Royal Opera House, Stockholm; January 24, 2014
The Royal Swedish Ballet’s latest offering is a double bill by two of Scandinavia’s top choreographers. Norwegian Jo Strømgren presented “Gaîté Suédoise” but it was in Örjan Andersson’s “Exposition and the Body” that the intensity of the dance, the colours and the music brought a burst of Aurora Borealis brilliance to a bleak Nordic January.
Andersson continues the fertile relationship with Beethoven that he began with Gothenburg Dance Company several years ago, this time choosing the 5th Piano Concerto, “The Emperor”, and again, the results are thrilling. The work is absolutely contemporary but harbours the essence of Beethoven’s spirit deep in its soul with a touch of the period surfacing in fleeting choreographic references, in Nina Sandström’s costumes and in the designs by SUTODA.
After a brief sombre opening the surround of red curtains intensifies to become incarnadine in a flood of light. In an equally dramatic moment, on the last note of the first movement, these curtains fall to reveal similarly bold emerald green drapes while overhead, utilitarian stage lights are bunched in deconstructed semblance of chandeliers. Into the third movement and on the ecstatic piano entrance all curtains are swept aside and a battery of lights temporarily dazzle the audience before dimming to a bearable level. This juxtaposition of contemporary and period is reversed in the costuming: austere black and body hugging to start but bringing an antique flavour to the finale with the cast in skirts, corsets and coats of brilliant silken hues.
It is in the second movement that Andersson plays his master card in a pas de deux of intimate warmth for Mariko Kida and Kristóf Várnagy. With the accuracy of a heat-seeking missile he gets to the heart of the relationship creating moments of great tenderness and shapes of startling originality. The duet opens as Várnagy gently wraps a bustle skirt and corset round Kida’s still figure and their simple eloquent movements slowly and organically develop into dance proper. Kido is a joy: a tiny dancer with a huge presence while Várnagy, a new face in the company, combines strong technique and appealing warmth to make an effective foil. In a low key ending, she quietly leaves the stage as the third movement opens and Várnagy bursts into joyous action joined by the ensemble in a mood of infectious anarchy.
“Exposition and the Body” provides plenty of substance for the dancers, the men in particular looking strong and in fine form. Clyde Emmanuel Archer, Antony Lomuljo and Rena Narumi who moves with the weightlessness of an autumn leaf in the wind, all had their standout moments. And not forgetting the solo pianist, Terés Löf, who played with equal tenderness and fervour.
Andersson interacts with the music with the skill of a maestro in a mix of gentleness, humour and passion: sometimes in complete harmony and sometimes providing contrast as the dancers pause in taut stillness when Beethoven is at his most intense. He has proved his talent over the years with choreographic structure and craftsmanship, as well as inquisitive invention. By introducing dramatic flair and full-on emotion to the mix he has created not only a richly layered work that will reward many visits but also a valuable addition to the repertoire that will help to cement this currently quite disparate group of dancers at the Royal Swedish Ballet.
Jo Strømgren has exceptional comic gifts and his “Gaîté Suédoise” is premised on the potentially witty idea of a bunch of sycophantic fops preparing for the entrance of the king and queen.There is a great deal of horse play involving a variety of portraits of the Swedish Royal family and much silliness – rather too much! Strømgren has stated that he is a royalist and the humour around the portraits may be sexist but is never cruel, operating at a lightweight level where a clever pair of dancing legs under a three quarter portrait will raise a smile. Jacques Offenbach’s “Gaîté Parisienne” injects fin de siècle froth and farcical overtones making a neat accompaniment to the air-head aristos.
The central couple are the servants: a smart maître d’ and well groomed waitress played with great sympathy by Sarah Jane Medley and Jérôme Marchand. They know their place and put up with the slights and indignities and even share a pas de deux that is somewhere on the way to love. However, in the later scene where Medley dressed only in a petticoat is kidnapped by the nine ‘gentlemen’ thing take a very sour turn. She is not the clever Beaumarchais maid of Mozart’s comedies who gets the better of her superiors but a distressed woman abused by a group of drunken men: a situation far too close to recent lurid headlines to raise a laugh. That Marchand is captured and stripped by the ‘ladies’ was equally unsavoury but more palatable in that it is conducted off stage. Strømgren has proved himself capable of strong social comment but none of that was in evidence as the laughing resumed and the well-dressed crowd assembled for the arrival of the royalty. Sadly, it had all gone rather pear-shaped in a work that had somewhere taken a seriously wrong direction.