Wiener Staatsballett: Balanchine, Liang, Proietto

Vienna State Opera
November 1, 2016

Maggie Foyer

Manuel Legris, director of the Wiener Staatsballett (Vienna State Ballet), has made some astute choices for this triple bill: a much-loved Balanchine, a modern ballet from Edwaard Liang and a wild card from Daniel Proietto. Following the style of programming that worked so well at the Paris Opera Ballet, Legris’ balletic inheritance, the company proved they can maintain ballet standards while opening up to innovation.

George Balanchine’s Symphony in C, usually placed as the closing number, gave the programme a turbo boosted start. The variety of emotions suggested in Bizet’s fledgling work were well defined by the dancers. Liudmila Konovalova led the field. Her quality finish to each position, arms that enhanced lyrical beauty and innate musicality gave her performance the ballerina hallmark. She was ably partnered by Vladimir Shishov who also accomplished with ease the fiendishly tricky sequences Mr B inserts for the male dancers. A uniform high level was evident throughout the ranks: clean cut batterie, impressive placing and footwork and all performed with refreshing joie de vivre.

Vladimir Shishov and Liudmila Konovalova in Balanchine's Symphony in CPhoto Wiener Staatsballett/Ashley Taylor
Vladimir Shishov and Liudmila Konovalova in Balanchine’s
Symphony in C
Photo Wiener Staatsballett/Ashley Taylor

Nina Tonoli and Denys Cherevychko were positively effervescent as they leapt through the third movement. Natascha Mair and Jakob Feyferlik set the pace in the first movement while Alice Firenze partnered by Robert Gabdullin completed the excellent team. Conductor Fayçal Karoui, whose time with the New York City Ballet was evident in the driving pace coupled with sensitivity to the dancers’ needs, was no small part of the success of the performance.

Liang’s Murmuration, written for Houston Ballet in 2013, suits the company to perfection. Inspired by murmuration, that mystical flight of starlings, Liang translates it into dance with Enzo Bosso’s violin concerto adding its own magic. What’s not to like? Liang’s choreography, fluid with an Asian eye for harmony of line, picks up the pulse and passion of the music in a structure that constantly rings the changes. The flight of birds is simulated in the swirling patterns; the images of flight are caught in high lifts and catches that constantly surprise and delight while the human emotion comes to the fore in the four duets. The final duet, danced by Nina Poláková and Roman Lasik, reaches to the emotional core. Lasik is introduced as something of a loner but is drawn into the group by Poláková with sensitive nuzzling gestures. Ioanna Avraam, also particularly well suited to Liang’s choreography, found startling beauty in the innovative shapes.

The simple costumes, chiffon drapes on the women’s leotards accenting the feeling of flight, the gentle rain of feathers and the cathartic ending, as the flock of dancers join in unified purpose, give the work its seal of success confirmed by an enthusiastic audience response.

Nina Polakova in Edwaard Liang's MurmurationPhoto Wiener Staatsballett/Ashley Taylor
Nina Polakova in Edwaard Liang’s Murmuration
Photo Wiener Staatsballett/Ashley Taylor

Daniel Proietto’s new creation Blanc, takes as its starting point the ‘white’ ballets: the second acts of Giselle and Swan Lake and in this instance, Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides. It is not the first time Proietto, whose performance credits are mainly cutting edge modern including Russell Maliphant’s Afterlight and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Faun, has tackled one of ballet’s sacred cows. His version of The Dying Swan, Cygne has toured internationally to great acclaim.

In Blanc Proietto again uses a range of mediums but this is a much extended work with a corps of fifteen sylphs, text and video projections. In the opening darkness the scratchy notes of an old recording of Chopin’s Prelude, complete with hiss and crackle, (but played with great sensitivity) sets the scene. In addition, Mikael Karlsson, one of the most exciting new dance composers, delivers a score predominantly minimal and modern but never afraid to pull out the stops and embrace rich orchestral sounds.

Laurence Rupp and Eno Peci in Blanc by Daniel ProiettoPhoto Wiener Staatsballett/Ashley Taylor
Laurence Rupp and Eno Peci in Blanc by Daniel Proietto
Photo Wiener Staatsballett/Ashley Taylor

The Poet is the central character searching for his elusive muse and Blanc refers as well to the terrifying blank page confronting the writer. In the role, Eno Peci gave a powerful performance descending through layers of despair and desolation. The role also elicits Proietto’s most inspired choreography using a full range of movement to express the poet’s anguish. Actor, Laurence Rupp, shadowing the dancer eloquently spoke the text written by Alain Lucien Øyen, to focus the movement to the word.

The revisioning of Fokine’s Sylphs gave Proietto his inspiration as fragments of corps de ballet motifs find new life in a modernist mould. The moody lighting, the projection of the forest and metres of tulle create a romantic environment where the poet has a brief encounter with his sylph, Ketevan Papava, a vision of gentle beauty. However, the poet wrapped up in his existential angst can offer little passion to spark a relationship. What could be a beautiful dream turns to a nightmare, and the sylphs now stripped down to leotards, tease and provoke.

Eno Peci and Ketevan Papava in BlancPhoto Wiener Staatsballett/Ashley Taylor
Eno Peci and Ketevan Papava in Blanc
Photo Wiener Staatsballett/Ashley Taylor

His world rapidly turns to a negative skilfully realised in the projections, make-up and costuming. Three fine dancers, Natasha Mair, Davide Dato and Masayu Kimoto offer balletic virtuosity, and Karlsson’s music rises to symphonic splendour, but choreographically it doesn’t bring to life the horror and was rather an unhappy hiatus. Back to real life and Rupp meets Papava, now a woman in modern dress. This scene, with bright projections of technicolour reality, works surprisingly well. Rupp offers inane small talk and Papava sweetly ignores his advances while Peci dances out his final despair on the stage.

Combining tradition and modernity and weaving them into an exploration of art and inspiration is no easy task. The ballet succeeds in many parts but needs a theatrical raison d’etre. It is not easy to care for the Poet or to connect to his passion and despair, leaving a frustrating sense of emptiness. However, it is important that major companies take risks and allow new choreographers to take dance down untried paths. I hope Proietto gets the chance to continue working on this ballet.