British Style – Made in Munich

Happy new year everyone!

Yesterday we tweeted about this great blog post from TenduTV citing globalization as one of ten dance buzzwords for 2012. In our first post of the year, guest blogger Wiebke Schuster proves she’s right on the trend line, with a report from a very British season in Munich:

What is “very British” – besides the signature sense of humour, the Royal Family, five o’clock tea and Marks & Spencer? – or more specifically, what is very British in terms of dance? The current perception from mainland Europe is that the British dance scene is thriving, past and present, ballet and contemporary. So how can we learn from our colleagues? This year – or “Heuer” as the Bavarians say – the entire season of the Bavarian State Ballet is dedicated to the dance traditions of Great Britain. From the two big “Sirs”, Ashton and MacMillan, to a leading visionary of contemporary dance, Russell Maliphant, culminating in a guest appearance by Birmingham Royal Ballet in the spring.

Artists of the Bavarian State Ballet in Sir Frederick Ashton's Scènes de Ballet

Looking at it from a “grass is always greener on the other side” perspective, even though German funding for the arts may not be as sparse as in some other countries, here the general interest in dance, and especially quality media coverage of it, is lagging behind significantly. And so the artistic staff at Bavarian State Ballet decided to throw the ball to the sophisticated Munich audience with the aptly named “Very British?!” 2011/2012 season.

The question mark asks us to consider “what exactly IS the British style” and invites audiences to discover repertory which is rarely seen in Germany (naturally, another side of the question is how this will be received by critics and audiences) while that exclamation point stands for the great influence that the British scene has on the rest of the dance world. Its “artistic imports” are in high demand all over the globe, with names like Christopher Wheeldon, Alina Cojocaru (who just guested in Hamburg for Neumeier’s Liliom) or Russell Maliphant.

Principals Daria Sukhorukova and Maxim Chashchegorov in Ashton's Scènes de Ballet

The very first premiere of the season, a mixed bill program that might be familiar to regulars at the Royal Ballet, included some of the most precious gems of British ballet: Frederick Ashton’s sparkler Scènes de Ballet, his homage to a modern dance icon Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan and the (literally) breathtaking Voices of Spring pas de deux. By contrast Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth poses a dramatic and emotional end of the evening.

This was preceded by an important event to prepare the ballet fans of Munich, the Ballett Extra Masterclass, which took place on 14 December. Christopher Carr, Principal Guest Ballet Master of the Royal Ballet, who had been in charge of staging Scènes de Ballet (a Germany premiere) led the evenings’ open rehearsal. He walked into a room filled with about 120 balletomanes with his Royal Ballet notation score under his arms, seeming to be in a jolly good mood “I never go anywhere without it these days!” he joked.

Christopher Carr rehearses the artists of the Bavarian State Ballet in Ashton's Scènes de Ballet

During the hour-long open rehearsal, he worked with the first cast on the section of Scènes simply known as “Trees”. “Luckily,” he said, “Stravinsky wrote this section in counts of seven.” noting that the rest of the piece is set to irregular counts which makes it extremely hard for the dancers to memorize. As Mr. Carr went along, he kept giving corrections specific to the “Ashtonian” repertoire: round arms, deep twists of the spine in épaulement, grounded chassés (as opposed to stepping ahead), and of course the words “glamour” and “sparkle” were frequently used.

The next day on stage, the full cast of Scènes practically oozed glamour in their brand new costumes and accessories created by the opera house’s costume department in cooperation with the Royal Ballet. The dancers adapted rather quickly to the particular style demanded by Carr, replacing what he called the “Munich-run” with an elegant sweeping, skimming the floor-type run. Notwithstanding, audiences were a little reserved in their applause, as noted by the press after the premiere. Although the “art deco” appeal of the costumes was right on trend if you ask the fashion police, the cool and unaffected air of Scènes two days prior to Christmas evening was – to use strong words – unpopular. One critic even noted that the piece itself lacked any sort of “warmness of heart” and the dancers resembled “animated marionettes”.

Katharina Markowkaja and Lukáš Slavický in Ashton's Voices of Spring

Katharina Markowkaja and Lukáš Slavický danced the Voices of Spring pas de deux. As breathtaking and demanding the choreography is for the dancers, the couple made it look effortless and vivacious. Yet again, the premiere press seemed to be underwhelmed (“one Ashton too many”), labelling the piece “charming but redundant”.

A very familiar face in Munich (she served as Artistic Director of the ensemble from 1978 to 1980); Lynn Seymour staged Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan. Stephanie Hancox filled the subtle, quiet moments with great depth and thoughtfulness while going all out during the moments of pure abandon, exquisitely accompanied by company pianist Maria Babanova who showed a great understanding of Ms. Hancox’s timing. In between the waltzes, there were moments of silence. One could clearly see the memory of Isadora that Hancox had just embodied fade away, making way for quiet reflection – only to then start anew with another mood, another short story. The audience was finally enraptured by Ms. Hancox’s compassionate and honest interpretation and the first “Bravos” were heard in the auditorium.

Stephanie Hancox in Ashton's Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan

To finish the evening, MacMillan’s Song of the Earth. The work showcased the company’s principals, with prima ballerina Lucia Lacarra as the “woman”, her partner Marlon Dino as the “man” and Tigran Mikayelyan as the “messenger of death”. It seems as though, familiarity is trump. Song has been in the repertory since 2006 and was celebrated then, as it is now: Mahler’s music directed with great attention to detail by Ryusuke Numajiri together with the Bavarian State Orchestra and Opera ensemble members Heike Grötzinger and Bernhard Berchtold, paired with dancing that just does not get any better, culminating in several curtain calls and thunderous applause.

Artists of the Bavarian State Ballet rehearse Kenneth MacMillan's Song of the Earth

Even though the overall reception of this British ballet “sampler” evening might have been a little aprehensive, it certainly made people engaged in discussions about the style, its distinction and perhaps the differences in taste. I cannot help but notice that the German need for constant explanation and analytical reasoning is problematic when meeting abstract, plotless or original works. It remains to be seen how contemporary Britain, represented by Mr. Maliphant’s work, is going to be seen and how the rest of the season will pan out. Ashton’s lovable comedy ballet La Fille Mal Gardée will no doubt test the acting abilities of the ensemble as much as the ongoing understanding of the style, while BRB’s guest appearance will afford the audience an opportunity to take a look at the “real deal” and to familiarise with such works as De Valois’s Checkmate and Ashton’s The Dream.

So long and an excited “Cheers!” from Munich,


All photos by Wiebke Schuster ©

About the Author:

Wiebke Schuster currently lives in Munich. She completed her Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Dance Theatre and studied Arts Administration at the Limón Dance Company in New York. She is a regular contributor to the Bavarian State Ballet Blog.

Comments are closed.