National Theatre, Munich
December 1, 2023
Five minutes walk away from Munich’s National Theatre, the Christkindlmarkt on Marienplatz is in full swing. The festive season may be upon us but the Bayerisches Staatsballett are passing on The Nutcracker. There is dazzle to come later in the month in Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella but, for now, their pre-Christmas menu features Angelin Prelocaj’s Le Parc, which shines too, just differently.
Created in 1994 for the Paris Opera Ballet and set to selections from Mozart piano concertos, Le Parc is often regarded as a modern masterpiece. I can only imagine how different it must have seemed back then but, almost thirty years on, it still feels fresh. At different times, it’s also beautiful, moving, charming and humorous.
Tightly structured, over its 95 minutes and three interval-less acts, Prelocaj deals with love and attraction, sexual desire and seduction, the codes we follow and the games we play with each other. It’s very much a ballet of suggestion, of anticipation, and of desire that is only finally realised in Act III. Although set in 17th-century France and the court of the time, it equally has modern resonances.
The choreography is a combination of precise movement and timing, and freer moments, all classically-rooted but with a contemporary edge. It might not be exciting or adventurous, even in the three duets for the main couple that conclude each act, but it is very engaging as it neatly combines past and present, formality and freedom. Little moments are important. They speak a lot and often delight. A group of four men affect not to look at the ladies but steal furtive glances. A flick of the wrist and a risqué mimed showing of an ankle say more than words ever could.
Act I takes place indoors with three upstage triangular structures looking like ultra-modern topiary in the garden outside. Preljocaj’s ensemble choreography is full of formal patterning and perfect lines, a clear reference to the classic architectural landscapes of the time. All are dressed alike in period male breeches and frock coats, although the women look especially stunning in costume designer Hervé Pierre’s elegant cream-coloured numbers. There are teasing dances and feigned upset but here, as elsewhere in the ballet, it is the women who goad and lead the men on, always careful to leave them wanting more.
A gently amusing game of musical chairs ends with Jinhao Zhang remaining seated. As he stares at Maria Baranova, she returns in kind. You can sense the anticipation. Yet, in the duet that follows, they almost never touch. They repeat each other’s phrases. They brush against each other. They come face to face. But always pull back or move away.
As the main protagonists, Baranova and Zhang, were both superb. Zhang has this wonderful aristocratic bearing, a demeanour that sets him aside from the rest of the men. He’s above them, better than them, and he knows it. Full of wiles, the delightful Baranova showed us a woman strong enough to resist. And although clearly enjoying the game, you did feel from the off that she would let him have his way in the end, even if on her terms.
Act II takes the viewer into the park and under set designer Thierry Leproust’s magnificent, stylised steel box trees, columns for trunks. Prelocaj uses repetition a lot, both in sequences and in individual positions that are returned to time and again. It provides a links and for the most part, thanks to the different contexts in it comes, does not feel overdone. The repeated whispering, giggling then fainting of the women, now in huge pannier dresses is an exception, though.
Things pick up when the men appear. The women, having swapped their swathes of fabric for underwear of the period, dance lightly, almost child-like as they engage in a playful game of peek-a-boo and catch, again leading the men on.
Whereas the Act I duet sees the lead couple as equals, that which closes Act II emphasises his yearning. Zhang certainly tries. Their dance is a conversation without words. Him, at length. Her. Him again. He can’t shut up. Words, steps, flood out. She just watches. He’s pleading for her to relent. But she resists and stands firm. For now.
Still outdoors but now in an open space, an Act III solo for Zhang is effervescent. He bubbles with happiness. Did something happen we did not see? Whatever, now Baranova relents.
Their final duet is truly moving and way more romantic than flashy steps can ever be. Certainly more sensual. With her barefoot and in only an airy nightdress, they come together as equals. He runs his fingers over her face. He leans into her chest and rolls his head around her body. And then the highlight. She holds on her partner’s neck as he swings her round and round. She flies, legs stretched out behind as they kiss passionately. It’s a stunning and memorable image. It’s ecstasy. Desire realised.
Le Parc is framed by four darkly dressed Gardeners. For them, the Mozart is put aside in favour of an austere, modern electronic soundscape by Goran Vejvoda. Preljocaj suggests they are Cupids but other then presenting Baranova to Zhang in Act II, where she’s initially blindfolded, and in Act III, where they ‘unveil’ her by partially undressing her, there’s little sense of that.
In a way, they do reset things after each act (except, of course, that the main couple are unchanged), and their staccato-like movement certainly contrasts with that of the rest of the cast. Whether they add anything more to the main action is doubtful, however. Their appearance at the end for a final coda is certainly unnecessary but, even so, does detract from the beauty of that divine final duet.