United Kingdom Scottish Ballet Double Bill, Kings 2 Ends and Song of the Earth: Dancers of Scottish Ballet, Karen Cargill (mezzo), Richard Berkeley-Steele (tenor), Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, conducted by Richard Honner. Sadler’s Wells, London, 4.11.11. (JPr)
The ‘Double Bill’ involved a new work Jorma Elo’s Kings 2 Ends with Kenneth MacMillan’s famous 1965 Song of the Earth and, with reservations, showed the Scottish Ballet rising splendidly to their different challenges.
Kings 2 Ends was premièred at this year’s Edinburgh Festival and this is Boston Ballet’s resident choreographer, Jorma Elo’s, first creation for a British company. It is basically two works ‘for the price of one’ as it is choreographed to vastly different pieces of music: Steve Reich’s Double Sextet and Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.1. The former was all pre-recorded ricocheting rhythms and the latter typically old-fashioned and romantic (Justine Watts was the valiant soloist). To be honest it might work better as two smaller independent works.
Elo hand-picked 14 dancers to work with after seeing the company perform Cinderella last December. They perform well for him in this compellingly translucent and entertaining choreographic trifle. It opens in silence as Eve Mutso, in a simple black leotard, moves starkly and gymnastically. There are lines of light across the stage that increasing seem to be identified with the lanes of a swimming pool because, as Elo’s moves become more familiar, there are hints of tai chi, yoga, ballet barre work, robot and animal movement, as well as ballroom dances; but the overriding impression is of synchronized swimming. It was like a twenty-first century version of Frederick Ashton’s Symphonic Variations.
The movement of individual or small groups of dancers is swift, restless and almost relentless as Elo responds equally entertainingly to both Reich and Mozart. The partnering was assured and two stand-out couples were Sophie Martin and Daniel Davidson and Owen Thorne with the aforementioned Eve Mutso. There is very little difference between the two halves except that it is all a lot redder in Yumiko Takeshima’s costumes and Jordan Tuinman’s lighting for the Mozart. Recently, I reported on the memorable ‘bum lift’ in Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée, here the mind boggled at what it might be called when the male dancer lifts his female partner with his neck between her legs.
Whether time will be kind to Kings 2 Ends we shall see but I doubt it will have the longevity Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth has enjoyed – 45 years or so. In 1965, he had a tremendous success with his first three-act work, Romeo and Juliet, but the management refused to commission a piece to Mahler’s music and MacMillan was not very pleased. He went off and made it for his old friend, John Cranko, and the Stuttgart Ballet and it was an immediate success. Soon the Royal Ballet realised their mistake and staged Song of the Earth themselves, but MacMillan felt betrayed and left them in 1966 to take charge of the ballet at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper. The texts are Chinese poems of the eighth century T’ang dynasty freely adapted into German. The poems are a bittersweet recollection of all human life – its pleasures (especially drinking) and sorrows – ending with a farewell to the world. Mahler was acutely aware of his own mortality because of a recently-diagnosed heart problem and it ends with a very poignant coda with a repeated mantra: ‘Ewig … ewig …’ (Forever … forever …).
MacMillan’s narrative was ‘A man and a woman; death takes the man; they both return to her and at the end we find that in death there is the promise of renewal. It is a sort of revelation achieved through death’. His choreographic invention seems timeless and not in any way literal but only a mere reflection of Mahler’s six Chinoiserie songs sung live on stage. The words are hard enough to express verbally, let alone sing or dance. Writing about ‘reflection’ in one song (‘Of Youth’) about the image of a pavilion seen in a pool, MacMillan has his dancers standing on their heads like reflections in that water, in ‘Of Beauty’ men ‘gallop’ in to find the girls picking lotus blossom … and that is about as ‘literal’ as it gets.
The man is present from the start, among young people enjoying themselves, heedless of the transience of youth and beauty. In their midst is the Messenger of Death who stand out from the others by a colourless half-mask. The leading woman first appears in the second song to reveal her longing for a companion to end her loneliness. She eventually finds a lover but loses him to death and dances a long mournful solo that ends with her acceptance of the inevitability of death. Her lover rejoins her and he now wears a half mask, and together with the Messenger, they all link hands for one of ballet’s most emotional endings.
It is danced on a bare stage with a dark backcloth in a version of practice dress by Nicholas Georgiadis; men in T-shirts and tights, women in simple tunics. So MacMillan’s Song of the Earth is both pared down and monumental. The ballet is technically demanding and Scottish Ballet seemed to have no problem here: however, it also requires more musicality and emotion from the dancers than some can yet manage. Nevertheless it was a heartfelt and ardent performance.
The most outstanding dancer was Tomomi Sato in the second and last songs that you remember most; she has a typically small physique and seems born to dance. Steps of whatever complexity come effortlessly to her and her fragile perfection and lack of artifice was very moving when she was left alone. She was well matched by Victor Zarallo’s lithe Messenger and Christopher Harrison’s intense, though rather too upright, Man.
Richard Honner drew a reasonably warm, eloquent, account of the score from the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra who played valiantly throughout the evening and continued the improvement in the performance of ballet music I have noted in recent years. Karen Cargill and Richard Berkeley-Steele were the two very established singers performing Song of the Earth but individual moments of musical interpretation were absent from them, as well as the orchestra, because of the need to press on with the music and not leave the dancers’ legs hanging in the air. Sadly Berkeley-Steele had a night he would rather probably want to forget but Karen Cargill sang with a burnished sound that was especially affecting at the end of Der Abschied (The Farewell).
For further details for Scottish Ballet’s forthcoming performances visit www.scottishballet.co.uk.