A ballet of endless questioning: Shakespeare Sonnets by Hamburg Ballet

Opera House Hamburg
September 20, 2019

Maggie Foyer

The arts would be so much poorer without the works of Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet and dance seemed fated to meet but the depth and subtlety of the sonnets have less often been expressed in the art form. If you thought that the sonnets could not inspire choreographers, think again. Hamburg Ballet’s production of Shakespeare – Sonnets is a work of exceptional depth and complexity that takes the essence of Shakespeare’s discourse on life, death and beauty, real or false, and revisions them in a setting of brilliant theatrical invention.

It is a work of major collaboration. The three choreographers Marc Jubete, Aleix Martinez and Edvin Revazov are also responsible for the costume designs and set. Seasoned dancers with the company but relatively new to choreography, they rose to the challenge creating a full evening work that is both complex and cohesive. Fourteen composers are listed, ranging from Henry Purcell to David Lang, but the excerpts are intelligently selected and effectively used to make the overall balance remarkably coherent.

Yaiza Coll and Lizhong Wang in Shakespeare SonnetsPhoto Kiran West
Yaiza Coll and Lizhong Wang in Shakespeare Sonnets
Photo Kiran West

The choreographic language is of today: contemporary but using the technique trained in the ballet body. The object of desire in Shakespeare’s sonnet is the subject of endless questioning and in the duets these ambiguities are explored in movement that expresses fractious, questioning thoughts but in ensemble sections like the aptly named ‘Freedom’ (choreography by Marc Jubete), the dance is of exhilarating untrammelled joy making a blissful uplifting moment.

In ‘Simple Mix’ (music by Lang), Revasov turns his thoughts, as Shakespeare so often did, to mortality. In a dystopian world of mists and desolation, men in sinister beaked masks, reminiscent of the plague doctors, and wearing high platform heels create extraordinary new moves. Bodies, shrouded in greyish fabric, roll onto the stage. From this pairing, Revasov has fashioned a duet of strange beauty for Florian Pohl and Olivia Betteridge their bizarre costumes adding another dimension. It closes simply as the pair walk upstage Pohl, now stripped bare, and Betteridge freed from her shroud.

Silvia Azzoni in Shakespeare Sonnets Photo Kiran West
Silvia Azzoni in Shakespeare Sonnets
Photo Kiran West

In ‘Forced March’ (Lang), Revasov pairs Mariá Huguet and Pohl, an aesthetically beautiful coupling of youth and man, churning with emotion and set within a turbulent ensemble. Most intriguing is the ‘World to Come’ set towards the end of this long work and again using Lang’s music. This time it is Anna Laudere paired with Pohl in a gloriously sensual duet full of invention. Emilie Mazoń, in white gown and very long hair weaves between the dancers enveloping them with her curtain of hair that in finally revealed to be a false as Pohl pulls off the wig.

Lloyd Riggins is a constant and cohesive presence. Initially just one of the workers he moves to prominence to orchestrate and conduct the work as a charismatic central figure. Also a constant presence is Joaquin Alcazar, a student from the Hamburg Ballet School, who plays The Child. Full of curiosity he views this strange adult world, expressing the innocence of youth most touchingly in an eloquent conversation of hands with Borja Bermudez.

Lloyd Riggins in Shakespeare SonnetsPhoto Kiran West
Lloyd Riggins in Shakespeare Sonnets
Photo Kiran West

Yaiza Coll and Lizhong Wang, the unnamed couple who loosely link the sections, take this innocence into adulthood. Their opening duet is mesmerising as two stripped down whitened bodies fluidly intertwine, each touch fraught with meaning. A moment of comedy comes later when the couple are dressed up in fashion clothes. Like Adam and Eve sent out from Eden they lose their natural fluid state and now move with programmed rigidity.

The ‘Factory’ setting, (predominantly choreographed by Martinez) that alternates with the bare dance space, is multi-purpose. Glass cubes enclose mannequins, clone-like in their pink dresses, white bobbed hair and white masks. Silvia Azzoni, one of the identical models is, nevertheless, outstanding as she mimes Marilyn Monroe’s iconic song, ‘I Wanna Be Loved by You’. She may be the model of perfection, but it is her poignant vulnerability behind the mask that leaves the lasting, painful impression. Between the glass cubes, is a busy workspace, where dancers in overalls shift the mannequins and Patricia Friza and her team argue over the perfection of form as prosthetic limbs are passed around.

In his sonnets, Shakespeare wrote eloquently about beauty, contrasting the beauty that is eternal with the painted and artificial. In the ‘Factory’, where beauty is manufactured, the boundaries between the two are clearly defined. Friza has a defining moment in an anguished solo as she is now trapped inside the cube that is slowly turning. Her desperation contrasts with the liquid beauty of Purcell’s Dido’s ‘Lament’ and, as Bermudez comes to join her, the scene disintegrates in a hail of plastic debris. All that is left at the end is the human spirit as dancers join together in powerful unison, linked in concentric circles on the mirrored stage.

Dance cannot adequately express the pithy essence of a rhyming couplet but in dealing with the complex emotions it searches out, and finds, the heights and the depth. What was also so exciting in this production was a vision of future direction for the company: productions built on the same standards of quality and integrity that we expect from John Neumeier’s Hamburg Ballet, finding new coherent voices in a changing world.