Nevermore…?, Soldiers’ Mass, The Green Table
Opera House, Warsaw, Poland; November 15, 2014
2014 has been a year of remembrance of the Great War. Poland, located at the heart of Europe, has had more than its share of the suffering making the Polish National Ballet’s offering, “1914”, particularly poignant. Kurt Jooss’ “The Green Table”, probably the most iconic of anti-war works, was preceded by Jiří Kylián’s “Soldiers’ Mass” and a world premiere from company dancer, Robert Bondara.
“Nevermore…?” a modern rendition of the theme is a brave choice for the young choreographer. He described how he found the mountain of material, statistical and anecdotal, almost overwhelming and how his main task had been to edit down and find a focus. To his credit, Bondara got this just about right.
The work had a rather uneven start. Happy people dancing happily is strangely problematic despite the fascination of Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music”, which was a treat to see in live performance. The choice of two works by modern Polish composers, an electronic score by Prasqual and “Lux Aeterna” from Paweł Szymański gave the necessary boost and once the work got into its stride, it found its true voice.
In the character of the War Lord, Carlos Martin Pérez, in crisp white suit listens entranced to a piece of fine classical music while, in the background, a caged prisoner beats out his despair on the metal bars. The War Lord’s emotions rise to a crescendo with the music and in ecstasy he shoots the noisy prisoner before returning to the music. It’s an astute observation that showed callous brutality is to be found at all levels of society regardless of intellect or aesthetic taste.
The moving pas de deux between Joanna Drabik and guest artist, amputee, Paweł Ploski, highlighted the trauma of the injured soldier, while the closing duet that merged into a trio, Aleksandra Liashenko and Viktor Banka with Anna Lorenc, shows the equally traumatic return of damaged fighters, those unable to reconnect with their emotions. It is a harrowing tale. Updating the war scenario means shifting battle lines. “Contemporary battles happen where people live,” quotes Bondara in his programme notes.
Bondara proves his skills in creating rich and emotional dance language which is both contemporary and very physical. The painful scene of a lone woman, Yuka Ebihara, in the hands of enemy soldiers is followed by a skilfully crafted section for the female ensemble, sometimes in canon and sometime in unison but united in their sorrow.
Kylián wrote “Soldiers’ Mass” in 1980 when all-male works were a rarity and it is a powerful hymn to the common man. In the vast Warsaw Opera House there was the added thrill to hear Bohuslav Martinů’s magnificent score interpreted by a male choir and orchestra. The waves of sound from the pit carried the movement on stage while solo baritone, Adam Szerszeń complemented the solo dancers. Despite their designation as a classical company, the dancers have worked with a number of contemporary choreographers including director, Krzysztof Pastor and they show both the expertise and the willingness to tackle a range of styles. This work comes at a moment in Kylián’s choreographic trajectory when the sheer joy of movement was a hallmark of his work. The thrilling waves of unified movement contrasted with the individuality of each death.
The opening moment of Jooss’ “The Green Table”, as the Gentlemen in Black argue their case, is timeless. The scenes from the G8 conference that I had seen on my hotel screen moments before going to the theatre bore a similarity in the posturing and empty rhetoric that we have all heard before. Jooss’ work, staged by Jeanette Vondersaar, remains a masterpiece. Its power is in its simplicity; movements, direct and telling, repeated for impact. With no fancy choreography to hide behind, the dancers must become the characters and the Polish company gave a remarkably good showing.
In the central role of Death, Robin Kent had the necessary stature. He also gave each gesture its full value and was equally impressive in the moments of stillness. The inexorable pageant of soldiers, refugees, women and the inevitable profiteer, noxious yet entertaining, are all there.
Fritz A. Cohen’s score, played by Anna Marchwińska and Marcin Mazurek on the two grand pianos and Hein Heckroth’s costumes capture both the light and the dark, the irony and the despair. It remains essential viewing and Pastor is to be congratulated in reviving the ballet for the occasion.