David Avdysh-The Master and Margarita

“The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov), choreography by David Avdysh, 2003.”

 

 

In the ballet, The Master and Margarita, we can see a full-scale representation of the now recognized, very important work of Russian literature by choreographer David Avdysh. The novel was published in the United States by the Mikhail Bulgakov estate, 1965, (it was started in 1931 and the second draft was completed in 1936)

In 2003 the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre premiered this new work, which was severely criticized by the press. It is difficult to find any videos of it in its entirety, but I have included one full version from the Kiev Ballet (2007) at the bottom of the post.

The controversial libretto was set to music by Gustav Mahler, Dmitri Shostakovich, Hector Berlioz, Astor Piazzolla, Wojeiech Kilar, and other composers, including jazz. Choreography and staging are attributed to David Avdysh, set design is credited to Simon Pastukh (USA) and costume design by Galina Solovieva (USA). David Avdysh was let go by the Perm Ballet and now choreographs for ice skaters, and his counterparts are working in the U.S.

It was impossible to find a set list of the music, and no libretto, or other references. I was especially searching for interviews with the choreographer himself. A sound check proved that other bits and pieces of modern works were diced and spliced into the program, giving it a dark, and uncustomary feel for ballet; these sometimes severe musical style changes are at times inharmonious, even cacophonous-the sound did not always work choreographically.

Three performance are referenced here: the full-length and at least two others are by the Kiev, but there are also some mixed and unknown variations from Mr. Avdysh himself, from Perm, I believe). The complete version is uninterrupted and therefore preferable to watch, and in some other ways preferable because, while the technical aspects, skill of the ballet dancers in Perm is noticeable and perhaps more “classical ballet,” the Kieve version has exciting dancers, somewhat less “classical ballet” at times, but the feel of the work comes through more passionately. I think the Perm excerpts are important for comparisons, but are edited down into trailer by Mr. Avdysh; their importance is therefore critical to understanding the differences in the actual productions, nuances and skill of different dancers, and differences of emotional treatment and differences by the dancers themselves-above all, this is what Mr. Avdysh wanted to “share” and I think that is also significant.

Hella’s dance shows very clearly how this interpretation varied, possibly to the choreographer’s detriment. I include it fully because I feel (for reasons) it is the best of the three, and because it allows you to see three versions of that piece, and also the version of the trailer which includes the original version of Woland’s entrance-you can compare them. The solo/pas by Margarita and The Master are also represented repeatedly, with different dancers and although they are edited versions, it is still possible to see how dancers and companies treat a work, not just this work, and why it is important to see the performance, possibly many times, in order to truly critique a work on stage. It is only an idea, but if we are denied the opportunity to see these adaptations, then no final analysis, for the purpose of ballet, can really be made, and that is more or less the situation with this ballet. You are unlikely to be able to see it performed for certain reasons, which actually have nothing to do with art, or ballet. The Perm dancers are perhaps more acceptable in the strict standards of Russian Ballet- it is a company (and school) known for producing dancers possessing a certain technical and artistic brilliance, and I feel this adds a great deal to the choreography and its believability, but, at times, in reference to the characters,  the Kiev interpretation is also interesting. Not only is it provocative, daring,  such as is seen in Hella’s variation, as compared with other dancers who dance the role, the role of Margarita is also treated more naturally, with less emphasis on classical ballet posturing and posing, and the dancers are more normal looking. Any deformity of nature-croissant feet, hyper-extension of the legs, very high extensions (gymnastic), pat acting, are often considered rare and wonderful these days in classical ballet, but as this production shows, sacrificing those characteristics for a more natural appearance, following the music, expression, and acting serve the story-line and production values much better. This also a reason which I include these extra excerpts. You will see there is a fine line between expert classical ballet training, naturism, and the choreographer’s intent, and what and why we find believable what we do not, and why is is sometimes necessary to sacrifice for your art, particularly your pride. and vanity, and to other values. As it is impossible for viewers to really appreciate this work without having the benefit of actually seeing it, and due to the importance of the author, what he stands for, and the future, I am including this in a series which is pretty much interviews with other artists, and copies of interview i feel are good. But as this is important, let the choreographer’s work be the interview.

Margarita’s solo with the Master to the music “Oblivion” a jazz piece, is very beautiful as are her pas’ with Master, and this is conceived very well artistically, whereas other parts featuring one or both of them, are not-this may be a result of the editing-but take a look at the full version, and you will see that overall, i am correct. The Kiev version (2007) was done later than the Perm version (2003), and although they are completely different performances, the choreography is recognizably the same, and this speaks volumes in terms of any criticisms I, or any other people, may have, because the dancers clearly respected and felt pleased about performing this work, gave their all to it, and took up the gauntlet of interpreting the work, fitting it exactly (with no changes) to their dancers, come what may, and the music is apparently identical. This strict following of the choreographer’s intent in a rival production tells us how seriously the exact performance of this choreographer’s work was to them, to the company which produced it, and leads one to believe, that like Petipa’s works, this is an important work for them and for reasons, will last-whether we like it or we don’t. In other words what they think of it is really  more important than what we think of it. It is also ‘ballet’ and it is a new work (relatively), and it adds to that stalled list of new full-scale works which dancers, companies, and other choreographers are aware of when it comes to making artistic decisions and taking steps forward to offering new works. It may, I hope, become a classic. it is an excellent start.

