Review: Stuttgart Ballet - Made in Germany - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 18 & 19 November 2013
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 20 November 2013

Stuttgart Ballet  - Maria Eichwald & Filip Barankiewicz in John Cranko's 'Hommage a Bolshoi'  Photo: John Ross

Performance reviewed: 18 November 2013

Double, triple and quadruple bills are common in the world of ballet but it is rare to find a programme that is a tredecuple (the adjective for thirteen and, yes, I had to look it up)! In dance, a tredecuple bill – I didn’t go to all that trouble to say this only once – is generally described as a gala. And there was certainly a celebratory feel for this first of two offerings from the mighty talented Stuttgart Ballet on the company’s long overdue return to London. Galas invariably include something from a standard menu of staple ingredients, commonly involving a white, black or dying swan or, as in this programme, the balcony pas de deux from Romeo and Juliet. They also generally have a theme, which in this case was to sample dance that was Made in Germany.

If there was a sub-text tribute then it was surely to celebrate the life of former Stuttgart director, John Cranko, which was cut short by a fatal allergic reaction to a sleeping pill taken on a transatlantic flight in 1973, just a few weeks short of his 46th birthday. In one form or another, Stuttgart Ballet existed for centuries before Cranko and it has continued to grow in the 40 years since his death but the fundamental impact he had on the company over the 12 years of his directorship remains central to everything that it does. These thirteen pieces were made by nine separate choreographers but they contained an internal triple bill of Cranko’s work, appropriately more than from any other source.

The three-hour programme could have been pruned to somewhere on the spectrum towards less becoming more but it was cleverly structured into three sections with material that sat comfortably and cohesively together. The first “act” began with a pleasing pastiche of soviet classicism mixed with several twists of quirkiness, leading into a sublime quartet of romantic duets and concluding after the second interval with four works from the first decade of the 21st century, each focused on pure dance that takes the essence of classical ballet, shakes it around and puts it all back in a recognisable though distorted shape.

The long evening began with a much-belated UK premiere of Cranko’s pas de deux from 1964 entitled Hommage au Bolshoi, which celebrated the spectacular machismo then perceived to be a cornerstone of soviet ballet, most notably in the style of high and frequent lifts, for which Vladimir Vasiliev and his contemporaries at the Bolshoi Ballet were establishing legendary status in the west at the time Cranko was making this homage. It was danced with an appropriate mix of power and finesse by Filip Barankiewicz and Maria Eichwald. Next came four assorted dollops of quirk beginning with the brilliant Friedemann Vogel cavorting through Marco Goeke’s Fancy Goods as little more than an impressive torso, at times displayed amidst the surround of a burlesque fan of pink tail-feathers, held aloft by incognito (although credited) extras. It was the best candidate for pruning and thankfully one that came early enough to have been largely forgotten by the interval. Much better was the solo from Edward Clug’s Ssss… , which introduced British audiences to the considerable talents of Pablo von Sternenfels, a mop-haired member of the corps de ballet grasping his moment in the limelight with aplomb.

Where Goeke had set the earlier solo to two songs by Sarah Vaughan, Denis Volpi’s duet Little Monsters was made on two of the most popular of Elvis Presley’s recordings ( Are You Lonesome Tonight and Love Me Tender ). Volpi is the man carrying Cranko’s mantle as the company’s current Resident Choreographer and this enticing, clever little work won the Erik Bruhn choreography competition in 2011, being reprised here by the dancers on whom it was created, Elisa Badenes and Daniel Carmago.

In terms of both title and content, Christian Spuck’s Le Grand Pas de Deux seemed to have escaped from a show by Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo since it came from the same self-effacing comedic style of sending up ballet. Unlike the Trocks, however, this ballerina was not cross-dressing, although Alicia Amatriain was accessorising her tutu by wearing spectacles and carrying a handbag (momentarily even grasped between her teeth). Despite some regular funny moments, it failed to sustain the humour with any consistency and became pointless without this raison d’être. Amatriain and Jason Reilly did their best to keep the momentum from flagging but I felt that their talents are wasted with such mockery.

An occasionally disappointing first part was considerably lifted by the romantic surge of the mid-section. Firstly, Eichwald returned to partner rising star Evan McKie in the prodigious lushness of the third movement from Cranko’s Initials R.B.M.E , a gorgeous pas de deux danced as the centrepiece to a dozen dancers from the corps de ballet. Vogel also returned to much better effect, partnering Anna Osadcenko in the searing pas de deux from Mauro Bigonzetti’s Kazimir’s Colours . This smouldering heat was turned up even more by a beautiful performance of the aforementioned Balcony pas de deux from Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet , danced with sincerity and passion by Hyo-Jung Kang and Alexander Jones, such that they were able to convey the scene’s coruscating emotion even when taken completely out of context. The corresponding pas de deux from John Neumeier’s The Lady of the Camelias didn’t quite reach the same exhilarating heights but it was also impactful and superbly danced by Sue Jin Kang and Marijn Rademaker.

The ongoing emphasis on the man-woman pas de deux continued past the interval for the seventh successive duet of this type when McKie and Osadcenko returned to dance under a mangle of fluorescent light tubes in Douglas Lee’s Fanfare LX , which used Michael Nyman’s music (Queen of the Night ) to great effect. Goeke’s second work – Äffi – also used recorded song for its inspiration, this time featuring three pieces by Johnny Cash, in the best of the evening’s solos, superbly illustrated by Rademaker who deserves some kind of accolade for being able to pause and whistle, tunefully, a snippet of Brahms despite the likelihood of dry lips and exhaustion. Rademaker’s whistling was the only live music in the show, the general lack of which was both a pity and a drawback.

Two more UK premieres brought the show to a close in Itzik Galili’s Mono Lisa – a perky, energetic pas de deux for Amatriain and Reilly danced largely to the sound of a typewriter and then the finale from Spuck’s The Seventh Blue, which was the only true ensemble number in the tredecuple, bringing 14 excellent dancers (otherwise known as a quattuordecuple) to the stage to illustrate that although the evening’s dance was not consistently taken from the top drawer, the Stuttgart dancers are a remarkably gifted and charismatic bunch.

If we regard this as a German meze of thirteen morsels, the main course follows later in the week with Cranko’s brilliant full-length ballet, The Taming of the Shrew, which ranks alongside the best works of Kenneth McMillan and Frederick Ashton as one of the great ballets of the mid-twentieth century. Get to see it, if you can. It will be a long wait before it returns.

Stuttgart Ballet’s The Taming of the Shrew
Sader’s Wells 22 & 23 November

Photo: Maria Eichwald & Filip Barankiewicz in John Cranko’s Hommage a Bolshoi by John Ross*


Graham Watts writes for londondance.com, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK.

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