United Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2015 (16) – Mahler, Seven : Ballet am Rhein Düsseldorf Duisburg, Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Wen-Pin Chien (conductor), Playhouse, 20.8.2015. (SRT)
Music: Mahler, Symphony No. 7,
Choreography: Martin Schläpfer
Design: Florian Etti
Choreographer Martin Schläpfer writes that “The more I listen to Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, the crazier it gets. Mahler’s music releases things in my own choreography that I did not believe I had in me.” And how! Seven, Schläpfer’s response to Mahler’s Seventh, is one of the flagship dance events of this year’s EIF and it’s worth the hype, with the RSNO cooking up a storm in the pit while Schläpfer’s Ballet am Rhein respond in kind on stage.
There isn’t an explicit narrative to Schläpfer’s vision, but themes of human relationships seem to hold centre stage. We see couples and small groups coming together to react to one another for a time, but mostly it ends in hostility or outright rejection. Partners are swapped and traded with casual indifference and, particularly in the outer movements, Schläpfer explores the impact on those rejected, most often women. His colour scheme is overwhelmingly black, with a few touches of blue or white to (only just) lighten the texture. The massed corps is very rarely used, and their impact is all the more exciting when it comes. Mostly, however, the focus is on a small, changing group of dancers and the way they treat one another. The only genuine affection seems to come in the second Nachtmusik, where two couples pet and cosy to one another with parallel moves and flowing lines. In the other movements, by contrast, jagged angles seem to pervade. Most of the dancers use socks or pointe, but a significant group wear ankle-high boots, stomping in to bring a new violence to each scene in which they appear, though it’s never entirely clear whether they are disruptive thugs or misunderstood visionaries.
Importantly, however, Schläpfer’s choreography is inherently musical. He has thought deeply about Mahler’s score and presented a sequence of movement that seems an extension of the action in the pit, sometimes explicitly so, as in the rhythmic stamping that matches the col legno strokes at the beginning of the first Nachtmusik. The shadowy Scherzo has dancing that is by turns goofy and spidery, and the great climaxes are matched intelligently. The final tableau, for example, uses a scene like Musical Chairs to point up the forced exclusion of one character, but it’s left tantalisingly ambiguous whether she transcends the scene or falls victim to it. The only place where pit and stage were noticeably out of sync was the opening of the finale where the gleaming trumpets which announce the Rondo theme seem to scream for daylight, but instead the dancers stand stock still in darkness.
The RSNO have a great heritage in Mahler but have had relatively few opportunities to show it in recent seasons, so it’s great to hear them on form here. Orchestral ensemble is mostly very tight (barring a slip in ensemble at the start of the first Nachtmusik) and Wen-Pin Chien balanced the demands of the music and the dancing capably. Furthermore, the solos, so important to Mahler’s sound world, glitter magnificently, with a special mention to the knockout tenor horn that kicks the whole thing off.
The 2015 Edinburgh International Festival runs until Monday 31st August at venues across the city. For full details go to www.eif.co.uk