Lyric Theatre, Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts
February 21, 2017
It opens with Sinthia Liz, a porcelain ballerina with an upturned rainbow saucer for a tutu. That’s the first of a series of weird and wonderful costumes including tutus of golden, hooped wire, concertinaed material and coloured balls. Another dancer looks like a giant boiled sweet. There’s a tin man, an armless old-fashioned diving suit-cum-sea creature with orange tassles instead of arms, a clattering wooden marionette minus strings, a figure with a bulbous head and red and blue spheres for arms, and more. Oddities indeed, but they are just a few of the strange figures to be found in The Triadic Ballet (Das Triadische Ballett), originally made by artist Oskar Schlemmer and first performed in 1922, a work that is a journey into modern art and the Bauhaus.
Although often cited as a reconstruction, The Triadic Ballet we see today is not Schlemmer’s though, but a near-complete remaking by Gerhard Bohner from 1977. In fact, it’s only even ‘after Schlemmer’ in the loosest sense. Not that Bohner had much choice. Schlemmer’s choreography was forgotten long ago, so the best Bohner could do was try and keep to the artist’s ideals, albeit using reconstructions of the original costumes, some of which do still exist in a Stuttgart museum. Emphasising cones, tubes, hoops and spheres, they have been beautifully recreated using modern materials of similar weight and restriction by Ulrike Dietrich. Bohner also opted to ditch the original musical collage in favour of an extremely contemporary soundscape by Hans-Joachim Hespos.
Schlemmer, a Bauhaus painter, sculptor and designer, turned to choreography because of his interest in the relationship between figures and space, and how costumes can affect movement. Completely going against tradition, he deliberately designed his costumes to restrict movement. Reversing the usual process, he even created them before the choreography, which was then determined by the limitations they imposed. One suspects that even a hundred years ago, it was the designs that were of most interest. It’s certainly the case today.
As the title suggests, The Triadic Ballet was originally a ballet of threes: three scenes in lemon yellow, pink and black, for three dancers. Unfortunately, that sense has largely been lost. I found it impossible to tell where each colour stopped and the next started, if indeed they now do at all, and on this occasion the cast included most of the young dancers of the Bayerisches Staatsballett II (the junior company of the Staatsballett that gives invaluable experience to a new cohort of 16 dancers every two years). Still, it saves on quick costume changes. At least Bohner remains faithful to Schlemmer by never having more than three people on stage at once, the ballet being a series of solos, duets and trios.
As Schlemmer intended, the ballet initially appears completely about the relationship between movement, costume and space, and playing with what’s possible. The bulky, sculptural costumes make the movement suffocatingly precise and mostly mechanical. It’s like a parade of weird puppets or toys from some children’s sci-fi toy box.
Bohner’s dance draws more and more on the classical ballet vocabulary, though. Suggestions of narrative start to appear too. One duet features shaking fists and quizzical looks. An extended pas de deux between Carollina de Sousa Bastos, a relatively normal looking ballerina in white (for this ballet at least) and Christoph Schaller, also in white and who looks like he has white misshaped marshmallows attached to his body, gets dangerously near conventional. A trio involves Brandon Demmers and Justin Rimke in colourful stripy costumes fighting over Carollina de Sousa Bastos, her in a skirt adorned by balls of many colours.
But although these sections give the audience something stronger to hang on to, they diminish the pull of the costumes themselves. That brings us to the heart of the ballet’s problem: while there are moments that make you smile, and even some that make you admire Schlemmer’s ingenuity (Margarida Neto pirouetting in her golden, hooped wire tutu, creating the illusion of that spinning independently and seemingly defying the laws of motion is quite brilliant), once one gets past admiring each new design, Bohner’s choreography is largely just dull. The 75 minutes of the piece drag increasingly.
Hespos’ soundscape does not help. Essentially a collection of bangs, pops, scrapes, squeaks, wheezes that grind away incessantly along with assorted strange chords, it’s about the last thing would one choose to listen to for pleasure.
The dancers, it must be said, all performed admirably throughout. It cannot be easy suddenly finding oneself so restricted, and the shift from the Balanchine that opened the evening to this is about as far balletically as one can get. Their versatility was admirable.
The Triadic Ballet may have academic interest. Indeed, it’s not difficult to imagine a university wanting to stage it as part of some research project or conference. It is a ballet I’m pleased to have seen live, but not one I will be rushing back to. Indeed, for all its design importance and interest, it’s the sort of dance that will drive the average dancegoer, certainly the occasional one, away for ever. In Hong Kong, a few people gave up and walked out mid-piece, but the rush for the exits at the end spoke volumes.
The first half of this most mixed of mixed bills featured dance of the more accessible variety. Airily romantic, Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante should be light, bright and playful as it sweeps long with Tchaikovsky’s exhilarating Piano Concerto No.3. Unfortunately, almost all the young dancers looked gripped with nerves, especially at the beginning when leading lady Bianca Teixeira’s opening pirouettes, supported by her cavalier, Francesco Leone, were decidedly shaky and off vertical.
Fortunately, things picked up. Teixeira’s later unsupported turns were much easier and precise and a few smiles started to appear, although signs of tension were still there, not least in the lack of attack and occasional dancing off the music. To be fair, the ghastly recording couldn’t have helped. The male corps leapt and turned well, while among the women, Sarah Schäfer lifted things simply by looking happy and thrilled to be there from the off. It was a pleasant opener, but not as exciting as it should have been.
Jardi Tancat may have been Nacho Duato’s first major choreographic work, but it remains one of his best. Beautiful and haunting, it’s danced to a soulful selection of Catalonian folk songs by Spanish singer, Maria de Mar Bonet. It was comfortably the dance highlight of the evening.
On a stage enclosed by fence posts of various heights (‘jardi tancat’ means ‘enclosed garden’), the work refers to the daily hardships of people who work the barren land, pray for rain and deal with love and loss. Throughout there is indeed a sense of connection to the soil, of heat and of support for each other.
Duato’s choreography fuses lyricism with great expression. The dance is always grounded with bodies frequently hunched over (echoes of Martha Graham, although the women’s long dresses probably helped too), yet it eats the space. The leg flicks and arms hint at flamenco, leaving one in no doubt where this is all set. The dance of all three couples give rich, evocative images that linger in the memory, although it is always the women (Margarida Neto in red, Michela Zanzottera in green and Eloise Sacilotto in purple) who look the most pained of all.
It culminates in a gorgeous section of three duets. As each couple dances, the others turn their backs as if looking into the far distance, just like the woman in Bonet’s song, who is lamenting the loss of her lover at sea. I was especially taken here by Neto and Francesco Leone, the most dramatically expressive of all.
Matters turned sunny again with 3 Preludes by Richard Siegal, a challenging but fun romp to the ragtime of George Gershwin. Essentially it concerns three men who are vying with each other and for the attentions of a woman. Siegal’s dance is full of fast, twisting footwork that fuse ballet and ballroom into unusual new steps. The coda in particular has more than a few hints of the Charleston about it.
The cast gave it their all. Each of the men brought more than a touch of character to their roles, with the white-shirted, sleeves rolled up Francesco Leone particularly enjoying himself, playing to the audience as he did so. Margarida Neto, meanwhile, had a ball playing him Christoph Schaller and Federico Bruccoleri, along.