Bayerisches Staatsballett, Nationaltheater Munich

With sugarplums and nutcrackers a-plenty in the Christmas markets and real snowflakes on the streets of Munich, the Bavarian State Ballet has opted for alternative dance fare with Steps and Times, a celebratory feast of British ballet. Indeed, as part of Ivan Liska’s current English Season, a quadruple bill of rare quality has been drawn from the works of Britain’s finest choreographers, Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan.

Scènes de ballet was Ashton’s favourite among his own works, his 1948 essay in spiky neo-classicism. André Beaurepaire’s original set designs adorn the Nationaltheater stage and his geometrically patterned costumes remain a balletic New Look intended to shake Britain out of postwar drudgery. Stravinsky’s score, as sharp and sophisticated as a skilfully mixed martini, was expertly played. The Munich dancers settled into Ashton’s challenging homage to Petipa, not least the corps of 12 women and four male soloists, but the leads will need to muster more chic and style fully to do their roles justice. It was, nevertheless, a doughty first performance.

After the asperities of Scènes de ballet, two Ashton bonnes bouches: the Voices of Spring pas de deux and Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan. Both date from the 1970s but could not be more contrasted: the first originally a joyful divertissement conceived for the party scene of Die Fledermaus, the second comprising five solos, both works a homage to Isadora Duncan, whom Ashton saw dance, and a tribute to the expressive genius of the dancer Lynn Seymour, who coached this revival herself.

Five Brahms Waltzes is deceptively simple – every movement seemingly improvised but in reality meticulously crafted by the choreographer, whose hand is all but invisible in its seeming spontaneity. As danced by Stephanie Hancox, the work sings with vitality and interpretative intelligence; clad in a flowing apricot shift, she fills the empty stage with the varying moods and movements that seem to pour from the piano waltzes. Set to Strauss’s infectious Frühlingstimmen walzer, Voices of Spring is a crowd-pleaser ending in a running “bum lift” exit, with the ballerina sitting aloft on her partner’s hand. Katherina Markowskaja was a petite, perky spirit of spring, flirting cheekily with Lukás Slavicky, her attentive partner. A note of regret: the original costumes were flattering Greek chiton rather than the current generic Mitteleuropean à la Coppélia.

MacMillan’s monumental Song of the Earth is a challenge for any company – to evoke the spirituality and core humanity of this great work is no small task. Here, coached expertly by Donald MacLeary, the entire cast succeed in delivering a performance of rare cohesion and intensity. Nicholas Georgiadis’s plain sub-fusc costumes and moody slate-grey backcloth look splendid on this stage’s vast expanse and the work is, as are the three Ashton pieces, evocatively lit by John B. Read.

I cannot praise too highly the three principals – Tigran Mikayelyan’s implacable Der Ewige (the Eternal One, so more apt than the English “Messenger of Death”), who stalks the others, Marlon Dino’s intensely human Man – an accomplished partner – and, shining with radiant artistry and evident understanding of the depths and demands of the role, Lucia Lacarra’s deeply moving Woman. She becomes, as she must, the very centre of this masterpiece, shimmering with both love and grief, the essence of human frailty against the inevitabilities of time and death.

The superlative Bayerisches Staatsorchester was magnificent under Ryusuke Numajiri, nowhere more so than in Song of the Earth where its tonal richness and idiomatic playing combined thrillingly with the voices of mezzo-soprano Heike Grötzinger and tenor Bernhard Berchthold. Vaut le détour.

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