I think there is a backlash against Bulgakov, and for many reasons, some people would  prefer he not be remembered, mostly for political reasons. But, by the Russian people, and readers of his works worldwide, Bulgakov’s works are memorials, classics, as well as evocative of a sort of Russian character, which occurs again and again in their arts, most notably, for me, in ballet and in writing. Bulgakov was also a successful playwright, before his power to express himself was closeted and castrated. His soul, which was first attributed to Pushkin’s work, or “Russian Soul,” comes through once again here, and is very visible in certain parts of the ballet itself. It is said that it is perhaps most readily obvious, in Ballet, but also is apparent in music frequently, and this I believe makes the sharing or availability of it through the visual arts very important, as it sparks new interest in his works. It is one of the many terms coined in popular usage of Pushkin’s, and is used specifically in ballet, and well before “soul” music or any other kind of soul was referred to, and everything dancers there do that is different and ‘a secret.” It is that particular shade, or accent, or feeling that a dancer puts into a movement, a step, a variation, or the whole ballet, and it is to do with life, breathing, feeling and emotion, and affects everything. It is the heartbeat and essence of dance that you take away with you from a ballet, and it is emotion and the commonality in dance which causes you to move when other’s do, stand up in your seat, and be a part of it. That too, is here.

There is this great form of dramatic expression possible in dance-and it ties in nicely, in this adaptation, and is visible in the dancers themselves and it is clear when this is not apparent as well. It is this, which the Russians can bring to this interpretation, should pervade it and becomes what the rest of us equate as great ballet. It would move us incredibly if it were here, but it is not here in these productions all the time.

What the critics may be referring to in their supposed ‘bad reviews’ may be their not liking any negative reference to Russian culture, politics, or history mentioned in their ballets any longer, but I think some of it could have to do with the critique of the production and all its elements as well. There is little of a political nature to offend anyone here and that is one reason I think it is not entirely successful-that is not present here!

But, perhaps it was just enough to get adaptations on television, banned in the Ukraine, and for no reason, really, other than it reminds people of something they do not want to see right now. This does not stop Russian people from reading the book, however-nothing ever does, and it is more cconntroversial for other reasons. I was lucky to find suffienct, though not numerous, examples for you.

The ballet is billed as a “ballet-phantasmagoria in two acts”. I think ballet is enough, as anything outlandish is called something else to give it stature, and it does not need additional description to cover its bad points. The book was not a phantasmagoria-it was satire-and to perhaps to a catastrophic degree the ballet community, censors, and critics (probably) have not all read the book, or did not know what a satire is, and did not seem to have direction. Or just maybe, it had to be something else, it was not to be presented as desired, and is subsequently not what it should have been, what it deserved to be-what Bulgakov, or we, deserve to see or hear, but it is what it is. Not seeing a ballet in person is criminal to me, and so any review has to be based on the fact that I have not seen the original, so how can I truly criticize it at all, or compliment it? Not truly, I can’t. That’s unfair, too.

David Avdyshevich Avdysh was born in Zhitomir Ukraine in 1952, and is a recognized choreographer who graduated from the State Choreographic School in Kiev in 1970. He added to his pedagogy by also attending the Rimsky-Korsakov State Conservatory in Leningrad, graduating in 1980 most likely with an additional MFA or equivalent. It is said after choreography created for Petrushkaby (Igor Stravinsky) in Leningrad, he was not favored there and for about 25 years he would have no recognition. He worked freelance in St. Petersburg and elsewhere until he became choreographer for the Tchaikovsky Academic Opera and ballet Theatre in Perm in 2002. His tenure was sensationalized due to The Master and Margarita, and as well several other notable reworkings of older classics.

As I can imagine, and if you watch the entire ballet, for reasons you can probably then well-imagine, his Russian critics soured his career aspects by a wilfully malicious undercutting of his talents in complete ignorance of the definite positive aspects of his vision and the choreography. Can you say “jealous”? Well, they can and they do in art forms in Russia. There is no worse enemy of a ballet cchoreographer than another ballet choreographer, or a dancer of a dancer.

They also probably did not mention any salient aspects of his interpretation, which are, in fact, numerous, especially compared with other contemporary ballets and rival premieres (which were so bad they did not even release the video of them), and which undoubtedly exhibit far less passion than this, were danced by truly less capable dancers (and actors) than these are, so perhaps negative comparisons could be made-if there were any-but there are not ANY comparisons possible.

The fact is, if it rankles the tights of the powers that be, it can’t be what it is, or even appears to be, and if it cannot be those things, for whatever reasons-it is not worth watching? Well, had we said that before now, we would be far less rich in what we have been able to get our hands and eyes and ears on and that is something, so we are wise to read what we can of it, and appreciate it for what it attempts, because nothing is going to get any better than this, probably.

I would think the primary issue of its production is to do with the interpretation and the requirement that great art not be made into a work that tries to copy every nuance of the original, though we think we want that-no two lovers are alike-and wishing another one was like one before, will only ruin any chances of fully appreciating the new one. Comparisons are therefore of limited value. But, that is not it entirely, either, for there is the forced necessity of a time constrain and we are being treated to a mush edited version anyway, but what is not always working is what is kept, and what was denounced, or let go.

