A ballet thriller: Stuttgart Ballet in Lulu. Eine Monstretragödie

Opera House, Stuttgart
July 14, 2018

David Mead

The festival week that marks Stuttgart Ballet director Reid Anderson’s retirement after 21 years got off to a super start with Christian Spuck’s Lulu. Eine Monstretragödie, based on German playwright Frank Wedekind’s story, written around the end of the 19th-century. It’s a dance-drama out of the top drawer, one littered with the bodies of the men who play with Lulu, but one where she finally pays the ultimate price herself.

With her blond page-boy hair, Alicia Amatriain is marvellously expressive as the fleet-of-foot Lulu, whose white appearance in the ballet alludes to her being made up as Pierrot in the original plays. She is not a particularly appealing character, and other than her body. But she is certainly a magnet for men. They push her around, grope and abuse her. Yet, she does not set out to destroy them. Quite childlike in her attitudes and approach to life, reckless even, and often appearing desperately vulnerable, her actions tend to be about gratification rather than revenge. She is a contradiction in many ways. She is frivolous and obscenely confident, shameless and without morality, but in many ways just as much a victim as the men who meet their end. You don’t feel in any way repulsed by her either. You just watch in morbid fascination as the story ploughs inexorably on.

Lulu was Spuck’s first full-length ballet and is a dance-drama to match the best. It’s also a shift away from the traditional, easy to follow story. As he reveals the narrative and depicts character solely through dance and situation, he does get to the heart of matters, though.

Alicia Amatriain as Lulu and Louis Stiens as SchigolchPhoto Stuttgart Ballet
Alicia Amatriain as Lulu and Louis Stiens as Schigolch
Photo Stuttgart Ballet

Musically, the collage of Shostakovich (from his ballets The Bright Stream, Bolt and film-music), Schönberg and Berg, not to mention a couple of songs, come together well too. I also liked Spuck’s idea for dances for multiple Lulus and the way he uses projections onto a centre-stage screen, especially at the beginning, where they show Lulu as a subject of male fantasy, and end.

As it shifts from Berlin to Paris to London, the staging and storytelling certainly drags you in. It’s hard to think of a moment or step that is wasted. Spuck’s dance weaves together elements of tanztheater, classical and modern ballet in the best possible way.

There are dynamic group scenes in which the corps sweep across the stage. An early one for an ensemble of lecherous black-suited men described as her lovers, has great drive especially, and is full of wonderful suspended arabesques and ballet turns combined with more contemporary moments including crab-like hops on the floor. As they ogle Lulu, she obliges them by leading them on, walking on their hands.

There are some intense pas de deux too, and one particularly effective pas de trois for Lulu, Dr Franz Schöning (Roman Novitzky) and Martha, the Countess Geschwitz (Anna Oscadenko) that sees Lulu seamlessly shift between the other two, both apparently vying for her attention, and maybe more.

Alicia Amatriain as Lulu and Noan Alves as SchwarzPhoto Stuttgart Ballet
Alicia Amatriain as Lulu and Noan Alves as Schwarz
Photo Stuttgart Ballet

The design palette may be largely black and white, but Spuck puts plenty of colour and depth in his supporting characters. Noan Alves is very bookish-looking as the portraitist, Eduard Schwarz murdered by Dr Schöning for daring to show an interest in her, Schöning having taken Lulu in from the street as a child and raised her. Novitzky presents the Doctor as cold, almost brutal. It seems only appropriate that it is he who should return later as Jack the Ripper. Schöning’s son Alwa (David Moore) is another who meets a grizzly end. Lulu’s companion, Schigolch, danced by Louis Steins has a particularly devil-like other-worldliness about him right from the off, his first solo accompanied by English quotes from the police reports on Jack the Ripper murders. He effectively becomes her pimp.

Present, throughout, Oscadenko’s noble Countess Geschwitz, is fascinating mainly because Spuck hides her true feelings. In character and dance, she is as straightjacketed as her austere yet elegant costume. She doesn’t really seem to have an identity, although there are hints at frustrated lesbian desire, love and sympathy for Lulu.

In Wedekind’s play, Lulu imagines herself to be the victim of a rape or murderer. Her fantasy comes true in the most terrible way. Although it’s long been obvious where it will end, the bleak final moments and Lulu’s murder by the grotesque Jack the Ripper are still shocking. It ends with a beautiful projected close-up of first Lulu’s hair blowing gently in the wind, then her face and particularly her eyes. It is a stunning portrait of the woman that was, or maybe could have been. The strains of ‘Wild is the Wind’ just add to the effect.