Dutch National Ballet at Het Muziektheater, Amsterdam
June 13 & 17, 2018
In the high romantic period, the term, ‘sublime’, was currency for huge, iconoclastic paintings, scenes of towering cliffs, bottomless chasms and raging seas. This landscape is the natural habitat for the tragic love of Tristan + Isolde and the choreographer to translate it into dance is David Dawson, a choreographer who expects the impossible from his dancers and often gets it.
The myth of Tristan and Isolde was most famously figured for the stage by Richard Wagner, but for his ballet, which premiered in Dresden in 2015, Dawson wisely took a new direction in commissioning a score from Szymon Brzóska. The overtures evoke a misty past of legends and bold knights, strings conjure vast seas and bells toll the destiny of the lovers. Never self-assertive, it plays a supportive role sustaining the narrative creatively. Eno Henze, another long-time collaborator, contributes a setting that is timeless. Huge blocks of grey shift restlessly across the stage adding secret spaces, creating rifts and providing surfaces to reflect Bert Dalhuysen’s inspirational lighting.
Passions run high as Cupid fires his arrows wantonly and the conflict of loyalties forces as much emotion to be supressed as expressed. Nowhere is this more visible than in the character of Tristan, the ideal of medieval knighthood, noble, trusty and brave. James Stout was hugely impressive showing both strength and vulnerability in a performance that reveals a complex human character within the fine dancer. He was suitably rewarded with promotion to principal by artistic director, Ted Brandsen, at the post show reception.
The role of Isolde is equally demanding; her brief life a maelstrom of passionate pas de deux. It may have been first night nerves, but Sasha Mukhamadov, a dancer of great charisma, unexpectedly took time to work into her character which was only established as the relationship with Tristan developed.
Dawson has left little breathing space and Mukhamedov plays Isolde at full throttle finding her finest moments in the final heady duets. The path of truelove is signposted by shifting emotions. There is horror as she realises that she has rescued her uncle’s killer which is then tempered as their deep attraction grows. On the voyage their desperate suicide pact is confounded as the potion, a phial of golden dust, consolidates into a love so powerful it will ultimately destroy them. It also provides an iconic moment as the pair kneel gazing spellbound into each other’s eyes in a haze of glitter.
Isolde’s wedding duet with King Marke contains some of Dawson’s best choreographic moments in a duet of restraint and cool elegance. The skilled structure is also a feature of the intricate ensemble work, glamorously clad in Yumiko Takashima’s silvery grey costumes. This is only a brief moment of respite as Tristan hovers dangerously on the periphery, in a prelude to the most passionate of couplings as they consummate their love and finally meet death as their ultimate release.
The theme of the ballet is romance, but the opening scene signals impending war with ranks of black-coated soldiers in battle formation. Their movements are fluid and even graceful, the dynamic power achieved through numbers. War, in Dawson’s ballet, is simply a ploy to position the protagonists and ignite the flames. The fight scenes may lack a brutal edge but offer Morold, Edo Wijnen, the opportunity to impress before his premature end.
Jozef Varga as King Marke cuts a commanding figure. Poised on an elevated platform he establishes his authority from the outset, a leader but not a tyrant. In this tragic tale where it seems, only fate is to blame, Young Gyu Choi as Merlot is the only genuine baddie and takes on the role with relish. A schemer who is alive to every furtive glance between the lovers, he reveals his jealousy of Tristan’s privileged position from the outset. He is given a spectacular solo in the second act where he is able to vent his spleen in jumps that hover in the air and spins of maniacal fury. There are fewer supporting roles for the women, but Suzanna Kaic was outstanding as Brangäne, Isolde’s confident and go-between.
The Sunday matinee saw two very young dancers, 20-year-old Riho Sakamoto and 23-year-old, Martin ten Kortenaar taking on these huge roles. The courage of the dancers and trust that Dawson had in them paid off in a truly exhilarating performance. Both are fearsomely good technicians and blessed with the stamina to stay the course. From the opening they took on the characters and lived through the passions, ecstasy and despair to the final release of death.
The sweetness of Sakamoto face reveals her youth while every fibre of her body is alive to emotions too extreme for one so young. She is painfully innocent in the first duet as a little skipping step is transformed into a head-over-heels moment. Hardly have they enjoyed a first kiss before the troops are on. She instantly grows into a regal figure as all kneel to their new queen and she carries this mature elegance into the wedding scene where Vito Matteo treats her fragility with concerned sensitivity. The transformation from bride to sensual lover is mirrored in her costume as virginal white dramatically becomes red chiffon, and her flowing hair is echoed in the stormy skies. If there were still a few rough edges in the pas de deux they melted into insignificance before the real emotion that fuelled the performance. Tristan + Isolde is a work that rewards multiple viewings as the emotions shift dynamically with each cast.