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The critics seemed to feel (in their majority) that Mr. Avdysh should have used original music, and that could mean he had money for it, but I don’t think so, or he would be accused of embezzlement, too, and be under house arrest for not putting on a good enough show,  but he is not.

He might be unhappy with the sanctioning of his work afterward, etc., and artist’s work in general (or not), and of not having enough artistic freedom (he had enough to hang himself), or by the fact that he did not have another opportunity, so one should assume he offended someone. Maybe it was the public. If it had been banned for keeping to the story, I would understand-it is that it was most likely banned for flouting things which were not even in the story, or for too mnay things being included, or just a generally aesthetically displeasing things, and Bulgakov might have been offended by this as in “I never said any of those things,” but in fact, he might have-I am not an expert.

The criticism may have come too late, after the work premiered, and perhaps it was only the press that brought to people’s attention only negative opinions. Avdysh, like Bulgakov, does not seem to have been given the opportunity to do other ballets, and that is unfortunate, because he could make good ballets, possibly great ones. Perhaps it was very ambitious, but you know-think BIG. Ballets get re-worked all the time, and each time, and this one has a lot of positive elements, too, as I said. It’s like throwing out the baby with the bathwater, considering there hasn’t been as good a basis of a good ballet for nearly 100 years. I feel deprived. Ballet affcionados whould, too! Let us judge universally, for ourselves.

The costumes were liked by my daughter, and as well, the soldier women choreography, so I must be at odds, but in context, it is just the same as Bulgakov, living with the things he didn’t like, satirizing those, to reveal what was ultimately important, and the things that really mattered, and that if it were not for all things in life, good and bad, we probably would not truly appreciate what we come to love. He would have liked very much, I expect, that his story was made into a ballet, in Russia, in fact-he might just be rolling in his watery grave.

However, I believe Avdysh’ perceived failure still had far more merit in it, than other people’s prominent successes do (and I have seen them!), and his vision, while a bit different from what mine might be, is also unique to him, and each person subsequent person therefore, too.  It just goes to show you how much pressure there is put on people by media, and the press, politicos, and influencers, to like what they want you to, and to not like what you really do.

Some people have the ability to stand up for what they like and to state why, and other people are impotent, not minding going along with the status quo and having their decisions made for them. But, this is what Bulgakov was writing about, and it is ironic that a production of his work as a ballet, still reminds me (of the fuss) of exactly what he was writing about, even though they weren’t trying to.

What is key in Avdysh’s production is that in some ways he did evoke the novel, and especially, his understanding of the character’s importance to the ballet seems evident enough-it is there, mostly, but some characters could be worked on more. It is a big effort to undertake such a large-scale production and with a complex storyline, with many other facets to it, nearly impossible to be able to draw all those parallels with suitable emotion, but the love story comes through, Woland is palpable, the Biblical scenes are probably not what they could be, but again, the Russians haven’t had much experience with that for a long time. It is a formidable task for a genius, and David Avdysh did create a memorable and impressive work that stands (mostly ) on its own. I don’t see how anyone else could have fewer issues, that’s all.

I won’t recount all of the productions which have been attempted, but lists can be obtained.

What is difficult for Americans, and probably other non-Communist people, of that period, is just how oppressive a society can be to its own citizens and that only today is there a possibility of performing such a work, even of accepting the negative criticism, but openly airing an opinion, which is all a work is, after-all, and that both before and after its publication, nothing changed very much until now. This Russian ability to write everything between the lines is very much absent from this work, it is though it is taken at face value, and in this novel, there is more there-perhaps very little needed to be there at all, but there is much more than this ballet shows, and history, research, provenance, and records do show that Bulgakov was an extraordinary writer and craftsman, and sadly, none of this was present in the ballet. Relationships which were harder to discern in the novel may have been more pronounced and important, even painfully eloquent, because they were not stated in a straightforward manner, and one had to think, to guess, to stretch one’s imagination, and in the ballet, there is really no mystery left. This is sad, and perhaps is somehow still not apparent to the masses, even to the art world, but these things also still exist there, and though there has been a relaxing of these hidden memoirs and diaries, and this genre is essentially over, it is one of the most important aspects of that culture, and should be preserved well, and the only way to get a good adaptation is to let the Master’s of it, work openly on it, to improve it. Freedom is demonstrably absent in this approach to making art-and only by throwing many pies against the wall do we often get one hit.

As many of the novel’s real-life counterparts are now history, I will leave it to the reader to find and discover the relevance the story has for them. Suffice to say, that there are two stories (at least) going on here, and everything is drawn from life as it is, and what is deprived. Religion is absent and Woland comes to Moscow precisely because he is not resisted there-religion being the “opiate of the people” it has been banned as well, and this paves the way for all kinds of evil, but as well, some hysterical interludes, the ridiculous, and also horrible actions Stalin performed, and many, many provocations on the part of other artists, and writers, by whom Bulgakov was slighted, and ridicules, so of course his works were banned completely, as were the performances of them. The economy and housing situations are a part of the novel which also does not transpose well in this adaptation, but the underlying angst of writers who no longer write anything real or truthful, could at least be portrayed here somewhat better. In this way the ballet adaptation misses the point of it all, as well as the connections between freedom and creation and how without control of both, truth and beauty in art can be lost. The religious tie-ins, for a non-Russian, probably do not make any sense, but as long as there is a beginning of a ballet adaptation to work with, it is possible that a shorthand version of some of the events will become part of our culture, too, and that many other attempts will be made until there is a version hammered out which reminds one, if possible, of at least many of the things the novel does.

