A dance of sublime pleasure. Staatsballett Berlin in Christian Spuck’s Messa da Requiem

Deutsche Oper, Berlin
April 29, 2023

After eleven years as director at Ballett Zürich, from the 2023-24 season, Christian Spuck moves north to lead the Staatsballett Berlin. He introduced himself with his Messa da Requiem. It is a triumph; a pleasure to watch.

Originally a masterpiece by Giuseppe Verdi composed in memory of the departed Alessandro Manzoni, Italian poet, playwright and novelist who he strongly admired, Messa da Requiem was first performed on May 22 1874 in Milan.

Spuck took inspiration from that wonderful 19th-century piece to create a work of his own that’s rich in aesthetic charm and delicate beauty. As it portrays people’s vulnerability and helplessness as they search for consolation, his ballet abounds in dramatic moments as he partners the Latin text and catholic liturgy of the music, sung by the choir and soloists, to the steps of the dancers.

Messa da Requiem begins wonderfully. A solo female dancer walks slowly towards the audience covering her breasts, another moving delicately on the naked dimly-lit wall at the back as the music begins.

Staatsballett Berlin in Messa da Requiem by Christian Spuck
Photo Serghei Gherciu

Remarkable moments happen throughout the whole work. Unexpected and interesting is the way the choir move across the stage and take full part in the choreography with the dancers. It was fascinating to see their bodies become architectural elements and take narrative forms. They not only become an integral part of the work physically but, as they merge fully with the dance, a significant contribution to its aesthetic richness.

The stage often appears as a mesmerising painting that leaves imprints in the mind. Beautiful and majestic images portray the human condition in time of sorrow and helplessness. I often found myself wishing that some compositions would stay for longer so that I could appreciate fully and absorb the visual content.

The performance absorbs and leads to wonder. There are moments of delightful beauty in some memorable solos, duets and group compositions. It is well-researched and well-studied. Spuck’s artistry clearly shines through.

Messa da Requiem by Christian Spuck
Photo Serghei Gherciu

“In its essence, Verdi’s Requiem, a large scale oratorio, is about humankind and its relationship to death, as well as the big questions: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where do we go? By reflecting on mortally, we are confronted with ourselves. I believe, in that sense, Verdi, who was a church critic, composed his Requiem,” says Spuck.

Such universal quests have been tackled by many artists and intellectuals over the centuries and probably always will be. And why not, because they are crucial questions to the human condition and faith. In the ballet, gravity and solemnity expands with the rhythmic but also unexpected movements of the choir, singers and the dancers who transform the space with their vibrant voices and expressive beautiful bodies.

The dancers are marvellous. The elegance, delicacy, grace and beauty of the women particularly elevate the soul in a world where those characteristics are very rare to find. They often look like birds flying or landing softly on the ground, or water as swans so beautifully do. The men show physical force, personality and endurance.

The duets between Polina Semionova and David Soares were mesmerising. Her lightness, finesse and ethereal grace made me think of some of the splendid and awe-inspiring Bausch movement. Her dancing was delightful; polished and fluid, balancing between charming abandon and delicate control.

Orchestra director Nicholas Carter led his musicians to recreate the ardour and fervour of the inspiring musical score. The costumes by Emma Ryott are appropriate to the sobriety of the work, especially the black puffy gowns, simultaneously dramatic and elegant.

My only quibble is that some pas de deux happen at the same time, so making it difficult or even impossible to see and relish everything. At other times, dancers appear behind solo singers making it impossible to see them. I wonder if there was a specific reason for those spatial choices. Nevertheless, I left the theatre in a dream, rethinking all the beauty seen and heard. It was a sublime performance that I wished it could have lasted longer.