28 August, 2011

Review: Scottish Ballet

Photo: Andrew Ross
By Alice Longhurst

A flock of red costumed Scottish Ballet dancers frolic flat footed to the sublime strains of Mozart’s First Violin Concerto. This is Kings 2 Ends, a stunning new work by Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo, commissioned for the Edinburgh International Festival 2011. Employing unconventional movements which transcend classical restrictions and push the edges of their capabilities, Elo’s dancers engage in a physicality which seems both reassuringly organic and at times even absurd.

During lifts performers bobble their heads from side to side, and accurate group work sequences are broken by robotic chops and whole body undulations, lending the production originality and humour. The influence of Elo’s ice hockey background is obvious here in the speed at which dancers spin around the stage, twisting and gliding rather than using stiff en pointe pirouettes.

Although there is no clear narrative and the sparse costumes and set do not provide much visual information, the choreography and music speak for themselves, engaging the imagination so we form our own conclusions. This is aided by the striking choice of music, with Elo setting Mozart beside Steve Reich’s almost mathematical Double Sextet and using long punctuating silent sequences. The contrast between all three of these elements works well, giving an overall effect which is both exuberant and irreverent.

Balancing Elo’s contemporary work, the second part of the evening is graced by Kenneth MacMillan’s legendary Song of the Earth. The ballet is a physical setting of Mahler’s great song cycle Das Lied von der Erde and the staging is deliberately pared down to allow the dark power of the music to shine through. Dancers share the stage with mezzo soprano Katarina Karnéus and tenor Peter Webb who sing Mahler’s six songs taken from ancient Chinese poetry in the original German.

The poetry and choreography explore the eternal themes of love, death and loss, and this universality works well with both the Chinese motifs in Mahler’s music and the German language adaptations of poems from T’ang dynasty China. Physically, movements crackle with emotional energy, dominated by the ominous central trio - the man, woman and the ever present and benign Messenger of Death.

Although links between the two pieces are hard to spot, the intentionally bold contrasts between and within them are refreshing and feel original. Following on from Elo’s irreverent organic new work, MacMillan’s mighty Song of the Earth seems all the more resonant and poignant. Scottish Ballet’s performance is at once stunning and thought-provoking, proving the company’s ability to excel both in challenging contemporary works and classical masterpieces.

Scottish Ballet

Kings 2 Ends Jorma Elo
Song of the Earth Kenneth MacMillan

Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Sian Edwards Conductor
Katarina Karnéus Mezzo soprano
Peter Wedd Tenor

Friday 26 – Sunday 28 August, 7.30pm
The Edinburgh Playhouse

Book tickets at eif.co.uk/scottishballet

The Edinburgh International Festival runs from 12 August – 4 September. Browse and book online at eif.co.uk or call 0131 473 2000.

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