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Preljocaj: Winterreise/ Khan: Xenos/ Sao Paulo Dance Company: Mixed bill

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In going through the performance calendar of a number of companies for the current season, I realised that I’d be able to see three works that had been on my wish list within the space of just three days, thus creating a short ballet-related trip, and saving much of the far higher expenses of repeated travelling to Paris where two of the programmes feature at different points of time during this season.


First stop Ballet Preljocaj with Winterreise in Metz last Thursday. Winterreise to Schubert’s song cycle was created by Angelin Preljocaj on the Ballet of La Scala in Milan, had its premiere there at the beginning of 2019, and has been performed by Angelin Preljocaj’s own company since summer 2019. A work for twelve dancers, magnificently accompanied live by James Vaughan (pianoforte) and Thomas Tatzl (bass baritone, with a velvety voice). Choreography and scenography are inspired by the music and text of each song rather than following them literally, and I found that they capture the atmosphere of each song magnificently.

The 1st song (Goodnight) sees a dancer being pushed away by the rest of the group (there isn’t anyone in particular though who specifically portrays the man who goes on the winter’s journey), and the 2nd song (Weather Vane) has a dancer holding a hand fan into another dancer’s face/ moving it around his head. While the 4th song is called Numbness, the music is energetic, and so the movements are hectic and come with various jumps, portraying the emotions within. Equally, whereas the first few songs had male/ female interaction, this song, while having all 12 dancers on stage, sees male and female dancers in their respective groups. The 5th song (Lime Tree) is back to a PDD, with the female dancer depicting the tree and the male dancer seeking comfort by hugging and carrying the tree. Song no 8 (Looking Back) for 6 female dancers introduces skirts, illustrating the longing look back to the village and the woman that had to be left behind. While the costumes up to this point have all been in black, song no 10 (Rest) introduces autumnal colours for the women on stage. Colours also for song no 11 (Dream of Spring) with its references to spring, birds and flowers. Song no 13 (Post) sees dancers carrying sheets of paper (akin to the letter that the sole man was hoping for in vain), the lighting is much brighter than that for many of the other songs, and the uplifting atmosphere shines through in high lifts and white skirts. Back to a sombre atmosphere in song 14 (Grey Head) with a male dancer wearing a black mask. Song no 15 (Crow) comes with 6 female dancers in long wide black dresses, illustrating the crow. The barking of dogs in song no 17 (Village) is depicted through dancers emitting sounds that reminded me of dogs. Song no 20 (Signpost) sees a dancer carrying two red strobes such as those of an airport traffic warden directing the planes. The final song, no 24 (Hurdy-Gurdy Man), with female dancers in ghostly long white dresses, which I’ve taken as illustration of said hurdy-gurdy man. While the male dancers lie down on the floor, the ghostly figures stand up again and let snow fall on stage. I’ve read this as the man on his winter journey continuing to wander around rather than succumbing to death but I guess this ending allows for a number of other interpretations just as well. Lighting is rather sombre for most songs, and the floor is covered with small black particles, evoking black snow. The choreography switches between parts for a couple/ a few dancers and all 12 of them throughout the 24 songs. When larger groups of dancers are on stage, they are often spread out equally across stage and in two lines, then performing the same movements, or the same movements but some of them towards the front/ towards the back, or to the left/ to the right, or alternatively in a large circle around someone in the middle, creating an exceptionally harmonic and poetic atmosphere in my view.

I found Winterreise exquisitely poetic, intensely melancholic, dreamy, elegant, atmospheric and emotional, and I just loved the live accompaniment. I was absolutely spellbound (I guess having listened to the songs a few times before the performance helped preparing for what I saw on stage), and I am much hoping to see this work again in the future.

