2004, the Staatsballett Berlin under the leadership of Ukrainian Vladimir Malakhov (himself a dancer of international standing) is establishing itself as a classical company of note.
Malakhov’s policy of acquiring interesting works from the repertoires of the great companies (perhaps learnt during his stint with American Ballet Theatre) sets his troupe apart from the morass of European dance companies and their roster of choreographer-directors who pump out euro-schlock ballets in the manner of all those over-subsidised European Union farms growing low-grade cabbages for no one in particular.
No, what Malakhov is doing with his company is interesting; over one weekend in May, they danced two full-length ballets by English choreographers – Kenneth
MacMillan’s Manon (a popular export) and Frederick Ashton’s newly resurrected Sylvia – and I can’t think of many other companies, sometimes not even The Royal
Ballet, that do that. The choice of the former is more understandable: MacMillan was Director of Berlin’s Deutsche Oper Ballet between 1966 and 1969 and Manon has now
joined the pantheon of proven theatre-fillers; Ashton was a braver choice – outside London only ABT has his version (restored to us only two years ago), so this was something of a coup for Malakhov and his company.
This plucky troupe gave them both their all. Sylvia was the trickier of the two: Ashton’s demands in terms of musicality, speed and use of the upper body are difficult to meet for most of today’s dancers, and, as if that were not enough, his works and style must be virtually unknown to anyone in Berlin. That the company danced it so well was a tribute to Christopher Newton (the ballet’s re-creator) and their own technical strength and versatility. Shoko Nakamura danced the eponymous heroine with Amazonian strength and, once past the terrors of the first act entrée, with increasing pliancy if not notable musicality, whereas Aminta, a non-character in any case, was
played as a big nelly, which never helps matters.
Manon has lost its edge since its entry into the Staatsballett’s repertoire last year and some dancers are already lapsing into melodrama à la russe – saucer eyes and semaphore gestures – but that is nothing a few firm neins from a tough coach cannot sort out. More seriously, the costumes were disastrous: light in weight and garish in colour for the brothel scene, they looked cheap and, while Manon may be a tart, she was never a cheap one. There were some bland dancers, the noh-masked Manon of Elena Pris being one such, but many, liberally sprinkled through the ranks, simply brimmed with character – Leonard Jakovina’s roistering Lescaut ranks as one of the best three I have seen. For both performances, musical execution was of the highest standard, not something that one can often say about ballet bands in the UK.
Keep this company in mind – in an era of artistic stagnation (think Paris Opéra Ballet) it is going places: next season sees the return of Sylvia and a healthy mix of works, from a Jerome Robbins evening to the acquisition of Bournonville’s La Sylphide. To finish in epicurean rather than terpsichorean vein, it is a truly civilised thing to emerge from the Staatsoper on Unter den Linden, cross the road and nab a plate of post- theatre blini with a glass of sekt in the opulent yet slightly faded Tajik Tea Room... Ah, Berlin.
A different version of this report appears in the Dancing Times