Semperoper Ballett’s first streaming event is a six-part celebration of who they are and how they’re doing things

GermanyGermany A Collection of Short Stories – multi-part ballet evening: Dancers of Semperoper Ballett. Filmed (directed by Tilo Krause for Armida Film) at Semperoper Dresden and streamed from 2 until 15.7.2021 (click here). (JPr)

The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude (c) Ian Whalen

Aaron S. Watkin is celebrating his 15th anniversary as Artistic Director of Semperoper Ballett and online there is an interesting introduction to its first streaming event and this six-part programme (full details below) of short ballets which will be their upcoming premiere programme. He explained how the dancing would vary from neo-classical to modern and that ‘this programme represents perfectly where we are right now after these now year and a half of being unable to perform’. Later going on to say that it is ‘incredibly inspiring to be back on stage’ and how they had used the hiatus ‘to reflect on who we are, what we’re doing and how we’re doing things […] It’s also been a moment to focus on training’ and he singled out the need to develop his young dancers. Watkin continued ‘I feel this time has been priceless […] we have to get back used to being in this beautiful [Semperoper] space and this very different unique world that we are very lucky to be able to be in.’

Beginning with William Forsythe’s 1996 The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude which Watkin considers to be ‘tongue-in-cheek’ and ‘almost impossibly fast [requiring] impossibly fast technique. It incorporates everything you would like to see in classical ballet [and] neo-classical ballet within 10 minutes and I think it has more steps in it than Swan Lake’. Together with Forsythe they decided on ‘a cast of very young dancers that have all the energy – physically and mentally – to get through this piece.’

There was no information about the origins of the recorded music we heard and Forsythe set The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude to the surging last movement of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony (‘The Great’). The men are in sleeveless violet leotards and the woman have circular stiff lime-green (looking gold under stark lighting) tutus which seemed to have a life of their own. Against a simple plain blue background, tricksy Balanchine-influenced footwork was never show-offy for show-offy’s sake yet flowed directly from Schubert’s music. Ilaria Ghironi, Jennifer Hackbarth, Ayaha Tsunaki, Václav Lamparter, Rodrigo Pinto shifted unceasingly between a pas de cinq and various solos, duets or groupings of three or four and were exactitude incarnate.

David Dawson is Semperoper Ballett’s Associate Choreographer and we saw his 2009 Faun(e). Nijinsky created his scandalous (at the time) L’apres midi d’un faune in 1912 to Claude Debussy famous prelude of the same name. There was a furore because the dancing was two-dimensional and suggestive of friezes frequently found around Greek pottery. Added to that there was its erotic content as an animal desires a nubile young girl. I saw the great Rudolf Nureyev embody the faun a number of times. Watkin said Dawson’s Nijinsky-inspired Faun(e) was ‘timeless’, ‘abstract’ and ‘modern’ and how ‘it explores the duality between one person, different aspects of their personality. It explores relationships between two people, and it also passes on information from generation to generation’. Indeed, many of the florid arm movements strongly reminded me of those in Fokine’s Le Spectre de la rose first danced by Nijinsky.

I have seen Faun(e) only once before and it does succeed in creating the homoerotic atmosphere of an older man (Jón Vallejo) and a younger one (Alejandro Martínez) – both bare-chested and long-skirted – exploring their relationship. Danced to Debussy’s own arrangement for two pianos of the familiar music, there is nothing explicit about Dawson’s paean to the naked male torso, human desire, the innocence of youth and eroticism. The two dancers work together and against each other with compelling grace and much fluid power. However, I think this intimate work, danced on a darkened stage and in a large pool of light could get lost in Dresden’s large Semperoper and benefited from Tilo Krause’s sensitive camerawork which throughout was a judicious blend of long shots and close-ups.

The world premiere was Nicholas Palmquist’s A Collection of Short Stories and Watkin said how ‘Nick is incredibly musical, his vocabulary is not as obvious, it’s very sensitive, emotional and subtle and you need really specific type of artists to bring his work to life’ and how Palmquist’s choreography ‘is also timeless, it’s yesterday, it’s today and the future, it explores things that are universal […] loss, rage, hate, passion, disappointment […] Nick also says he hopes everyone coming into the audience, from the young generation to an old generation, can relate to these universal themes and take something away from that.’

Houston Thomas in A Collection of Short Stories (c) Ian Whalen

Krause’s cameras now drew those watching this film in and amongst the dancers who utilised the full stage which had – what looked like – several klieg lights at the back and sides with other arrays of lighting, as well as projections at the rear seen from time to time. The costumes are eclectic and often just modern casual clothes. In the ensemble moments for the thirteen dancers A Collection of Short Stories seems like a genuinely socially distanced ballet with everyone moving equidistant from anyone else. If not involved in the other sections, the dancers sit around the edges as if in a rehearsal. Ayaha Tsunaki (Le Sablier) has an impressive solo which showcases the loose arms and hands that is a feature of Palmquist’s choreography. Some mirrored dancing from Kaitlyn Casey and Swanice Luong (Overturn) seems to suggest someone’s lost loves. Houston Thomas in glittery patterned brown shirt and jeans also got an eye-catching solo in a white circle of light. It was partly lyrical and partly writhing, jerky street dance. There was also a love duet for Alejandro Martínez and Skyler Maxey-Wert which ended with them hugging. Young Canadian pianist and composer Alexandra Stréliski’s music was always striving to get somewhere in typically modern perpetuum mobile fashion and what Palmquist asked of his dancers reflected its restlessness though I felt they were just reacting to the music and not interpreting it.

