Teshigawara and Sato’s Pygmalion in Stockholm

Drottningholm Palace Theatre, Stockholm
August 11, 2018

Maggie Foyer

Baroque music and postmodern dance enjoy a symbiotic relationship. J-S Bach’s Chaconne counterparts William Forsythe’s Artifact Suite while Wayne MacGregor and Mark Morris have successfully choreographed versions of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, each finding artistic correspondence across the centuries. However, the partnership of Baroque theatre space and modern dance is rarer and hardly surprising as there are only a handful of active theatres of the period and only one with original working stage machinery.

Drottningholm Palace Theatre, on the outskirts of Stockholm, was state of the art when it was rebuilt in 1766. Today the skilled crew still churn the original wave machine, wind up the wind machine and tip the thunder box to create magic effects while below the stage a dozen strong men (apparently Dutch sailors were the preferred option in the eighteenth-century) drive the huge wheel that rotates the many wing flats transforming the pastoral to the urban in seconds. It is a theatre buff’s dream!

Pygmalion with Rihoko Sato and Quentin RogerPhoto Bengt Wanselius
Pygmalion with Rihoko Sato and Quentin Roger
Photo Bengt Wanselius

This season’s repertoire included Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet, Pygmalion, directed, designed, choreographed and performed by the multi-skilled Saburo Teshigawara assisted by Rihoko Sato. A minimalist, cerebral production it shares little with the boisterous theatricality of the Baroque era when audiences enjoyed elaborate stage settings and exciting stage effects. It was a most unfortunate choice for this unique theatre as it could have been staged in any number of black box spaces across the globe.

The fifty-minute opera is preceded by a half hour danced Prologue performed by Teshigawara and Sato. It’s choreographed to a series of short dance pieces from notable composers of the period, played by the theatre orchestra on traditional instruments who bring vivacity, warmth and a wealth of expertise to the music. It consists mainly of solos with a short duet passage as the dancers work side by side, finally coming together in an embrace as the curtain falls.

Sato has a movement quality that is pure poetry. In the slow sections her body bends and curves in a continuous flow while in the fast sections she captures the fleet complexity of the music her feet darting swiftly across the stage.

Teshigawara accompanied by conductor, Vittorio Ghielmi, on the viola da gamba displays extraordinary eloquence in his hands and arms shaping the air in complex patterns. Dressed in dark robes, it plays out in sombre lighting with only occasional design elements as stripes of light crossing the stage or dividing it in geometric patterns. It is interesting in its post-modern exploration of movement and relationships but relates neither to the period, the place nor the ensuing opera.

Pygmalion, derived from Ovid’s tale, is about gender. It is the male’s search for his perfect love, and by extension, his rejection of a real woman who fail to meet his exacting standards. Anders J. Dahlin as the sculptor was superb: a Pygmalion of heroic stature with a voice gifted from heaven that filled the auditorium with ease and crystalline clarity. He sculpts his perfect, but lifeless mate, which L’Amour, Kerstin Avemo, a suitably fluffy blonde cupid, brings to life while his rejected girlfriend, the forlorn Hanna Husáhr, is helpfully teamed up with dancer, Quentin Roger to tie up the loose ends.

It’s all as unpleasant a piece of sexism as you could wish for but set to one of Rameau’s most popular and one of his best-loved works, it could with imagination and skill be very palatable. I longed for a touch of irony or perhaps just an acceptance of Baroque cultural values and going for broke in a celebration of heady theatricality.

Rameau has created as much space for dance as for song and the singers, to their credit, integrate well with the three dancers, including Silvia Moi, as the statue who comes to life. But as a production it fails to fully come to life despite strong individual performances. Dressed in uninspiring neo-classical drapery, the most notable choreographic moment comes in a sensual duet for Sato and Rogers.

The programme notes promise great things but little of this was externalised and the interregnum between postmodern dance and Rameau’s exquisite music went unresolved finding no common ground on which to generate the creative vortex that both director and conductor aspired to in their writings.