Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin
December 12, 2019
Renowned Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman’s LIB (a new piece created as part of a double bill for the Staatsballett Berlin) begins before the audience even enter the auditorium. A woman dressed in red links arms and parades around the Berlin Staatsoper’s decadent passageways with a black-suited male companion, his head adorned (and face covered) by a tower of layered wigs that would give Marie Antoinette a run for her money. Later, we see him appear on stage to officially open the show, a soundtrack of a distant, sultry saxophone playing as he meanders around with an air of confusion and listlessness.
After a short while, a female dancer in a nude catsuit walks purposefully and emotionlessly onto the stage, delivering a sharp, staccato solo in which larger limb extensions are interspersed with intricate details: the circle of a finger, a trembling hand. Gradually, she is joined by three other identical performers.
Hair sculptures we were promised in the programme note but the foursome’s clinical appearance seems to have little to do with the extravagant Charlie Le Mindu, the cult hair stylist famed for dressing Lady Gaga and who collaborated with Ekman on LIB; that is until a chewbacca-like figure in a hairy body suit rolls onto stage. Initially unrecognisable as a human form, the dancer gradually makes their way to standing, and begins to shake, vibrate, jump, and turn with abandon to a cover of The Rolling Stones’ ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’. Perplexed by this crazed, alien figure, the stiff, clone-like ballerinas leave the stage, seemingly rejecting the shaggy performer’s sense of freedom and abandon.
This paves the way for the rest of LIB, which although ultimately lacking in development, is a satisfying portrayal of a group of long-haired beasts grooving unapologetically in their own styles. Almost like another species, the stage becomes their platform to joyously free themselves from the expectations of traditional ballet movements. Jumping and twirling, their hair lags behind them like smoke trails, spinning motions in particular making them look akin to rotary car-wash brushes. Considering the fact that LIB’s title is short for liberation, the air of ebullient emancipation Ekman creates is a fitting fulfillment of his intention.
In contrast, Strong by Israeli choreographer Sharon Eyal is all about choreographic development. Famed for her use of repetition to the point of exhaustion, Eyal sticks to her tried and tested methods for her latest creation.
Initially clumped together in a tight phalanx, the company, dressed in sheer, tight, black catsuits, appear to the audience gradually as a singular plane of light begins to illuminate their bodies. To the sound of overlapping, unintelligible voices, the dancers reach towards the light beam it as if soaking in its power. A thumping electronic beat ensues, and they begin to move slowly in unison which, with the exception of a few sporadic twitches, contrasts the jolted, staccato intensity of the music.
But the sustained movements don’t last long, as Eyal’s signature distorted choreography takes over the body of one dancer. Breaking away from the group, they lock and pop their limbs, thrusting them in awkward directions so that they almost appear dislocated.
As the large cast starts to spread across the stage, Eyal’s talent for creating effortless transitions becomes evident. Puncturing the floor with high toed, struts reminiscent of voguing, her performers seamlessly morph into varying spatial patterns, whether they be geometric lines slicing across the smoke-filled space or scattered, abstract structures. At one point, while stood in a diagonal line, the dancers march on the spot and position their arms as if holding guns. Combined with the intense, thumping soundtrack, uniform costumes and stone-cold faces, these seemingly militaristic movements evoke fascist associations. It is difficult to discern whether this is intentional, or merely a result of my own pre-UK-election night fears, however.
More codified ballet movements creep in towards the end of Strong, legs flinging themselves behind torsos in repeated arabesques. It’s a formula similar to that of Eyal’s Half Life, also choreographed on the Staatsballett, in which the dancers perform a classical jumps section (albeit with an Eyal twist) towards the end of the show. While some may take issue with Eyal’s repetitive and self-referential style, it is in fact very satisfying. Recognising moments from other shows (such as when one lone performer comes to the front of the stage to perform a loose-shouldered marching motif also featured in Half Life) is extremely exciting for returning audiences. It feels almost as if the choreographer is speaking to her dedicated fans and saying: “I see you. I know you’ve been before. Thank you for coming back to me.”