It is a massively exciting departure to see Cape Town City Ballet tackle contemporary and neo-classical dance. For so long the company has remained in its comfort zone of pure classical ballets, and eyebrows and pulses were raised when, earlier this year, it was announced that it would be teaming up with the renowned Hamburg ballet in a performance of Nijinsky-inspired works by American choreographer John Neumeier.
Spring & Fall, Vaslav and Le Sacre are individual works in a triple bill performance. All the works have an empty stage with absolutely no décor or embellishments other than a creative lighting design which accentuates the movement and creates a theatrical atmosphere, particularly in Le Sacre. Similarly, plain simple costumes are used: an elegant white in Spring & Fall, a bold green in Vaslav and a neutral brown in Le Sacre which renders the dancers almost naked – perfect for the wild natural savagery of the piece.
Spring & Fall – much of which was originally created for the Njinsky Gala XVII – is a sequence of ceaseless free flowing movement, with the dancers constantly running on and off stage. The neo-classical movement vocabulary sees beautiful extensions and lines which include unexpected jerking and isolated movement. Unfortunately the tendency of a number of corps dancers to lag behind every now and again detracts from the impact of the strong and precise choreography. Redeeming this, international principal dancers Alexander Riabko and Silvia Azzoni of the Hamburg Ballet perform a sensual, playful and absolutely memorizing pas de deux. Besides the strong chemistry between them, Riabko and Azzoni each have an ability to naturally engage with the audience, making it almost impossible to tear your eyes away.
Neumeier created the ballet Vaslav in dedication to the fascinating life and work of the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky. The choreography fluctuates from intricate little nuances including Nijinsky’s iconic faun hands to explosive movement, epitomizing the chaotic mind of the disturbed man the Parisians named “the god of dance”. On an unusual set in which the dancers perform to the accompaniment of a live on-stage pianist (Pieter Rooi) the lead role is performed once again by the breathtaking Alexander Riabko who isolates himself from the other dancers both mentally and physically.
But the highlight of the evening is undoubtedly Neumeier’s version of the The Rite of Spring (or Le Sacre du Printemps), Le Sacre. Under Tim Murray, the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra perform the original score by Igor Stravinsky with aching emotion. The hairs on the necks of the audience can almost be heard to be rising at the first notes of the notorious and eerie score. Unlike the other pieces, Le Sacre employs the full cast, reducing and then swelling the numbers on stage to create an anxiously intimidating ambience. The vocabulary is repetitive and hypnotic with hopping, bouncing, nodding and even head banging movements. It is utterly wonderful to see these classical dancers all fully committed to attacking the awkward isolated movements of the choreography.
Mesmerizing and beautifully lit group images are created in which bodies are tangled and only extremities like arms and legs are visible. Elaborate partner work sees dancers shift one another’s weight and pull each other on and off balance. During Le Sacre, the individual performers have a completely deadpan expression throughout, as though it is their nature that drives them, rather than their emotions.
The only emotion is seen in the two powerful solos – lead roles performed, refreshingly, by relatively unfamiliar faces from Cape Town City Ballet. Engaging, intense and robust, young dancer Milwhynne Williams dominates the vigorous choreography with powerful leaps and strong definite movement, while Sarah-Lee Chapman gives an exhilarating and expressive final solo. Like the original work, she dances to her death by nailing the progressive explosive movement.
A huge applause to Cape Town City Ballet which has taken the bull by the horns and exceeded all expectation. The choreography which premiered over 100 years ago is still fully able to shock, but this time the overwhelming reaction from the audience is one of sheer delight.
Cape Town City Ballet’s Spring & Fall runs at the Artscape Theatre 26 to 30 September 2014.