In such a ballet, there is no leading character, as there is not one in the book, but there are leading characters and they are, as the title goes, The Master and Margarita. Woland is the leading protagonist, but there are so many! How can a novel push its lead character’s appearance to so late an appearance in the novel? Well, there is the putting ahead matters of government, politics, and putting the affairs of people and there feelings at the bottom of the list-but this novel shows that they do exist, and that the feelings and lives, and opinions, of these people are still unchanged even under an oppressive regime. All of these things have to occur first to put the perspective of love, into place, for the magical things going on in private continue to do so, and so despite all of those other bad things, and they are very bad-the worst, love, creativity, and beauty, even hope, thrives. There are websites devoted to the subject of the story, if you haven’t read it, and I urge you to before watching the ballet, but it doesn’t really matter.

The Master-Role

The experiences of the writer and criticism of his works led to him writing a novel about a writer writing a novel about Pontius Pilate. It’s about the conflict experienced by Pontius Pilate and what makes him turn in favor of Jesus, and how he has to give him up anyway, though his gut feeling is to spare him. Basically, this is the crowd hysteria compared to someone who reasons, and also how wise people are doomed to do what is expected of them; they do what they must do to save themselves-this is how life goes. These sentiments are especially directed at critics with whom Bulgakov had dealings with, and the word ‘critic’ has a totally different connotation from the limited power of the critic here. So, the writer, The Master, is similarly attacked in the press, for his novel, and he writes a letter to the Soviet Government complaining. Bulgakov himself was the victim of over 300 individual appearances of denouncing his writing, mostly by other writers, who apparently used this as a tool to get rid of the competition. Consequently he could not get published. These malicious and pointed criticism of his work were the cause of his not being able to be published in Russia anymore. In addition to this, he had to gradually move from having his own house, to having a floor, then a few rooms, then a room, in the house, and the issues that occurred there with other, not so desirable or cooperative tenants, and he vented his life’s conditions into his writing, including his pets, etc. There’s a bit of poignancy, philosophy, satire, religious and factual underpinnings, and  a great love story, and the birth or creation of this great work. And there’s Margarita, and many other complex and interesting characters and activities, and they all have multiples meanings. How can you put that into a ballet? You don’t try to. You can’t. It’s hours and hours and hours long.

In Russia, they were putting writers and protestors (political criminals) into prisons, Gulags, and insane asylums, because they could hold them indefinitely without trial and try to change their mind (literally). In Stalin’s time (when this novel was written), millions and millions of people just disappeared, so in the novel, the writers just start “disappearing”, it is satire, as in “Who’s Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?” In life there was not a lot of truth in the actions of authority figures, therefore, one aspect of the novel also reflects this intentional vagueness. This is not easy to accomplish in ballet where vague is mimed, but absent is just not there. The Master and other characters in the novel are very complex and often went through many revisions in his writing, but they are more human because of their many sources rather than one. Each is also imbued with personal or biographical attribute, making them even more complex.

Margarita-Role

Margarita Nikolaevna is the master’s lover and muse. She is in love with his novel and nurtures him in order to complete this cycle, which is like the one Mary Magdalena goes through with Jesus, she performs a necessary work of service, and she is combined with other aspects of The Holy Virgin, even though she is human. To him, she is both, and makes all this possible. Woland also is involved in the process of good, for without each other, neither would exist. She is reunited with The Master. Again, this character has multiple character attributes, but she is strong and realistically based on strong female characters in literature and history, particularly ballet history, but also literary, as well as genuine characteristics of his wife. Some of their real life experiences, such as their meeting at a ball curiously seem to be overlaid onto the action. Some historical references are alluded to regarding her, by other characters in the book.

Woland-Role

Woland is a stranger and we conclude, the Devil, but he is in the world and can be encountered, and some good may even come of it, if you play your cards right, but, he really directs all the action of the book, with another, non-visible voice, but in Russia, God is not apparent, at that time. He is a walking contradiction, unreliable, and equally unpredictable. If something is suspicious in Russia, you cannot mention outrageous or unbelievable phenomena, or they will put you in the asylum, which they do to the Master and Homeless.

The antics of Woland and his retinue are well-portrayed in the ballet, and this ‘activity’ causes what is most akin to the Queen’s Tea Party in Alice and Wonderland times 7. After this performance, and a ‘real’ one, they head back to the netherworld on horses which cannot be accounted for in a stage performance.

The other characters in the novel can be divided into those in the parts concerning the novel about which the Master is writing and the sympathetic characters to Woland (unsympathetic to Bulgakov)

Koroviev/Fagot- the choirmaster, interpreter, speaker.

