May 14, 2020
John Cranko may be best known for his story ballets, but he created some classic plotless pieces too, none more so than Initials R.B.M.E., his tribute to four dancers who achieved a permanent place in a ballet history as he turned Stuttgart Ballet into a major international company: Richard Craigun (R), Birgit Keil (B), Marcia Haydée (M) and Egon Madsen (E); all performed to.
While the ballet might not have a narrative in one sense, in another it has bucketloads. The choreography for each of the four movements of Brahms’ intense Piano Concerto No.2 (described modestly by the composer as “a tiny, tiny piano concerto with a tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo”), is adapted to the personalities of the four namesake dancers. Abstract is the last thing Initials R.B.M.E. is.
It’s a ballet about friendship, emphasised in those moments when the four soloists meet. You can almost sense them exchanging pleasantries as they place a friendly hand on each other’s shoulders. It’s also a ballet full to the brim with glorious dance as Cranko fills out the music with steps; and needless to say, with lots of complicated turns and jumps. The choreography flows easily with plenty of pleasing patterns and some soaring lifts for the corps, who are challenged as much as the principals, among the more intimate sections.
There’s no hanging around. After a brief gathering of the friends, it explodes into action with a dazzling series of turns for ‘R’, with more to come in an even more thrilling sequence a few minutes later. Adonhay Saores da Silva sailed through the multiple tours en l’air with astonishing ease, capturing Cragun’s virtuosity and effortless style. Among the supporting dancers, I was particularly taken by the glorious long lines and sparkle of Veronika Verterich.
As ‘B’, Elisa Badenes was light, nimble of foot and swift of turn while maintaining a certain nobility to her dance. She looked unbelievably happy.
The most beautiful part of Initials is yet to come, however: the gorgeous third movement for ‘M’ and the unnamed fifth friend, Heinz Clauss (one suspects that if Brahms had written five movements, we would have had ‘Initials R.B.H.M.E’). It starts with him, alone, in white, in thoughtful mode. A sense of yearning pervades. When she arrives, she neatly echoes some of his turns.
The extended and sensitive pas de deux could have been written for Alicia Amatriain and Friedemann Vogel. Both in simple white in the surrounding blackness, they cast an almost ghostly spell. Amatriain squeezes every ounce of feeling out of her character, while the strong Vogel makes her look like she is floating on a cushion of air. It is spellbinding. The other ‘friends’ clearly agree as they walk on, look, but pass by not wanting to intrude. And even on film, it sends a shiver down the spine as Amatriain bourrées off at the end.
The final swift allegro makes for a thrilling, energetic finale. Moacir de Oliveira made mincemeat of dance that’s loaded with beats and turns, and even faster and more fiendish than anything that’s gone before.
There’s a lovely moment when ‘E’ is interrupted by the other three friends. One senses they’ve popped round to see if he fancied going out; for a drink or a meal perhaps. ‘E’ shakes his head, and with a bit of a shrug of the shoulders continues dancing. It is said, Madsen was indeed a dedicated worker.
You can’t let Initials R.B.M.E. pass without comment on Jurgen Rose’s wonderful backdrops, one for each initial, with colour palettes that very subtly follow the colours of the seasons from spring to winter. Matching the costumes, they remind me of Chinese watercolours, but minus the white space that art is so noted for. Not only is each full of detail, they also somehow match the mood of the dance and music perfectly.
The ballet ends with the four friends gazing up at the first circle box where Cranko used to sit. Watching live in the Stuttgart Opera House, you cannot help but feel a shiver. Perhaps it’s just not being able to see the big picture, but online it just doesn’t have the same effect. But I’ll forgive that because it’s a real treat to see this wonderful work again. Cranko at his very best.