27 August, 2009

Festival Blogger review - The Return of Ulysses (Royal Ballet of Flanders)

Image: The Return of Ulysses. Photo: Photo: Johan Persson.

German choreographer Christian Spuck presents a heady take on The Return of Ulysses, an adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey. The production blends ancient myth with modern times to tell the story of long suffering Penelope, Queen of Ithaca, whose husband Ulysses left home over 20 years ago to fight the Trojan War. It delves into Penelope’s life in his absence to discover whether her love for him is strong enough to stand the test of time.

The Royal Ballet of Flanders returns to the Edinburgh International Festival, with Eva Dewaele cast as the tormented Penelope. The musical choices are one of the most interesting aspects of the show, the cast dances to an eclectic combination of Purcell, performed by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and 40s and 50s songs, including Perry Como and Doris Day. Welsh soprano Elin Manahan Thomas also sings live on stage throughout the performance. In keeping with the music, the dancers vary between classical ballet and contemporary dance moves, some of which are so unusual they have the audience laughing.

The show opens with seven dancers dressed in black suits dancing in near darkness. The lights come up to reveal a simple set, with blackboard style walls, one adorned with tallies and a table with an old-fashioned tape recorder. We see a dejected Penelope wearing a crown, waiting for her husband to return.

Penelope has a bunch or roses, a recurring feature, which she gives out throughout the performance seeming to represent the hope of her husband coming back disappearing bit by bit. During the years of his absence the seven power-mad suitors we saw at the beginning, don’t care for Penelope but arrogantly attempt to court the assumed widow in order to inherit the kingdom. However, she only has eyes for Ulysses and continuously turns them down.

A model ship is seen at points throughout, representing Ulysses travels. The goddess Athena is personified as a platinum blonde air hostess in a gold suit with a megaphone, giving announcements about not smoking and demonstrating safety procedures, sometimes accompanied by the rest of the dancers. She appears on stage regularly as if to remind Penelope and Ulysses that she is in charge of their destiny. At points the stage fills with dancers in more colourful outfits, the gemstone shades of purple, blue and green have a regal feel. There are also appearances from Poseidon wearing flippers, goggles and a giant tutu, much to the audience’s amusement. In an attempt to escape the suitors’ demands that Penelope choose one of them as a new husband, she creates a plan to buy her time by making her bridal dress each day and then undoing the work by night, her days become monotonous, depicted in her dancing.

When we see Ulysses he is usually dancing with Athena, who keeps him from his wife. She decides to allow him to go back on the condition that he goes in disguise, to confront Penelope’s suitors. Penelope does not recognize him and he dances back and forth between her and Athena. The suitors steal Penelope back and challenge the still disguised Ulysses to a fight.

Penelope’s dancing becomes less and less graceful throughout, the music becomes violent as she is passed roughly around the suitors. Even with all the attention she continues her dedication to Ulysses. At one point the entire cast is dancing around her with various props and different sequences, yet she stands motionless, yearning for her husband.

Despite her plan, finally Penelope’s dress is completed and the suitors are still adamant that she must marry one of them. She suggests they fight for her love and the disguised Ulysses takes part, killing all the others. Penelope still doesn’t recognize him and continues to grieve, dancing alone in front of a black wall which has been moved to the front of the stage. The singing of Elin Manahan Thomas creates a truly melancholy scene.

Finally the gods allow Ulysses to visit Penelope without his disguise, she is convinced, they are finally reunited and the play concludes as they dance alone to a French version of 'Beyond the sea'.

This take on The Return of Ulysses balanced traditional ballet with the absurdity of modern day life beautifully. The combination of classical ballet with dancers in sharp, modern suits, unusual music choices and the appearances of a Greek god and goddess in entirely unconventional form made this production a compelling and memorable experience.

Reviewer: Sarah Jackson

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