Schaufuss’s Modern Reworking of Tchaikovsky Ballets
July 27, 2012
United Kingdom Tchaikovsky Trilogy Parts I & II – Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty: Alban Lendorf and Irek Mukhamedov with dancers of the Peter Schaufuss Ballet. London Coliseum, London, 23 & 24.7.2012. (JPr)
At the end of the second night of the Peter Schaufuss Ballet’s Tchaikovsky Trilogy I saw a mother and a very young child in her Lilac Fairy costume leaving the London Coliseum. I imagined the mother being asked ‘Why was there no Lilac Fairy and which one of them was Princess Aurora?’. Probably because Schaufuss is Danish his re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty had more in common with his fellow Dane, Hans Christian Andersen’s story of ‘The Red Shoes’ than the traditional versions of the tale. But that – in so many ways – is another story and part of the problem with Tchaikovsky Trilogy so far! At least this mother might have been spared the question young children would have asked their parents at Swan Lake – ‘Mummy why is the Black Swan kneeling in front of the Prince and moving her head backwards and forwards?’ Yes we are shown fellatio instead of fouettés at the conclusionof her Act II seduction of Siegfried!
Peter Schaufuss’s Tchaikovsky Trilogy are truncated versions of the composer’s most famous ballets – Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, performed separately and then together in one day – in an event that has been likened to Wagner’s Ring Cycle. They are apparently three linked dreams – a nightmare, a sensual dream and a happy one – with a Dream Master character common to all three and becoming the catalyst for what new plot there is. I believe there have been many recent reworkings of Tchaikovsky, and whilst I have not seen any of those the nearest I could compare all this to is Ballet Preljocaj’s recent engrossing (at least for me) version of the Snow White story at Sadler’s Wells. (To be honest that intimate theatre would be the more natural home for this Trilogy.) I must say that Snow White had a much stronger sense of narrative than anything Schaufuss has shown us so far. A ‘thread’ can just about be followed from the synopsis in the programme, however that did not entirely always match what was danced. Also Ballet Preljocaj prewarned its audience about the nudity, yet that was very mild compared to some virtually topless swans seen here in Swan Lake and the sex acts shown in both ballets.
The legendary Irek Mukhamedov returns to a London stage after being away too long and even in his very brief contributions shows that if you have a great talent you never entirely lose it; it is difficult to shift attention from him when he is on stage. He really should be somewhere other than in charge of Slovenia’s National Ballet. In a recent interview he tells us more about Schaufuss’s ‘vision’ than anything else we read (or possibly see): ‘Well, in Swan Lake, I will be (the villainous sorcerer) Rothbart. There, I fall in love with the queen, the mother of Odette, so we have an affair – ha ha ha! – and have a child, who is Aurora, in Sleeping Beauty. Also, in Swan Lake, my other daughter is Odile, the Black Swan, so in Sleeping Beauty she is still my daughter, but she has become (the similarly villainous) Carabosse.’ Apparently still to come is that Clara, the heroine of The Nutcracker, is the daughter of Aurora and her prince in Sleeping Beauty. Not forgetting that Schaufuss also uses these three stories to explore Tchaikovsky’s confused sexuality – he seems particularly close to the Swan Lake jesters and also undergoes some ‘grooming’ by the Dream Master in Sleeping Beauty – it is a rather jumbled narrative and – despite some impressive moments – it is not as good as it could be.
So Tchaikovsky it really isn’t and do not expect pointe shoes, tutus or any of Ivanov or Petipa’s steps. What we do get is the typically tortured, often barefooted, angst and stretching gestures of modern dance with a bit of disco, the odd body-popping moves, some Marcel Marceau-like mime, and hints of synchronised swimming or ice skating. There is a single set with a large mirror in the background that makes a small company of dancers seem more numerous than they are. Also a Perspex screen cuts off the stage towards the front such as for the ‘forest’ in Sleeping Beauty. The costumes (uniformly grey in Swan Lake but a bit more colourful in Sleeping Beauty) look as though they have seen better days – particular the bedraggled ones for the swans and Siegfried’s strange chunky jacket in Swan Lake. Most of the dancing takes place on a lit rectangle on stage, but generally the lighting is a little murky and the dancers disappear into gloomy recesses on the stage more frequently than I suspect they should.
