WELLINGTON REVIEW: Trois Grandes Fugues (NZ Festival)

Review by Brigitte Knight

[Beethoven Goes On]

Lyon Opera Ballet’s Trois Grandes Fugues is curated not without an element of risk; a collection of three choreographies set to the same composition – Beethoven’s Die Grosse Fugue Op.133 – performed one after the other in a single programme. Written in 1824/5 by the almost-deaf Beethoven, Die Grosse Fugue Op.133 is described by critics as his most problematic work; it was considered “incomprehensible”, “inaccessible” and “undecipherable” by Beethoven’s contemporaries, “immortal and forever modern” by Stravinsky, and particularly difficult to play by almost everyone. The popularity and appreciation for the broad emotive beauty of the music has grown steadily since the turn of the last century, making Die Grosse Fugue Op.133 ideal for exploration in a programme of this style.

Opening the programme is Lucinda Childs’ Grande Fugue, danced to a recording by Lyon Opera Orchestra conducted by Bernhard Kontarsky. Costumed in shades of grey and performed under dappled light, designer Dominique Drillot has ensured the escapist, somewhat ethereal tradition of classical ballet is retained, if slightly expanded. Created in 2016, Grande Fugue is the newest of the three choreographies, yet the most conservative and traditional in terms of style and movement vocabulary. A piece for twelve dancers, paired as six couples, the work celebrates the precision and elegance of classical ballet technique, with particular attention to arabesque alignments, the exploration of direction, and the creative manipulation of choreographic structure. The work is not en pointe, and the women are in unitards not tutus, so the overall impression of Grande Fugue is that of a neoclassical work whose strengths are technical clarity and a graceful, abstract tone.

A stunningly confident and utterly different treatment of the music is evident from even before the dancers take the stage in Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Die Grosse Fugue. The exposed lighting rig and unusually-timed dropping of the house lights (designed by Jan Joris Lamers) gently questions the collectively-respected illusion of the fourth wall, an effect echoed later by dancers’ gaze and sparingly-used live voice. Eight dancers (six men, two women) costumed by Rosas Company in black suits with white shirts are masters of a sophisticated, asexual and thoroughly modern movement vocabulary. De Keersmaeker’s masterful manipulation of motif and development, unison and canon deliver an earthy, hearty, volcanically-energised contemporary ballet that is at once effortlessly rich and brilliantly simple. Fed with a diet of rolling floorwork, running, and wild attack Die Grosse Fugues motors along, inseparable from the music and imbued with subtle detail and refined humour. Although premiered in 1992 De Keersmaeker’s Die Grosse Fugue remains dynamic and absolutely fresh.

The final work of the programme is the vital, layered, and beguiling Grosse Fugue by Maguy Marin, choreographed for four women costumed in bright red street-style skirts and tops designed by Chantal Cloupet. Created in 2001, Marin’s ballet is the boldest and most challenging of the trio. Although underlyingly informed by the ballet canon, Grosse Fugue is relentlessly contemporary; the movement vocabulary has every smooth or rounded or precise edge knocked off it, challenged, roughed-up. The dancers move relentlessly through this choreography, embodying a frantic despair evident in the score, undermining the most essential of classical movements (such as grande jeté) with relaxed knees, collapsed necks, natural feet. Grosse Fugue is a slow burn and not for the faint-hearted; its wildly private detail and pulsing femininity will draw you in if you let them. Marin’s musicality and artistic point of view are clearest in two motifs; distorted classical centre work performed with the upper body in inversion, and sparingly-used unison isolations which are nothing short of brilliant. Lyon Opera Ballet’s Trois Grandes Fugues offers New Zealand Festival patrons a wonderfully contrasting trio of ballets, full of variety and each more contemporary than the last.

Trois Grandes Fugues played the Wellington Opera House 11-12 March. 

Choreographers: Lucinda Childs, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Maguy Marin
Music: Beethoven, Die Grosse Fugue Op.133

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