Choreography iconic and new from Hans van Manen and Martin Schläpfer in Vienna State Ballet’s Mahler, live

AustriaAustria Mahler, live – choreography by Hans van Manen and Martin Schläpfer: Soloists and Dancers of Vienna State Ballet, Orchestra of Vienna State Opera / Axel Kober (conductor). Filmed at Vienna State Opera (directed by Miriam Hoyer) and available on ARTE Concert (click here) until 4.3.2021. (JPr)

Olga Esina and Marco Menha in Live

Music – Franz Liszt
Choreography – Hans van Manen (revived by Rachel Beaujean)
Costumes – Keso Dekker
Lighting – Bert Dalhuysen
Piano – Shino Takizawa

Dancers – Olga Esina and Marco Menha
Camera – Henk van Dijk

Music – Gustav Mahler
Choreography – Martin Schläpfer
Stage design – Florian Etti
Costumes – Catherine Voeffray
Lighting – Thomas Diek

Dancers – Vienna State Ballet
Soprano – Slávka Zámečníková

Mahler, live is the first programme curated by the new director of Vienna State Ballet, Martin Schläpfer. Its planned premiere on the stage of the Vienna Opera House to a live audience was not possible due to its closure as Austria battles coronavirus, however it was filmed in the empty theatre and recently streamed.

This double bill begins with Hans van Manen’s 1979 Live which was the very first ‘video ballet’. It was created for Dutch National Ballet and is performed by Vienna State Ballet for the first time. What we first see is a ‘duet’ between a ballerina (Olga Esina) and a cameraman (Henk van Dijk). This was revolutionary in the late 1970s but nowadays the use of video is (over?)used both in contemporary dance and also opera. Nevertheless, Live proves the near-perfect ballet for the ‘new normal’ of filmed performances. New to the work are images of a few socially distanced – and masked – people seated in the stalls. Then there is a very intimate, occasionally voyeuristic or fetishistic, portrait of the female dancer moving on stage whilst we see her in closeup – in black-and-white – behind on a big screen. We get to know – most intimately – Esina’s face, body, and most particularly, her hands and feet. At one point she turns to smile in self-admiration as if practicing in front of a mirror.

At some point Esina steps into and through the orchestra pit and eventually comes out into Parkett Rechts of an opera house I have known so well over many years. In the foyer she meets a man (Marco Menha), and the story of their relationship unfolds beginning with lifts where Esina touches the ceiling and then seductively slides down a column. There is lyricism and angularity to their duet and a fleeting moment from Nijinsky’s L’Après-midi d’un faune to Menha’s brief solo. Eventually he walks away, and we see the sadness in Esina’s face as her hand covers the camera. We then find them in a rehearsal studio (a flashback?) and there is passion and repressed anger during a pre-recorded, silent, stomping duet which ends as Esina tries to slap Menha before he storms off slamming a door behind him. Back in the foyer Esina puts on an overcoat and walks out of the theatre – still wearing her ballet shoes – onto the Ringstrasse on a Vienna night with some snow on the ground. A powerful, meaningful, and deeply poignant ending to some iconic choreography.

How wonderful it was to have Hans van Manen – now 88 – present for this, but it was very sad that there was no one there to applaud him. Kudos to the piano accompaniment from Shino Takizawa playing some Liszt (Sospiri, Bagatelle sans tonalité, Wiegenlied, Vier kleine Klavierstücke, Abschied) that was mostly elegiac, though sometimes appropriately fiery in quality.

Discussing music is often the last thing ballet reviews do in any detail, but the significance of Mahler being played in the opera house where the composer was director from 1897 to 1907 cannot be ignored. From the wonderful Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera under Axel Kober we heard Mahler’s 1901 Fourth Symphony. The first movement is – for Mahler – rather joyful and refreshing, though there is no surprise that mysteries and horrors are never far away. The second one starts with the tension of a danse macabre, but the horns introduce a short motif answered by the violins, which begin a very lyrical passage. At times it does indeed sound like a slow movement – it is marked ‘At a leisurely pace’ – but with sudden changes in tempo and dynamics and an abrupt ending, we realise it is indeed a scherzo. The third movement is the real slow one of the symphony and is marked ‘Restful’. It is beautiful and rather melancholic with a sudden outburst of E major at the end that anticipates the brilliant way the work will end. The final movement features a soprano part inspired by Mahler’s ongoing obsession with the Des Knaben Wunderhorn collection of poems. Here he uses ‘Das himmlische Leben’ about a child’s naïve idea of the ‘joys’ of heaven which – if we again look behind the mirror – apparently includes animals being sacrificed, as well as eleven thousand dancing virgins! The music is suitably uncomplicated and Kober and his orchestra respond magnificently to this heavenly rapture and produced wonderful string sounds that float and shimmer gloriously. The Slovakian soprano Slávka Zámečníková sings with pure and unforced tone, perfectly capturing the innocence of the child’s indifference to all the slaughter being sung about. That this child is unmoved by all this is at the heart of this movement and, perhaps, the whole symphony. Zámečníková’s soprano was perhaps the best of its type I have heard in this symphony for many years.

How does Schläpfer respond to Mahler’s music? Well it all begins in silence as Yuko Sato’s steps falter as she tentatively moves across the stage. Sato falls, rises again, puts her hand to her head in seeming anguish before turning toward us watching her. She then spreads her arms and appears to acknowledge the empty theatre ending by putting a hand on her mouth as if imitating a mask. Only then do we hear the ‘sleighbells’ that open this symphony. Kato is joined by a second woman (Rebecca Horner) and – together or separately – they will reappear as observers on what we are seeing. Throughout, Schläpfer only accentuates the music we hear rather than illustrate it. What follows does service to Mahler and there is nothing ungainly in the flowing movement that is partly contemporary and partly classical, though unashamedly, solidly grounded in ballet technique. It was very intriguing, however – as I frequently remark – there is a paucity to the choreographic language of modern dance, and this found itself spread thinly across the duration of 4 which lasted more than an hour.

Yuko Sato and Rebecca Horner in 4

4 was danced on a bare stage with Florian Etti’s triangular shape projected at the rear and in eclectically coloured costumes from Catherine Voeffray, mostly white, black, blue, and purple, Schläpfer presents us with solos, duets, small groups, and larger ensemble sequences. It all culminates during the final verse of the song as the lithe Kato and rather more muscular Horner have a confrontational duet before grasping their own ankles and tumbling around as the entire company come forward on the stage. As final notes die away everyone starts semaphoring as Kato and Horner turn back and walk away through the other dancers.

The lack of applause at the end of this premiere of Schläpfer’s captivating 4 was deafening and that the artists were still having a curtain call and taking their bows was a truly dispiriting sight.

Jim Pritchard

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