Ritual and myth in the Labyrinth mixed bill from Dresden’s Semperoper Ballett

Opera House, Dresden
November 21, 2018

Maggie Foyer

Semperoper Ballett’s quadruple bill, Labyrinth, showed astute, imaginative programming. The earliest work was George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments from 1946 and the latest, Joseph Hernandez’s Songs for a Siren of 2018. They span dance techniques from classical ballet to Graham to post-modern but all are linked within a theme of ritual and myth. The mix was a brave move by director, Aaron S. Watkin and it worked.

The classic analysis of human disposition was the Ancient Greek humoral system, balancing our moods, sanguine, fiery, phlegmatic or earthy with the four elements of air, fire, water and earth. It’s a fascinating and persistent theory and inspired Paul Hindemith’s eponymous score and later George Balanchine’s ballet.

Errand into the Maze(pictured: Duosi Zhu, Christian Bauch)Photo Ian Whalen
Errand into the Maze
(pictured: Duosi Zhu, Christian Bauch)
Photo Ian Whalen

The choreography, the intricacy of the structure and shifting dynamics continue to thrill, more than 70 years on. The company gave a performance that sparkled with the crispness of a spring morning, despite the outside gloom of a Dresden November, with each foot well placed and each arabesque successfully nailed. From the sensitive pairing of Aidan Gibson and Johannes Goldbach in Theme, to Alice Mariani’s bold attack in the Fourth Variation, the ballet was in safe hands.

Balanchine’s innovative was on display in the opening variation as Houston Thomas flew through the air and fell to the floor with skill and daring in a spectacular display. Kanako Fujimoto and Julian Amir Lacey in the Second Variation, Air, exemplified charm and grace with turns that swam through the music and secure partnering. Thomas Bieszka took the cool understated Third Movement and Mariani made the stage her own to bring the ballet to a thrilling close.

It was in the central pairing of Graham’s Errand into the Maze and Ohad Naharin’s Black Milk, that the evening found its raison d’être. Graham’s retelling of the ancient myth of the man/ beast in the labyrinthine maze retains its potency in every aspect. From iconic set and costumes, distinctive movement and a powerful score by Gian Carlo Menotti, the work is both timeless and of its time.

Graham expected her dancers to suffer for their art and the role of the Minotaur is a killer. Gareth Haw, bearing horns on his head, his arms twisted around a gigantic bone expresses in contorted movements, his tortured state. For Ayaha Tsunaki, the choreography is more fluid shaped by the fabric of her white frock with its distinctive webbing. Her contracted hands and high extensions express the anguish rooted deep in the pelvis, the seat of sexual energy. It is impressive that these young dancers are able to take this story, born in the mists of time and the technique of another era and bring the ballet up to date with such power and conviction.

Naharin who was a member of the Graham Company in his early career has ingested some of her primal power and injects it into Black Milk, an early work for five men. If it is less confident in its structure than his later works, it is an electrifying display of masculine virtuosity, characterised by huge jumps as the men engage in ritual play, chasing, leaping and turning, the loose fitting trouser/skirts adding an extra dimension to the shapes.

Semperoper Ballett in Black MilkPhoto Ian Whalen
Semperoper Ballett in Black Milk
Photo Ian Whalen

A bucket is passed down the line and each man daubs his face and body with the black liquid it contains. Not all express the same enthusiasm to join ranks and the bonding process is fraught with uncertainty heightened by the energy-charged beat of the marimbos. Usually performed to a recorded track, Paul Smalbeck’s music is for the first time played live. when Naharin was convinced after hearing Simon Etzold and Christian Langer tackle the fiendish score. The combined energy of dance and music came together in a thrilling performance.

It was a daunting task for company dancer and fledgling choreographer, Hernandez, to present his work in such celebrated company, but his choreography warranted its space. Songs for a Siren updates the theme of ritual and tribal energy to today’s contemporary dance within a timeless setting. The set, a crater down which dancers slide to enter the arena and an extended lip to create a second level stage add interesting complexity. The commissioned score by Barret Anspach is appealing, ranging from folksy interludes to pounding rhythms of driving intensity.

Duosi Zhu, Jón Vallejo and Ensemble in Songs for a SirenPhoto Ian Whalen
Duosi Zhu, Jón Vallejo and ensemble in Songs for a Siren
Photo Ian Whalen

Svetlana Gileva, dressed like a goddess and as enticing as a siren, stood out among the casually dressed crowd in flowing green robe. The other named figures are the two in black, Sangeun Lee and Christian Bausch, stylish and sinister in brimmed hats. The narrative lacks the robust intention of the previous two works, involving the capture of Gileva and her return to a rejoicing ensemble before she is again removed. However, the choreography is rewarding, showing innovative experiments with contemporary movement and an extensive use of jumps and turns to add pace and excitement. The partnership of Lee and Bausch shifted the choreographic tone to an urbane, sophisticated level while Duosi Zhu, Houston Thomas and Aidan Gibson were outstanding in the ensemble.