Opposites attract: Badisches Staatsballett do Jazz

Badisches Staatstheater, Karlsruhe
July 13, 2023

Jazz meets ballet in the Badisches Staatsballet’s latest programme, Jazz, a double-bill that brings together two seemingly contradictory artistic worlds: one with its love of freedom and improvisation, the other founded on precise technique and form. Both new choreographies by Stina Quagebeur and Kevin O’Day feature live music from an onstage six-piece band, led by Mannheim trumpeter and composer, Thomas Stiffling.

Somewhat unusually, both also have a cast of thirteen, seven women and six men in Quagebeur’s Deviations, six women and seven men in O’Day’s Your Place or Mine?, which leads to some interesting divisions and formations and allows for an ‘odd man out,’ which both choreographers take advantage of. The two works are very different, choreographically and in mood, however.

Badisches Staatsballett in Deviations by Stina Quagebeur
Photo Yan Revazov

Sleek, slinky and smooth, sophisticated yet playful, Deviations feels like peeking in on an easy going jazz club. A follow up on her success with Take Five Blues for English National Ballet, Quagebeur relies heavily on the language of classical ballet. Whatever the jazz music is saying, the classical aesthetic remains. There are long lines, classical port de bras, traditional partnering and a lot of pointework.

Elisabeth Richter’s gorgeous costumes are special too: classy black, part mesh tops with black leather-look skirts with a cherry red panel for the women, similar coloured matching pants and tops for the men.

The dancers come together in ever new combinations. The ensemble dances feature strong group formations but, as good as they are, the ballet is at its best in the duets, when things quieten down, emotion not so much bubbling to the surface as erupting spectacularly.

All the time, the dance comes very naturally from the situations Quagebeur sets up. Every scene comes with its little narratives.

João Miranda in Deviations by Stina Quagebeur
Photo Yan Revazov

The second section of seven, ‘Cuban Hang’ has a distinctly Latin touch, and features a lovely pas de deux that features a lot of hips and the man swinging his partner around. Sara Zinna and João Miranda were a delight.

Best though were Bridgett Zehr and Louiz Rodrigues in ‘Am I in a Movie.’ I’m not sure about that, but it’s certainly dreamlike. Clearly attracted, the pair eye each other up before coming together. It’s elegant, mysterious and just a little bit sexy as their two bodies give in to one another. It’s like intruding on a private moment and quite delicious.

‘Melting,’ with its light-hearted sense of competition between the men (Julian Botnarenko, Valentin Juteau and Miranda) also appealed hugely.

But more than anything, what came over was the utter joy of dancing. The dancers appeared to be giving themselves wholly to the music, and having fun doing it. There were a lot of happy, naturally smiling faces on stage. Interaction appeared spontaneous. And that does communicate to the audience, helping them to enjoy it all too.

Quagebeur later ramps up the fun and thrills in ‘Erinnerung’ (Memory) before closing with ‘Heavy Soundscapes.’ Silky and smooth, a little quiet, it’s like the night drawing to a close.

Throughout, the dance and band are framed by designer Alex Gahr’s illuminated, oversized illuminated ring, a sort of giant halo, that starts at ground level but then rises and tilts. It returns to the stage at the end; a closing in a very literal sense.

Baris Comak in Your Place or Mine? by Kevin O’Day.
Photo Yan Revazov

Whereas Quagebeur seeks constantly to link ballet and jazz, there’s very little that even approaches classical dance in O’Day’s Your Place or Mine? Danced in socks, it sits somewhere between jazz and modern (not contemporary in any sense of the word). Vaguely West End musical theatre, some of it wouldn’t look out of place on Strictly.

Richter again comes up trumps with the costumes, this time colourful 1950s-style dresses for the women, and slacks and polo shirts for the men. Gahr’s set may suggest the framework of houses (a clear link here to the title) but there’s much less sense of place. That they get in the way and have to be moved several times by the dancers does not help.

The start is indeterminate with dancers drifting onto the stage (the curtain is left up during the interval), practising in the half-light. When Dixie-style music seems to be coming from afar, it’s because it is, the band entering through the audience; an old trick done many times with dancers.

Alba Nadal and Ensemble in Your Place or Mine? by Kevin O’Day
Photo Yan Revazov

As with Quagebeur’s ballet, O’Day’s work features many small interpersonal moments among the group numbers. There are a lot more splashes of humour but, while there are occasional hints at narrative in scenes, it’s much more hidden.

Your Place or Mine? is built around Pablo Octávio, an outsider, a sort of joker who leads everyone, audience included, through the work, often also connecting sections. It doesn’t always work.

The undoubted highlight, musically and choreographically, is an appealing duet for Alba Nadal and Ledian Soto, the choreography and feeling matching perfectly the soulful, yearning music that’s largely only trumpet and bass. But what a shame O’Day chooses to have Octávio moves those frames (again!), taking attention away from the main event.

Pablo Octávio in Your Place or Mine? by Kevin O’Day
Photo Yan Revazov

In ‘Blues in the Morning,’ O’Day has the men strut their sexuality by appearing topless. It didn’t do anything for me, though. They get all they deserve when the machismo is quickly punctured by the women.

Throughout, there’s a fair bit of swinging and a lot of snuggling up to each other, men to men as well as to women. Your Place or Mine? certainly has appeal, and is very easy on the eye, but sometimes feels like it is trying too hard. There didn’t seem to be the same sense of enjoyment among the cast. Until the end, that is, which comes with a party-like feel as the dance and neo-rock music flies.

If you love ballet and classicism, you will love Deviations and probably struggle with Your Place or Mine? If you like the sort of popular dance we tend to see on TV, it will likely be the reverse.

Ballet and jazz. Opposites in some ways maybe, but opposites do attract.