Behemoth-the cat (violent)

Azazello- the messenger, scout, arbiter

Abaddon – background character, neutral

Hella-female woman demon, servant, possibly a vampire

More characters are introduced at the ball, and mostly they are all corpses. All are guilty of some damnable action. Many of these characters have real-life counterparts in history and their are representations of both political and artistic types of the day. CLues are given to their identity. The characters are:

Koroviev/Fago-Chairman of the Tenant’s Association

Johann Strauss

Vieuxtemps

Monsieur Jacques

Agnes Sorel

Earl Robert

Amy Robsart

Signora Tofana

Teofania di Palermo

Teofania di Adamo

Giulia Tofana

The marquise

Madam Minkin

The emperor Rudolf

The Moscow dressmaker

Marienhof and Sergey Alexandrovich Yesenin

Caligula

Messalina

Maliuta Skuratov

Genrich Grigoryevitch Yagoda

Pavel Pavlovich Bulanov

Frieda

 

Biblical Characters

Aphranius-the head of Pilate’s guards

Dysmus and Gestas-two criminals whom Jesus is executed with

Judas of Kiriath-the betrayer

Joseph the Kaifa-the high priest of the Jews

Matthew Levi-one of the 12 disciples of Jesus

Pontius Pilate-the procurator of Judea

Yeshua Ha-Nozri-Jesus of Nazareth

Other Biblical characters-Roles

Bar-Rabban-another criminal who is released, forcing the execution of Jesus as “three” must die

Niza-a spy, seductress, or prostitute

Pilate’s wife

Ratslayer-Guard of Pilate

Why Moscow?

In much the same way we analyze the characters in the ballet and look for similarities to the novel, its scenery and references to historic places, locales, and architecture or monuments must be commented upon as well. Moscow is a very different city from St. Petersburg, a market bazaar in the middle east, or America, and requires some references in conjunction with the action to make the ballet work. The ideas may be very complicated and surreal, multi-layered and fractured, but it is set against a city, abstract and full of surprises, but nevertheless permanent (or so it would seem) and realistic; the drama and the feelings it conveys form a central feature of the story and it is more apparent what their importance is exactly when they so obviously have failed to have been accounted for at all. It is as though the life in the novel is less than expressed due to the lack of enough references by the choreographer.

The stone steps of the Moscow River at the former Cathedral site (Christ the Savior) where Ivan swims in the water, is the only significant reference to the city in the ballet’s scenery design and these steps also figure in the scenes of the biblical story, too, where they somehow seem more effective.   The last Supper is referenced, and a table-this is done pretty well in a painterly way, and reminds one of the Da Vinci painting in the Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy. This is also the first major instance of two-point perspective, which could also be an added point of interest in the libretto. There is no reference to Pushkin or Gogol in the ballet whatsoever, or to the Iron Statue, or other literary references which the novel is specifically about. The Pashkov house isn’t referenced at all or any other great beautiful monument. The places mentioned in the novel are all famous, or have become so, and people do want familiar references to be made in ballet as well as to be reminded of some positive aspects of their culture. It is a long ballet (over 2 hours) and one has to wonder what is really being said in all that time.

No Patriarch’s Pond, Herzen House (Griboedov), Spaso mansion, hospital, swimming pool, or residences indicate by sets, exist, which would serve to isolate some of the action into interiors, or well-known places. There is no realistic lighting, trees, or other points of association, as reminders of humanity, and these reference points are so lacking in this ballet that the action is confused. There is also a lack of humor, or maudlin humor, which is worse. That depicted is not what I pictured reading the novel and not what any person reading the novel in that period of time might have experienced. There are not even any references to tangible aspects of literary life, motifs, or signs. There is practically not even the allusion to writing, a studio, or  creation of art at all-not even a desk-and no food.

There is no hope of freedom expressed in the ballet-one just gets the feeling that these characters are trapped in a glass snowglobe and not going anywhere. It is not satirical and ballet may only reference satire, such as in Don Quixote, but it is done successfully, with grace, and with humor, as well as fantasy, without being dark or depressing. When you are confronted with dead people, for instance, how can you readily tell them apart from the living? What is normal? The head is significant, as well as are other elements of the story, which without, it not only does not have the impact it would if even slightly reminiscent of the original, it is not original at all in itself, but like every other dark, and gloomy, perverse, copy of otherwise light ballets, which we can see readily in the works of other choreographers, such as Matthew Bourne.

Bulgakov’s novel is very entertaining. He was fired, but he was not put in jail. Aerosmith does not like to sing classic hits all the time, but that is their bread and butter-give the audience what they want. If the audience wants a ballet of the sort that the book implies, it can be done, but apparently not with the team chosen, or perhaps maybe not in Russia or the Ukraine, right now.

Ballet, as a rule, although some of the music has vocalizations and overall has an exotic feel to it. There is plenty of opportunity for mime in this adaptation, only it isn’t done. I think several aspects of the production are not working. For one, any great work deserves its own music. The fact that the music supplied is neither music inspired from the work itself, and there are many successful examples, or music that was written for the performance of ballet and for the story specifically, by a composer for ballet music, makes a huge difference in the production value. Instead, dark and exotic ubiquitous works are used, even jazz, and do not fit the text or reflect Russia under Stalin at all. Since it is not music written to fit the choreography, or even ballet, it seems strange in parts, that it is done as a ballet at all, as it is set music which is already famous and recognizable as accompanying certain kinds of dance. to which choreography can easily be arranged that is not ballet.

