Royal Swedish Ballet at the Royal Opera House Stockholm
February 23, 2018
It is strange how in our modern, high tech age we are so enthralled to medieval power struggles of good and evil in mythical settings, the images infiltrating everything from films to computer games. This dark world provides an ideal setting for Wim Vandekeybus brand of volatile high energy movement that links physical danger with inhuman acts. With his dramaturgs, he has sifted through a slew of myths to piece together a story about a community of tight borders, closed to outsiders where rumours of insurrection and death breed a festering fear.
The fierce movement in Puur creates the atmosphere: brooding stillness punctuated by violence, a rush of energy as dancers run, throw, catch and leap. However, the twists and turns of the complicated plot are mostly related through film, screened above the palisade of sticks that makes an effective surround.
The screen images are potent, child prisoners in cellars, amputations and torture, created in drab colours and textures of stone and iron. While the scenes of impaling and suffocating are given effective physicality in dance movements, the scenes of beatings, stretched bodies being smacked with pieces of cloth were frankly laughable; play acting a masochistic game. In the comfortable West we have daily access to scenes of death and destruction but whether we can, or should, attempt to appropriate the pain of others is arguable. But art has a duty to open our eyes and in Puur, the anguish is most successfully realised in metaphysical rather than reality mode.
Most ancient myths have a guiding moral, often involving rites of passage or the struggle to reach nirvana but Puur operates in the chaos and nihilism that plagues the twenty-first century, with little clear direction or moral order. Much of the narrative has a logic and fluid structure but the very long work would benefit from judicious editing.
Vandekeybus’ work demands fearless physicality and dexterity in catching and throwing as baton of wood fly through the air. It requires specific aptitude over and above the already wide range of dancer skills. Of the sixteen-strong cast, six were guests and the credits included four guest repetiteurs, so hardly a work suitable for the Royal Swedish Ballet. I can’t help thinking this would have been better presented as an Ultima Vez production at Dansenshus (where Akram Khan’s Until the Lions is playing to sold out houses) leaving the company dancers to take to the stage in something tailored to their considerable talents. However, it was interesting to see Niklas Ek back on stage, though hampered by banal text, he became something of a benign granddad rather than a wise seer.
This is the final season curated by Johannes Öhman, and incoming director Nicolas le Riche is already getting the company in shape for the new repertoire. I am looking forward to seeing the full company in action again.