There were nevertheless some intriguing ideas such as the two-dimensional coupling of Siegfried and Odette in Swan Lake Act I seen best as its reflection in the mirror, then there is Odile’s lap dance for Siegfried that reaches the intriguing climax mentioned above – while this is going on, Rothbart is groping and otherwise seducing the Prince’s mother. At the end of this scene Siegfried is forced into the arms of his mother bringing an Oedipal frisson to this moment. Swan Lake also ends with a stunning tableau of Siegfried raised on high by the swans with feathers falling and then shown isolated at the end.
The story of Sleeping Beauty undergoes the greatest revisionism so far. It opens with the Queen (from Swan Lake) and her husband (Rothbart) making love, and she soon goes into labour on the large red couch – the frequent leitmotif of these two ballets. She gives birth very entertainingly and the new-born is put on the bed. Four beaming fairies come and pay the baby homage, and give her a pair of sparkling shoes as their gift. Enter Carabosse (who you will remember is Rothbart’s daughter and now step-sister to the baby Aurora) and because she is jealous exchanges those shoes for her own enchanted ones – this is where ‘The Red Shoes’ story is used. Initially for some reason Aurora is treated like Coppélia but having grown up is then ready to meet her four potential bridegrooms (Spanish, Arab, Chinese and Russian princes) who are similar to the princesses in Swan Lake and all eight dancers will pair up in Nutcracker. The ‘Rose Adagio’ generates some gentle amusement as Aurora finds that her shoes are stuck to the floor and she is virtually static. Later the presentation of the roses is danced to the upturned feet of her four princes!
At the start of Act II there is a suggestion that Siegfried turned into a swan at the end of the previous evening and is now in the care of Dream Master. He is given another awful lime-green jacket that he soon discards and in the best choreography of the evening together they dance a subtlety homo-erotic duet. Despite Carabosse’s best efforts the prince finds Aurora, removes her bewitched shoes, and she awakes up – no surprise there. The fairies return and each has a celebratory solo yet the ‘grand pas de deux’ with Aurora and Prince Florimund is performed with more floor work but also some classical lifts and leaps that at least gives the other advertised star of the evening, Alban Lendorf, a bit more to do than mope moodily around. There was a mournful solo from Rothbart as he realises he must leave this ‘kingdom’ with his errant daughter, Carabosse. Here Mukhamedov is almost worth the ticket price on his own as the years rolled away in these few poignant moments of deep regret. Florimund and Aurora are led by the Dream Master to the bed presumably to conceive Clara for The Nutcracker?
Two petite Japanese dancers, Megumi Oki (The Swan Girl and Aurora) and Yoko Takahashi (the cat-suited Black Swan/Carabosse) also almost make the enterprise worthwhile performing what they have to do with great conviction and dazzling virtuosity. It is difficult to pass judgement on Lendorf, who is a principal with the Royal Danish Ballet and considered a major young talent, as he simply does not have enough to do. When I read he was going to dance for four consecutive evenings my thoughts immediately turned to those memorable seasons at the London Coliseum in times past with Rudolf Nureyev. That great man did appear every evening for weeks on end – but probably danced more in one act of a classical version of a Tchaikovsky ballet than Lendorf did over these two nights. There is no danger then of him wearing himself out! With his posture, tidy footwork and soft jumps he reminded me strongly of his choreographer, Peter Schaufuss, whom I also saw dance, like Mukhamedov, in his heyday.
Stefan Wise as the Dance Master and Zoe Ash-Brown as the Queen were the best of the other dancers as the remaining company, although energetic, were a little ragged at times mainly due to the fast – often cacophonous – recorded Tchaikovsky highlights they had to dance to that gave them little time to catch their breath. The lack of live music was another reason that this whole presentation should have been somewhere other than the London Coliseum.
Further details about the Peter Schaufuss Ballet can be found at http://www.schaufuss.com/.
And as the perfect antidote for this Tchaikovsky Trilogy English National Ballet will perform Derek Deane’s traditional Swan Lake from 3 August onwards at the London Coliseum, for more information visit http://www.ballet.org.uk/. I will review this on the first night.