Some actual references, such as paper and money, seem trite when they are repeated without any significant change of presentation. Rather than being a ballet written against oppression, it is oppressive. It’s wit and dark humor are lost, the redeeming aspects of the novel are replaced by self-interested and “showy” dancers, who have no ballet choreography done for them, and there are an overwhelming number of male characters, or corp members who do not seem to serve much purpose-more like WIll Rogers Follies meets the Follies Berger, who seem removed from the mood and acting of the performance, or really have no investment in the story itself, or acting ability, and this does not work well with the plotline and is a distinct disappointment.

The choice of such a dark variant of the theme does not match what I visualized reading the book. These things exist in real life and that is what makes them so surreal, and in fact there is a strong emphasis on light by the author. There is a positive side to the story, a religious theme aside from the Pontius Pilate story, a matter-of-fact dark side, a horrible one, and many other references to conditions in the soviet union in the 1930’s, humor and wit, as well as the surreal, magical, and supernatural, and there are references to sex, and prostitutes, horror, but not other things-I don’t think. It is the choreographer’s intent which is also being judged-not just the author’s. But, any of these sub-texts might be implied strongly, or argued, and all are not expected to be in the ballet, just the number of things that fit or work and which are true to the text. There are deaths. This is not necessarily a children’s ballet, but technically, either was The Nutcracker.

Due to the modern approach taken by the Perm Theater and David Avdysh, the sparseness is deliberate. The Kremlin appears in one scene, a stairwell in others, a tarpaulin is used to create the dark abyss, ropes to suggest trees and other things, smoke and fog to create clouds/mist, and just a few props or furniture, such as currency, a notice/letter to associate events, rather than places.

One big cage-like construction is used to represent the asylum where Ivan is kept, and most of these types of props are not stationery, but are moved on and off, by the many corps members in the ballet, who also act as gladiators, guards, soldiers, and the masses. I think that a tram-car/train would have been a better-fitting industrialization remnant to indicate the period. The costumes were all created, specifically for the production, by the great costume designer Anna Solovieva, and the aerial lifts, and crucified Jesus, and some symbolic items such as the park bench, Woland’s cane, the whips, were apparently deemed more suggestive of the atmosphere and proceedings of the novel, than trying to recreate the scenery of Moscow or Palestine, exactly. or other descriptions in the novel.

Overall this is an important ballet and I feel that it needs to be done well and promoted as adaptations of the book should be to an honest and artistic degree. It does lend some visualization, or alternative views to the characterizations of the central characters, but little to the rest as they are impossible with the lack of information to identify completely, and sometimes there is too much going on, on-stage, and the choreography is not always that good, but in other parts it is pretty good, but it could be better, and especially the arrangement and flow of the scenes, definition between acts, and of course cutting and reworking of some scenes, changing of choreography to make it better. You cannot change the music, choreography, and everything else and call it the same ballet. It needs a lot of work, but it should not be abandoned.

 

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John Neumeier

ballet Sylvia foto angela sterling

Interview
Special

Reposted from:  Gerard Mosterd Interview/John Neumeier/danspubliek

John Neumeier in the Netherlands
Part 1: Introduction and history of the ballet Sylvia, ou La Nymphe de Diane

by Gerard Mosterd

Sylvia, ou La Nymphe de Diane was the first classical ballet to premiere in 1876 in the newly built Palais Garnier, the Paris Opera. Louis Merante’s choreography was based on a complex pastoral poem of the Renaissance. Ariosto and Torquato Tasso’s text tells the tale of the shepherd Aminta’s love for the nymph Sylvia. She initially upholds her duty as a companion of the goddess Diana but the god of love Eros finally melts her heart, and the ballet ends in the original and subsequent versions with a happy ending. A radically new production by the renowned choreographer John Neumeier which was commissioned in 1997 by the Paris Opera gives it a tragic end.

Neumeier belongs to a generation of legendary dancer-choreographers who have been able to develop with the Stuttgart Ballet which since the sixties has been a prominent ballet company and world famous for its unique repertoire of classic and contemporary narrative ballets. It was led by the South African choreographer John Cranko who died tragically young, and his successor Glen Tetley who has been active in the Netherlands as well. The Stuttgart Ballet brought forth many choreographers who have played a decisive role in European dance theater circles in the last three decades of the 20th century. To name a few alongside John Neumeier: Jiri Kylian, William Forsythe, Pierre Wyss, and Uwe Scholz. Neumeier, like Cranko is a strong storyteller and creator of literary-inspired, full-length productions such as La Dame aux Camelias and A Street Car Named Desire. He has now led the Hamburg Ballet for 38 years and is director of the Hamburg State Opera Ballet and the Hamburg Ballet School. He has an extensive repertoire and is responsible for the discovery and development of remarkable dance talents.

