A symphony of dance: Badisches Staatsballett in Per aspera ad astra

Badisches Staatstheater, Karlsruhe
July 7, 2023

Per aspera ad astra, a triple bill by Badisches Staatsballett artist-in-residence Kevin O’Day, Glen Tetley and director Bridget Breiner, is an evening of classical dance loaded with human emotions. It’s also one where some things only really make sense when looking back, viewing the evening as a whole rather than as three individual ballets.

The title translates literally as ‘through hardship to the stars,’ although, in art, it sort of stands for the striving for higher things, the rough that we have to go through to reach the light at the summit.

By some distance, the most impressive choreography of the programme does come in the centre, however. Created for Stuttgart Ballet shortly after the sudden death of John Cranko in 1973, Glen Tetley’s Voluntaries is part homage, part requiem to his colleague and friend. Danced to Francis Poulenc’s elegiac Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani, it is intensely moving. The dance soars literally, in its cruciform overhead lifts, and in its spirituality.

Glen Tetley’s Voluntaries
(pictured: Daniel Rittoles, Carolin Steitz and Olgert Collaku)
Photo Costin Radu

Tetley combines the modern dance developments of his time with classical technique. The choreography is full of beautiful balletic lines. Elsewhere though there is contraction and release. Arms are sometimes held powerful and tense with fists clenched.

Like Poulenc’s music, the choreography shifts between dissonance and tenderness, between calm and glorious freedom. In the pas de deux, the sinuous Balkiya Zhanburchikova and her fine, strong, attentive partner, Olgert Collaku, were ardent, committed and tender. In the pas de trois, Carolin Steitz was grace personified as she was carried aloft by Daniel Rittoles and Louis Rodrigues. There were moments when she seemed to float in the air. Indeed, the partnering was exceptional throughout.

The dance forever seems to be look to break free. Time and again, arms reach up. Besides those magnificent lifts there are glorious turns and grands jetés, the dancers crackle and spark as they fly across the full expanse of the stage.

Voluntaries by Glen Tetley
(pictured: Timoteo Mock)
Photo Costin Radu

Voluntaries is all incredibly sleek, incredibly classy. That goes for designer Rouben Ter-Arutunian’s large pointilliste backcloth sun too, a design idea repeated in his colourful polka-dot splattered white unitards.

It was all quite stunning, feeling nearer fifty days old than fifty years.

Tetley’s balletwas one of the starting points for both the programme’s accompanying works. O’Day’s new Unfolding, and Breiner’s Blessed Unrest.

Danced to a collage of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Unfolding starts dramatically. The sound of a pointe shoe in an otherwise silent theatre creates tension. While that eases as the strains of Bach’s familiar ‘Air on a G String’ come in, it’s only momentarily. The music stops suddenly, restarts, stops again, none of which seems connected to the dance although creating uncertainty amid the darkness is probably the point.

The ballet gradually unfolds to music from Bach Partitas that contrast with string arrangements from his The Art of Fugue. Dancers disappear behind and reappear from black walls that move around the stage. They get close, separate and get close again. The men are very much to the fore, making up pas de deux and trois. After what seems to be a lot of searching, a lot of longing and loneliness, the ensemble do come together.

At the time, Unfolding struggled to do just that; to reach out and touch, to reveal what lies beneath. But it does make much more sense looking back, when one realises how O’Day quotes and refers to Tetley and Briener, the latter in design as well as movement; and when the ballet is viewed in the context of the whole of Per aspera ad astra as a complete evening.

Paul Calderone, Sara Zinna and João Miranda
in Blessed Unrest by Bridget Briener
Photo Costin Radu

Like Voluntaries, Briener’s Blessed Unrest, first presented in 2017, is also danced to the majestic sounds of the organ (played on a specially purchased new digital organ that sounds a treat) in the form of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No.3 (the ‘Organ Symphony’).

A neat link to Unfolding comes immediately with the return of the huge, hanging, metal sculpture seen at the end of O’Day’s ballet. Most striking though are the two beautiful golden impressionist landscapes that look like yellow and blue ink stains to the back and one side.

Again, it is a dance of various encounters. While not exciting in a virtuoso sense, the choreography is beautifully judged. It comes with a largely restless tone, albeit with moments woven in when it seems very much at peace with itself. And it does have a wonderfully triumphant ending.

Very well known, especially it’s big organ sections, the Saint-Saëns is a bit of an orchestral warhorse. It might be a brave choice but Briener matches it superbly. The choreography is intensely musical, reflecting the score as it shifts from the sombre feel of its beginning in C minor to the joyous radiance of its C major close. She also follows the composer structurally, dividing each of the symphony’s two movements into two parts, creating four sections in all.

Balkiya Zhanburchinova and Olgert Collaku
in Blessed Unrest by Bridget Briener
Photo Costin Radu

While the dance itself is deeply rooted in classicism, as with Tetley, hints of modernism keep poking through. Solos, notably at the beginning of the second and third sections, and one pas de deux in particular, nicely balance with the ensemble moments. The end is truly joyous and comes with a light, soaring freedom.

There may be quite a bit of darkness and struggle along the way but Per aspera ad astra does end with the stars of the title.