Playhouse Theatre, Edinburgh
August 20, 2015
In Germany, Mahler and ballet are far from unusual bedfellows; John Neumeier in Hamburg has worked with his music on numerous occasions, including with many of his symphonies. The composer has rarely been a first choice for British choreographers, though, so Martin Schläpfer’s Seven to the composer’s Seventh Symphony, for the Dusseldorf-based Ballett am Rhein, made for a more than interesting evening.
Mahler’s Seventh Symphony has been called the composer’s “problem child,” commentators variously describing it as “diffficult”, “bulky”, “hard to appreciate immediately” and in many ways, Schläpfer’s choreography for Seven is much the same. It’s a bit of a struggle at times when watching it for the first time, but like a lot of things, the more you think about it, the more you understand it and appreciate it.
Although it often feels like Schläpfer is working against the detail of the music, especially in the first three movements, when taken as a whole there can be no denying the connection with the overall architecture and sense of Mahler’s score. Like the symphony, Seven starts off rather chaotically but develops into a magnificent work that leaves you wanting more; or at least a second look.
If there is a discernible theme to Seven it’s that it takes the audience from a place of fears to a place of light. Whether you see those fears as occurring in a largely dystopian reality or dreams is up to you. Whatever, it’s a trip that tosses and turns; a collage of fragments that come and go into and out of consciousness seemingly at random. It’s not all darkness, after all even dreams are not all nightmares, and there are brighter moments, but it is not until the fourth movement that we truly rest easy before emerging into the sunlight of the fifth. The music follows a similar journey, indeed the second and fourth movements are labelled Nachtmusik I and II.
Seven is very much an ensemble ballet and Schläpfer marshals his huge cast of over forty well and creates some impressive dynamic patterns. But while there are moments of where groups move as one, more often than not dancers have their own slightly different take on things. And you never know what is coming next. Just like the complex music, Schläpfer constantly surprises, constantly switches mood, and although there are long pauses between some of the movements, he succeeds beautifully in making each flow naturally out of what has gone before. Even the arrival of the romantic dance of the fourth does not jar.
The first movement hints at things to come. It opens with a single man in a long black coat. Full of angst he constantly slaps his knees and holds his face in his hands. Mahler’s music here has a strong pulse which Schläpfer responds to with multiple entrances and exits. We see a series of vignettes of relationships and situations, few of which seem to have much happiness. Traumas abound. A man and woman dance before she is led away by a second man, looking back longingly at the man she is leaving. There are many more as each of the individuals and couples hint at their own story, although
none are explained.
As in the ballet as a whole, the dance generally has a neoclassical elegance, albeit one marbled through with a contemporary, tanztheater-like edge. The dancers sometimes appear in ballet flats, sometimes on pointe and near weightless. Most striking, though are the aggressive, contemporary, interjections when the dancers don heavy boots and violently stomp around the stage. It does come as a bit of a shock, and there were times when I despaired at the constant thumping on the stage, which seemed noisy in any event (even a regular bourrée off sounded like a group of horses clip-clopping down a cobbled street). In the first movement, one trio banged around to such effect that it near drowned out the glorious music coming from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in the pit under the excellent baton of Chien Wen-Pin (this is not a ballet music-lovers will enjoy!). But bear with it, because as a whole it does make sense.
Movements two and three are the most difficult, but much of that is down to unfamiliarity. Put a ballet pas de deux in boots and the whole feeling changes. If you don’t believe me, watch Marlúcia do Amaral and Bruno Namhammer in what turns out to be a sexually charged, almost animalistic affair. This is a place of tossing and turning, a place with a sense of being trapped with no way out. A woman is watched like an animal in a zoo by a trio of men as she dances but continually loses her footing, and a solo for Rink Sliphorst is almost Martha Graham-esque but so ferocious and energy sapping that by the end he is a shaking wreck.
After all this, Mahler’s uncharacteristically lyrical fourth movement comes as rather a surprise. For the first time, soloists become easily distinguishable from the crowd. Two couples (do Amaral and Marcos Menha, and Julie Thirault and Michael Foster) dance romantically. Have they finally escaped? Is this sleep of a more relaxed kind? Even the lighting here is brighter, but that they are interrupted by stranger figures suggests neither, and that maybe this is all just an illusion.
Introduced by timpani and brass, the effervescent fifth movement is packed with dance of colour, celebration, and energy. The cast sweep across the stage in large numbers. The music and choreography soars in a series of solos, duets and trios that are a feast of exciting movement. And yet, is all what it seems? Is this just another deception? A dramatic final scene has the cast dancing and running in a giant circle as if in some ancient tribal dance, following each other almost trance-like. Somehow, one is chosen to dance high above them; a beauty amidst the furious maelstrom below. Has the disturbing really gone away?
The mood throughout is enhanced by Florian Etti’s austere, monochrome setting. Black walls, each with three doorways replace the usual wings, while at the back the backdrop is grey, with a panel that rises and lowers. His costumes manage to be simultaneously stylish and everyday, again with lots of black and grey, although we do get to see plenty of the ladies’ legs through their often slit-back skirts and bare torsos from the men.
Ballett am Rhein is pretty much unknown in Britain, as indeed is Schläpfer, but as with most companies in Germany, the standard is extremely high and I for one would like to see more of them; and certainly another look at Seven.