Neumeier is known for his sensitive, lyrical, modern pas de deux, and there are more than enough in Sylvia. Occasionally we see in it an absurd twist of humor such as we know from his contemporary Mats Ek. The dances are expertly made, guided by the romantic melodies of Leo Delibes. While Neumeier’s Sylvia builds on the tradition of classical ballet its narrative style is abstract in comparison to all previous versions of the ballet Sylvia. These include that of Sir Frederick Ashton which was created for Margot Fonteyn and is one of the most successful. Ashton opted for the Arcadian and idyllic love story with elements of mime, Neumeier created a more contemporary version by combining a drastically simplified libretto with a tight staging. No old-fashioned landscapes, shepherds, satyrs and bacchanalia but a minimalist design by the Greek designer, Yannis Kokkos.

Neumeier’s movement idiom can be described as late 20th century, neoclassical expressionism. The use of academic positions, jumps and turns are passionately combined with influences from jazz and modern dance. Swinging legs, flexed feet, contracting hips and spines betray a transition phase in the history of Western, academic theatrical dance. Part of a process in which the body of the ballet dancer will eventually loosen the straitjacket that the rules of classical ballet’s geometrical system prescribed.

Sylvia is a historic ballet and delves into history as a stimulus for new developments. Thus, this ballet is the reason why Diaghilev left the St. Petersburg Imperial Ballet in able to introduce the Russian Ballet to Western Europe. The result was a renewed worldwide interest and impetus to dance with the legendary ‘Ballet Russes’. The first version of Sylvia broke with the romantic spirit and ethereal image of women by imagining her as a valiant, virile rider with bow and arrow.

The innovative music by Leo Delibes – Tchaikovsky was at the time, jealous – is one of the best ballet scores in history and many renowned choreographers have been encouraged to create a new choreography to it. Almost all of them struggled with the complicated story. The music is packed with highly danceable melodies and picturesque moods as well as the unusual use of epic Wagnerian leitmotifs.


john neumeier foto holger badekow

Interview Special

John Neumeier in The Netherlands

(photo © Holger Badekow)
Interview with John Neumeier (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 24 februari 1942) by Gerard Mosterd, at the Dutch National Ballet.

Nearly the whole world has seen and applauded ballets by John Neumeier. But we hardly ever see your work in the Netherlands. This is the first time you are letting a Dutch company perform your work. Have you ever performed here with The Hamburg Ballet?

‘We were here years ago with my company as a guest in The Amsterdam Music Theatre, performing my Saint Matthew Passion. I remember that because I was dancing in it myself, but I can’t remember what the second piece was.’

I remember you as a dancer from when I was learning the role of Hortensio in Cranko’s Taming of the Shrew, with London Festival Ballet. I had to pick up the steps from two old videos – one in which Jirí Kylián was dancing Hortensio and the other in which you danced the role.

‘Yes, I was first cast for that role when Cranko created it. Stuttgart was my first company. I was dancing there before Jirí arrived. I saw Cranko’s work when I was a student in the United States.’

To what extent has your choreographic career been influenced by the great storyteller Cranko?

‘I don’t think John Cranko was the greatest influence on my own choreographic work. I’d say he created narrative ballets along fairly direct and simple lines. I was fortunate enough to be with Stuttgart Ballet during its most creative period and left the company in November 1969. In my search for what dance means to me, I have been mainly influenced by American musical films.’

And the classic question: how did you originally come into contact with dance?

‘I don’t know – I can’t answer that one. It was something very instinctive for me, as nobody from my family had links to dance. In Milwaukee, where I lived, there wasn’t much dance. There was no important dance academy, no major theatre and no company at all. There were just two guest companies that sometimes performed twice a year: American Ballet Theatre and the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo. During my ballet training, I was studying at the university of Milwaukee, which also had a theatre. I took ballet classes in Chicago, 145 kilometers away, and created my first ballet and musicals for the university theatre before I came over to Europe.’

Sylvia is a historic ballet, about which there is plenty of interesting information. What prompted you to make a new version of it?

‘It was definitely the music by Delibes that convinced me to create a new version of Sylvia. I knew the music from my Royal Ballet School period, when I danced In Ashton’s version myself. So I was already familiar with this wonderful piece of music. When I was asked at a press conference whether I could imagine making a new version of the full-length Coppélia, I immediately said no, but suddenly got the idea that Sylvia might be a possibility. Brigitte Lefèvre from the Paris Opera then contacted me straight away and said, “We’d like you to come and make a new version of Sylvia for us.” I made the commitment on the basis of the music, but then I had to start working with the libretto, which turned out to be more problematic than I’d imagined. I had previously created a work for the Paris Opera.’

How did you transform Ariosto and Tasso’s complex libretto, and what is the essence of your version?

‘If you’re dealing with the dramatic structure of a ballet and it’s based on literature, I think it’s always important to go as far back to the source as possible, because we don’t dance the words themselves but ‘why’ the words were written. What is the motivation and what are the active verbs behind the words? I went back to Torquato Tasso. The libretto used for the first version is so complicated and absurd that I used very little of it. When you read Tasso, there is a sensuality in that pastoral play that is similar to the music in a way. And from there on it was important to me to create a collection of characters in whom I could believe, and whose motives I could defend and say yes – such a person could really exist. Sylvia, for example, is a clear case of a girl obsessed with ambition, which we can easily understand in the dance world and the world of athletics. We have this fixation about being the best, so that we can become immersed in our work to the extent that we give up everything else.