Trailer by the company https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gVnEfFm_xD4

Trailer by the Theatre des Champs Elysees in Paris, where the work was performed earlier this season https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L_tXhoQUJ3E


Followed by Akram Khan’s Xenos in Luxemburg last Friday. An incredibly intense evening. To watch how the former soldier’s trauma is triggered by simple things such stumbling against a chair or table and how the trauma, initialling occasionally, is becoming more and more prevalent, until the 2 musicians leave the stage and all the props on stage are being pulled up the slope. Words on loudspeaker “This is no war. This is the end of the world”. Earplugs had been given out upon entering the auditorium, and there came a part that made it clear why they had been offered to the audience. Very loud dissonant thumping sounds performed by 5 musicians above the slope, evoking the horrors of the trenches and the intensity of the trauma, equally for the audience. Khan rolls down the slope, is covered in earth and climbs back up again with the help of some ropes. A rope is also used to connect a gramophone that then reads out the names of – presumably – fallen fellow soldiers. The trauma is becoming more and more all-encompassing, intense, continuous. Khan relives being shot at/ being injured, and a search light not only scans the stage but also the audience – again extending parts of what the soldier had to live through to those watching the work. Words on loudspeaker along the lines of “alone” … “again” … “alone”. I wish the volume had been turned up a little here but I guess the low voice depicted the extreme solitude/ desperation, and that there was no way out – just as Khan started to turn in fast small circles, illustrating also through his movements that there was just no way out. The piece ends with Lachrymae from Mozart’s Requiem, with Khan cowering on the floor.

Standing ovations by most of the audience, cheers, shouts of bravo. As challenging as it was to watch Xenos, this is a magnificent work, haunting, portraying the isolation and the emotions deep within, the suffering, and sucking in the audience along with it. Huge kudos to Akram Kahn for the mental and physical stamina that Xenos requires, performing more than 60 minutes nonstop for such a tough topic and atmosphere.


Closing off with Sao Paulo Dance Company in Cologne last Saturday, a mixed programme with works by Uwe Scholz (Suite for Two Pianos), Cassi Abranches (Agora) and Marco Goecke (Supernova).

Suite for Two Pianos uses Rachmaninov’s eponymous work in four parts as well as four works by Wassily Kandinsky as backcloths, whereby the shapes of each of Kandinsky’s illustrations influence the choreography on stage. Part 1 (the illustration with a number of crosscutting lines, curves, zigzags) for two groups of two male/ one female dancers with symmetric and geometric lines across stage, some throws, some bourrees. Part 2 (the illustration a series of separate dots in different shapes) with sequential solos by two male dancers until they dance side by side towards the end. Part 3 (the illustration a wave-like line with ups and downs) with two male and one female dancers, including lifts upside down, as if portraying the movements by the female dancer as and when she is lifted and passed on from dancer to dancer. Part 4 (the illustration showing the same curve cut across by a number lines, curves and circles) a combination of geometric patterns and smooth movements. I really enjoyed the way the choreography responded to the music and the four works by Kandinsky. Link to a video by the Brazilian-language service of Radio France International https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yntbV0jJvis for a performance of the work in Paris, and showing all four illustrations.

Agora was premiered in summer 2019 and refers to different aspects of time e.g., dynamics and volume, expectations and memories. The music is a combination of percussion, song, rock music, and a clock is ticking at the start and end of the piece. This is very much a group piece, but Yoshi Suzuki stood out for me with a virtuoso solo. Trailer by the company https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-uMYBJ0d5us. This work wasn't exactly my cup of tea but received the loudest cheers of the evening.

Supernova refers to the light that is briefly emitted when a star explodes. The piece starts with the dancers throwing white particles into the air – a star is exploding. Trademark incredibly fast arm movements, shuffling across stage, dancers appearing and disappearing in the darkness at the back of the stage - stars appearing and then fading out once they've exploded?. Lights are briefly lit, long grey feathers are waved – some more stars exploding? Standout for me this time was Nielson Souza with his shuffling and arm movements at – so it felt – the speed of light. Trailer by the company https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0bzNJl6W_a0.


A company that I hadn’t seen live previously (Ballet Preljocaj), another work by Akram Khan that I’ve been able to add to my list of works that have deeply touched me, and a company that I hadn’t seen in the past at all, whether live or otherwise (Sao Paulo Dance Company).

Short, really good and pretty intense three days (and the longest post that I’ve ever written?). The current weekend is much needed time off.



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