Opera House, Stuttgart
July 19, 2018
Sometimes you just can’t help but walk away from a performance with a contented smile. Stuttgart Ballet’s Encounters programme, part of the Reid Anderson festival week, was just such an occasion. Two ballets, Dances at a Gathering by Jerome Robbins and Initials R.B.M.E. by John Cranko; different in some ways, but in others so alike.
If there is a more polite ballet than the sublime and timeless Dances at a Gathering, I’ve yet to see it. It’s unfailingly gentle well-mannered nature is epitomised perfectly at the end when the five men bow to the ladies, who respond with a bob. Before that, although it’s very much a ballet about people and relationships, and there’s a lot of switching of partners, no-one falls out, no-one gets mad.
Typical of Robbins, ‘Dances’ is full of subtle detail. There is so much pleasure in watching the different characters and in the changing pairings. We know not of what they speak, but that swapping of partners suggests their lives are interlinked. Even as dancers walk on and off, or just stand and gaze, everything means something. Not a step, not even the smallest gesture, is without intent.
As solos and duets come and go, the dance is sometimes folksy and playful, especially from Elisa Badenes in apricot, who is especially light and carefree. At other times it is more melancholic and thoughtful. The sense is sometimes one of good friends, at other times of young lovers. Brief encounters sometimes surge as if riding on a rising thermal but elsewhere there’s a quiet understatement. Some dancers show off and flirt, others are reserved and shy.
Alicia Amatriain in pink gave all the expressive upper body and arms we would expect while Hyo-Jung Kang in green was both nicely amusing and the source of much feeling as, often the odd one out, she wanders through the ballet in search of a partner. When someone fails to respond to her wooing, there’s a moment of disappointment, but no more as she moves on. Of the men, David Moore’s solo towards the end was worth every minute of the wait.
Old-fashioned manners maybe, but while there’s a sense of nostalgia, there is one of optimism too and looking forward too, which is perhaps rather appropriate in Stuttgart at the moment. The moment just before the end, with everyone standing, looking out and up into the auditorium is so simple yet so difficult to get right. And on this evening, just perfect as it echoes in some ways the end of the following ballet, Initials R.B.M.E.
As much as his Onegin has become a company classic, if there is one ballet that has Stuttgart writ through it, it must be Cranko’s ‘Initials’, his tribute to Richard Craigun (R), Birgit Keil (B), Marcia Haydée (M) and Egon Madsen (E), performed to Brahms’ intense Piano Concerto No.2.
Cranko’s Initials is equally about friendships and relationships but in complete contrast to Robbin’s ballet, it gushes with steps. Whether it’s for the soloists or the ensemble, this is dance with the tap turned full on. The choreography flows easily with plenty of soaring lifts from the excellent corps among the more intimate sections. It’s also so intensely musical as to be scary. Time to breathe comes with moments of calm when the four soloists meet and place a friendly hand on another’s shoulders.
It starts as it means to go on with a long and complex solo full of leaps and turns that embodies perfectly what was not only Cragun’s virtuosity but his effortless style. Daniel Camargo, guesting from Dutch National Ballet, sailed through them with great assurance as R. Among the supporting dancers, I was particularly taken by the almost equal sparkle and joy of dance that came from Rocio Aleman.
Birgit Keil once said that “Happiness comes when my soul dances.” That is just what Elisa Badenes gave as B; lovely and light, yet crisply fleet of foot and swift of turn.
Alicia Amatriain squeezed every ounce of feeling out of M. She had a as good a partner as you could wish for in the extended pas de deux in Friedemann Vogel as the missing fifth initial H (Heinz Clauss), who carried her for long periods as she was if floating on air. This is the only section where the others don’t join in. They walk on and look, but pass by and walk off again, as if not wanting to intrude. It sent a shiver down the spine as she bourréed off. Utterly spellbinding.
Some of the most fiendish choreography is saved for E, steps loaded with beats and turns. Alessandro Giaquinto made yet another excellent impression.
You can’t let Initials R.B.M.E. pass without comment on Jurgen Rose’s wonderful designs too. Each initial is met witha different backdrop. It’s a bit like looking at a Chinese painting minus the white space. There is so much detail, so much to see, all matched by decoration on the dancers’ leotards.
Like Dances at a Gathering, Initials is about encounters, but for some in the audience about reunions too. I have only ever seen the four dancers on film, so cannot attest to the accuracy or otherwise of today’s interpretations. The lady next to me did comment that she couldn’t help but see the faces of the four originals, though.
Initials ends with the four friends gazing up at the first circle box where Cranko used to sit. You cannot help but feel a shiver.