And then we have Aminta, who I see as a sort of Charlie Chaplin; a kind of character who’s both sincere and humble and effaces himself to the point that he can’t break through Sylvia’s ambition. And then the manipulative character of Diana, who’s so absurd that she’s important. In the original version, she only appeared for one and a half minutes at the end of the piece in a tableau. I knew it was important for us to understand the relationship of Sylvia the ‘athlete’ with her mistress. So I’ve given it a Shakespearean dimension; the fact that she isn’t what she says she is. Because we know from mythology that she had a secret lover: Endymion. And so we understand that this person who lays down the law is a human being at the same time, with human, fallible qualities.

And then there are the characters Orion and Amor. Amor is necessary as a personification of the idea of love. He comes to earth to seduce Sylvia and help her discover her sensuality. By finding these characters that shaped my storyline, I arrived at a different structure to the original libretto. The next step was to find a balance with the music which, as I said, formed my main inspiration for the piece. We know that it was a very advanced score for its time. The audience was not very enthusiastic about it, because they considered it too symphonic. Except for Tchaikovsky, who thought it was so brilliant that he found it difficult to finish his own Swan Lake. I took out some sections of the music and emphasized others. And I added some sections from another ballet by Delibes, La Source, for the character of Diana, as Diana didn’t have any music in the original piece. I then realized that from a choreographic viewpoint I wanted to withstand the 19th-century idea of ballet vocabulary. I wanted a new physical interpretation of the music, and not a parody of it.’

I happened to read online that the process of working with the Paris Opera to set Sylvia wasn’t easy for you. Why was that?

‘It is never easy to create for a company other than your own. I had my own company for a while which consists of people who know how I work. Dialogue is essential during the creation. The first time working together with the Paris Opera about ten years before Sylvia was much harder. The company was not yet as used to and comfortable with choreographers outside of their company. The creation process of Sylvia with the Paris Opera wasn’t easy because I was working on something that is a specific historical part of their tradition, while I approached it with a different way of working and a different vocabulary of movement. The original cast that I was working with was highly cooperative. Manuel Legris and Monique Loudières, Nicholas Le Riche, Elisabeth Platel, José Martinez were all fantastic. Working with a large group is always more difficult. Sylvia is part of the repertoire of the Opera and is often restaged because it forms part of the history of their tradition and at the same time opens new perspectives.’

Delibes, inspired by his contemporary, Wagner, used ‘leitmotivs’ with which he introduced, recurring themes into the structured music. Have you particularly taken that into consideration for your choreography?

‘I appreciate the influence of Wagner in the score of Delibes. The original description of the forest scene is absurd. The music however is very clear. I constructed based on the music of the forest, what I would call the ‘spirit of the forest’. No real creatures but the spirit. The associated language of movement returns where the ‘leitmotiv’ is repeated later in the piece, such as in the scene where Sylvia finds herself in the realm of the senses. We see her repeat the movements from the forest scene. The same with Amor when he returns to earth, he imitates the movements of the shepherds because he himself at this moment changes into a shepherd. The surprising thing is that Delibes wrote the adagio for the last pas de deux which is a summary of the relationship between the main characters and we know that this moment is traditionally the climax, the happy end of the classical ballet. I felt that this should be the same here, except that I felt it was harder to achieve: the fairy-tale of two unifying souls. To me this music has the same depth as the famous adagio pas de deux from Swan Lake. I thought that these two should meet each other but only 35 or 40 years later.’

How did you like working with Dutch National Ballet? Did you know this company previously?

‘At the time I had invited Rudi van Dantzig together with the Dutch National Ballet to perform in one of my festivals in Hamburg and we had several soloists from DNB at one of our galas. But I had not seen the company for a long time which is strange because Hamburg and Amsterdam aren’t located very far from each other. But when you work non-stop and intensively you haven’t much time to spend some place else. It was a very enjoyable experience to work with DNB. It was Ted Brandsen’s choice to add this piece to their repertoire. I think it was a perfect choice because of the familiarity of the dancers with the work of Hans van Manen and of Rudi van Dantzig, who actually make more abstract works. But in this ballet, as I explained to the dancers, the emotion ultimately comes from the movement, so a company being so focused on movement theatre fits to my mind perfectly with this piece. The dancers of DNB were very interested and pleasant to work with. They gave themselves fully during our working time together. All three casts are very interesting in their individual interpretation of this work. The process was very intensive and profound.’

March 2011


About the interviewer:

Gerard Mosterd is a theatre producer, cultural entrepreneur, choreographer, teacher and writer. He danced as a soloist with the English National Ballet and with several international ballet companies. After his dancing career he focused as a choreographer on producing contemporary dance performances based on Eurasian themes, staged annually at Dutch theatres and theatres in South-East Asia. With his agency Kantor Pos Gerard Mosterd brings cutting edge dance productions from Asia to Europe and vice versa. In August an Indonesian version of Stravinsky’s L´Histoire du Soldat, choreographed by Gerard Mosterd will tour the island of Java with a live orchestra and star dancers Miroto, Eko Supriyanto and Sri Qadariatin. For more information see: www.kantorpos.nl or www.gerardmosterd.com.

Reposted from http://www.danspubliek.nl/interview%20JN%20english.htm