Ballettwoche (Ballet Week), Nationaltheater, Munich – review

Russia and the US lead the world in classical dance, with help from Paris and, sometimes, London. That view, however, would ignore the German companies, starting with the world-class Stuttgart ensemble and, thanks to careful work by director Ivan Liška, the Bavarian State Ballet. German dance companies are constantly fighting against the national bias towards opera and Munich’s 10 days of dance at the Nationaltheater is a triumph in itself, Liška showcasing his dancers in the repertoire he has built up over the past 16 years.

John Neumeier’s work is rarely seen in the UK but he is a giant among choreographers, still leading the Hamburg Ballet after 40 years. Liška created Lysander in his 1977 Ein Sommernachtstraum (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) so it is fitting that the State Ballet now dance it. Where Balanchine and Ashton pare down Shakespeare’s narrative, Neumeier takes an expansive approach, even offering the Pyramus and Thisbe caperings, and sharply contrasts the play’s two worlds both visually (Jürgen Rose’s sumptuous Biedermeier-period costumes for the mortals against the fairies’ shimmering silver body suits and caps) and musically (earthly Mendelssohn against otherworldly Ligeti, and even hurdy-gurdy for the mechanicals). In dance terms, Neumeier moves from somewhat pedestrian, neoclassical ballet for the humans to a more interesting movement palette for the supernatural, characterised by an indulgent physicality. The company work hard to master these contrasting styles; Ilia Sarkisov’s characterful, effervescent Puck/Philostrat, Tigran Mikayelyan’s powerful Oberon/Theseus and Dustin Klein’s goofy Thisbe on pointe stood out.

A matinee assemblage of youth and junior dance groups contained something of real import: a sneak preview of Liška’s forthcoming June revival of the abstract Das Triadische Ballet (The Triadic Ballet), Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer’s extraordinary 1922 conception. Schlemmer’s costumes (some of the originals exist in Stuttgart), far outstripping Leigh Bowery and glam rock at their most outlandish, stalk the stage again, and even if neither the original music nor movement survives, it is exciting to see such important designs where they belong.

A strange mixed bill brought together Russell Maliphant’s moody Broken Fall and José Limón’s arch Othello distillation The Moor’s Pavane, both expertly danced, alongside Léonide Massine’s Choreartium. Massine’s work is barely seen these days, but it was he who created the now familiar genre of the symphonic ballet, and this 80-year-old piece has lost little of its monumental beauty. Created in 1933 to Brahms’ Symphony No. 4, it is still notable for the elevation of the corps de ballet to collective protagonist and for the architectural nature of its choreographic construction. Liška is to be congratulated on having Choreartium in his repertoire, and his ensemble dance this masterpiece with sensitivity, shifting in form and mood with the music which, as with the Mendelssohn, was played with both power and detail by the Bayerischer Staatsorchester.

However, Keso Dekker’s redesign is nothing short of disastrous, robbing much of the clarity of the groupings with costumes in garish colours or, in the case of the final movement, snakeskin body stockings; these, coupled with a projected undulating curtain effect, confuse the eye and weaken Massine’s concept. Only the wondrous second movement emerges relatively unscathed, an intense Séverine Ferrolier leading 18 women in their powerful dance of mourning, their costumes suitably subfusc. Instead of calling on Tatiana Leskova, who danced this work and has often set it, the State Ballet turned to Lorca Massine, the choreographer’s son, whose interpretation of his father’s creation is fluid at best, which gives Munich an ersatz Choreartium when it could have been truly echt.

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