The classical excerpts – as often is the case – lacked atmosphere as performed on a bare stage in front of the blue background when it is not that technically difficult to project images there to give a sense of scenery. Watkin stages the White Swan pas de deux which is notable for Ivanov’s steps concluding – I believe – against Tchaikovsky’s rarely heard coda. This is the music that Nureyev’s gave Prince Siegfried a solo to in his Paris Opera Ballet production. With some commendably skilful acting Sangeun Lee’s Odette effectively displayed the nervousness of the swan princess and her eventual burgeoning trust in the prince; however, her movement appeared a little stiff at times. Gareth Haw (Siegfried) partnered Lee admirably but had little opportunity to shine.

Watkin explained his version of the Black Swan divertissement ‘was made specifically with Covid so it’s a little more interesting, actually in the end that Rothbart is presenting Odile to the prince. He is not allowed to touch her until the very end of the pas de deux which is something that normally isn’t there.’ Maybe? But again, this is clearly influenced by Nureyev’s Paris production where Rothbart also gets a leaping, spinning variation as here in Dresden where he dances with the four black swans, as well as Odile. There was bravura brilliance from Alice Mariani (Odile), Julian Amir Lacey (Prince Siegfried) and Christian Bauch (Baron von Rothbart) but no great sense of characterisation. Undoubtedly, they deserved more than having to bow silently to an empty theatre.

The Act III Odalisques pas de trois from Le Corsaire was included – according to Watkin – ‘to give just some chance for our young soloist women to have something to dance’ although the ballet is not in their current repertoire. And good – and very smiley – they were too! Gina Scott was pert and lively in the first variation, with Giulia Frosi’s quicksilver steps and Madison Whiteley’s pirouetting caught the eye in the second and third ones.

Jim Pritchard

The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude
Choreography and Set design – William Forsythe
Music – Franz Schubert, Symphony No.8 in C major, Allegro Vivace,
Costume design – Stephen Galloway
Lighting design – Tanja Rühl, William Forsythe
Staged by Laura Graham
Dancers – Ilaria Ghironi, Jennifer Hackbarth, Ayaha Tsunaki, Václav Lamparter, Rodrigo Pinto

White Swan pas de deux (Swan Lake)
Choreography – Aaron S. Watkin (after Lev Ivanov)
Music – Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky
Costume design – Erik Västhed
Lighting design – Fabio Antoci
Staged by Marcelo Gomes
Dancers – Sangeun Lee (Odette) and Gareth Haw (Prince Siegfried)

Black Swan divertissement (Swan Lake)
Choreography – Aaron S. Watkin (after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov)
Music – Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky
Costume design – Erik Västhed
Lighting design – Fabio Antoci
Staged by Olga Kostritzky and Marcelo Gomes
Dancers – Alice Mariani (Odile), Julian Amir Lacey (Prince Siegfried) and Christian Bauch (Baron von Rothbart), Alderya Avci, Rebecca Haw, Sydney Merrilees, Ella Vickerman (Four Black Swans)

Odalisques pas de trois (Le Corsaire)
Choreography – Marius Petipa
Music – Adolphe Adam et al.
Costume design – Erik Västhed
Lighting design – Fabio Antoci
Staged by Carmen Piqueras
1st Variation – Gina Scott
2nd Variation – Giulia Frosi
3rd Variation – Madison Whiteley

Choreography and Set design – David Dawson
Music – Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Costume design – Yumiko Takeshima
Lighting design – David Dawson, Bert Dalhuysen
Staged by Rebecca Gladstone
Dancers – Jón Vallejo and Alejandro Martínez

A Collection of Short Stories (world premiere)
Choreography and Costume design – Nicholas Palmquist
Music – Alexandra Stréliski
Set and Lighting design – Fabio Antoci, Nicholas Palmquist
Staged by Marcelo Gomes
Prélude – Ensemble
Changing Winds – Anthony Bachelier, Kristóf Kovács, Jenny Laudadio, Anicet Marandel*, Mariavittoria Muscettola, Nastazia Philippou, James Potter
Le Sablier – Ayaha Tsunaki
Overturn – Kaitlyn Casey, Swanice Luong*
Burnout Fugue – Ensemble
Interlude – Houston Thomas
Ellipse – Alejandro Martínez, Skyler Maxey-Wert
Berceuse – Ensemble
(*members of the Apprentice Program with the Palucca University of Dance Dresden)

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