Review: Bern:Ballett in Clara / Howl at Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House

Performance: 25 - 28 May 2011
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 27 May 2011

Bern Ballett. Top: Cathy Marston's 'Clara' Below: Andrea Miller's 'Howl' 
Photos: Philipp Zinniker.

Reviewed: 25 May 2011

I admire choreographers able to carve out a distinctive style, those who continue to lay out a stall of interesting and different wares in an over-crowded marketplace. Cathy Marston is certainly amongst this elite group, taking on serious literary challenges (Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Ibsen’s Ghosts and Bronte’s Wuthering Heights) and interpreting them by a distillation of their essence in dance rather than through any attempt at a linear narrative. Her style has an innate classicism that does justice to such serious literary themes without employing large budgets to do the job: where others might spend a fortune on multi-media installations and expensive technology to make their point, Marston manages it with a roll of carpet and a flick of a finger.

Although she still makes work on other companies, Marston’s home is now the small-scale ballet company based at the Stadttheater Bern in Switzerland. For her latest work, she has turned from literature to music to focus on the essence of a life in the story of Clara Wieck-Schumann: the daughter of a musical pedagogue (Friedrich), the wife of Robert Schumann and a woman who was also loved by Johannes Brahms. Images of pianism were regularly referenced throughout the choreography; a dancer’s pose would be emphasised as if catching the pianist in mid-crescendo or a gentle adagio; movement amongst the dancers often played out like sequential arpeggios; but most striking of all was the image of seven dancers laying side-by-side as a scale of piano keys, their limbs bouncing into the air as if in response to the unseen playing hands. Confirming these images were the real hands of the onstage pianist (Sonja Lohmiller) who played ten works by both Schumann’s and Brahms, being joined for the five Liede (or songs) by the excellent baritone, Benoît Capt.

As with all Marston’s previous works she succeeds in telling a story without becoming the slave to narrative and these ten episodes of Clara’s life were neatly distilled time capsules: the early scenes of Clara (Hui-Chen Tsai) and her father (Franklyn Lee) seemed especially powerful. I found it slightly more confusing to follow the intricacies of Clara’s relationship with her husband (Erick Guillard) and Brahms (Denis Puzanov) but it is clearly a thoughtful and powerful work that will reward multiple viewings. I have yet to find any work by Cathy Marston to which this rule does not apply.

I wish I could say the same for Howl, a work made for the Bern ensemble by New York based Andrea Miller, cited as one of Dance Magazine’s ‘25 to watch’. On the plus side, the dancers wore interesting all-white costumes, designed by Jon Bausor, topped by a bathing cap with full-sleeved white vests and old-fashioned, knee-length fencing breeches. There were also frequent flashes of interesting movement, for example in the forceful striding motif; the powerfully expressive loss of stability and muscle control in a lone dancer’s vulnerability surrounded on both sides by the mass; and in an effective all-male trio midway through the 35-minute work. But, taken as a whole, I found the scattered crowd of dance images, even contrasting with the absolute uniformity of the clothing, to be too much to catalogue. The programme notes promised that Howl would leave the audience much to reflect upon. It left me with the feeling that I had missed the point. Having said this I would not dispute that there was enough substance therein to convince me that Dance Magazine is right to keep a watchful eye on Ms Miller since she is clearly beginning to lay out a market stall of her own choreography that – on this evidence – at least succeeds by being different; even if yet to remain sufficiently absorbing.

Bern: Ballett at the Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, until Sat 28 May“:

**”Read our Q&A with Cathy Marston“:/content.asp?CategoryID=3912

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