Ballet dancers are a breed rarely seen on the stage of Paris’s mecca of contemporary dance, Théâtre de la Ville – and Ballett am Rhein’s visit is unlikely to radically change the local attitude to classical technique. This 48-strong company, based in Düsseldorf and Duisburg, clearly has much to offer, but its first Paris tour got off on the wrong foot with two uneven works by Swiss choreographer Martin Schläpfer, who has been at the helm since 2009.
The bad news first: the second piece in the programme, Neither, is a dispiriting choice for an introduction. At nearly an hour long, it is a catalogue of generic danced misery: jumpy angst, slow-motion angst, angsty twitching and silent screaming, angst-ridden, we’re-all-alone-in-this-world-but-we-do-look-good-together partnering. It is perhaps not Schläpfer’s fault that this has become the most pervasive mood on the dance stage today, but Neither takes its clichés at face value and fails to redeem them elsewhere.
Add to that a pensum of a score in Morton Feldman’s eponymous one-act opera and a structure too loose to sustain interest, with a relentless collection of vignettes rotating on stage. The result is an ill-fated dance cocktail, despite the efforts of a company standout, the commanding Marlúcia do Amaral, in one of the main roles.
The opener didn’t forebode such doom and gloom. Forellenquintett, also created in 2010, is lighter fare, and most welcome for that. It starts with an infusion of 1980s-style attitude set to The Libertines’ “Don’t Be Shy”; one of the dancers is soon left dreaming on stage, and the choreography zooms in on her fantasy world. Matrix-worthy sets turn the stage into a cross between a forest and a computer coder’s fantasy, where whimsical characters cavort to Schubert’s Trout Quintet. Appropriately, giant gold wellington boots hang over the dancers, and Schläpfer spins the fisherman motif into the choreography, with pointe shoes hidden in a pair of boots.
Much of the choreography is conventional in its relationship to the music and to the neoclassical canon, but Schläpfer has a knack for delineating characters with light humour. One tipsy dancer orders wine on stage from a maître d’ before switching from drunkenness to full-on virtuosity; elsewhere, a woman dances a sparkling variation without coming off pointe, like a fairy light-heartedly skipping from step to step, and another abruptly turns into Swan Lake’s Odette, held captive by her partner.
Perhaps most intriguing is Schläpfer’s use of partnering. Dancers hold each other unusually close, often dancing arm in arm, like playful lovers or old friends: from lifts reminiscent of lindy hop to one where the woman seems to nest against her partner’s arms in the air, an air of joyous intimacy pervades. The choreography occasionally stretches the dancers thin and their psychedelic unitards are best forgotten, but the warmth and range Forellenquintett brings out in them is completely at odds with Neither’s one-note atmosphere. One programming blunder shouldn’t prevent Ballett am Rhein from paying us further visits.