Dual Danube Ballets

Love, jeaolusy and death in both Vienna and Bratislava

Erika Kovacova as the seductive Carmen, playing at the Volksoper through February | Photo: Dima Dimov

The advertising for both ballet productions was surprisingly similar: A beautiful woman in a stark pose. In Vienna, Georgian dancer Ketevan Papava holds a fan high in the air, as her red lace dress slips off her left shoulder as Carmen. In Bratislava, a mystic woman surrounded by emerald demons glares out at the world from the peaks of Mount Everest. One would not think this poster was for a home-grown production.

Behind both ads lies a single explanation: an attempt to widen ballet audiences and boost attendance with sexy, accessible productions. Mario Radačovský, the producer of Everest, wanted “to create a commercial production which audiences all over the world can relate to.” The intention of the Viennese Staatsoper was similar: to highlight what is at the center of almost all great dance: love, jealousy and death. By picking up Carmen yet again, the house is banking on an almost sure hit and still gets credit for an ostensibly new production.

A few more things unite the stage events in the twin cities along the Danube: a real effort in terms of staging; full-scale, full-cast performances; mixtures of live and recorded ambient music; and sexy advertising. Beyond all this, what can be said about the two premieres?

Carmen

Measured against 25 other Carmens, the question of why another one comes up. The answer is not the dance itself. Choreographer Davide Bombana’s steps don’t keep up with some other productions. The action was great as the lead worker Erika Kovacova bore down fiercely on Nina Polakova’s Carmen; but at the crucial moment of body contact, Bombana panicked and went for wide air swings instead of either woman-on-woman lifts or hands-on-throat strangling.

On the other hand, one of the choreographic successes Bombana enjoyed is in the love scenes. His dancers pivot in the air with both legs fully extended. They fall back and are caught in a sideways roll. Both Carmen’s ruthless seduction of José and Irina Tsymbal’s plea for his love impress. Polakova, while a pretty and strong dancer, seemed to be a little bit too cool for the ostensibly hot-blooded Carmen. But Tsymbal hit exactly the right note of tragic tenderness. It hurt us to watch her pain.

The greatest faux pas took place in the second half at the entrance of the matador and left half the audience laughing stupidly and the other half reeling. He is preceded by four transvestite gypsy dancers with half naked bosom. They do an absurd flamenco lasciviously flaunting their non-existent charms. This little bit of Cage-aux-Folles kitsch made no sense and risked reducing the whole production to parody. When the matador finally appears, he’s been transformed into a bull. As Carmen lays down on her back and hip-humps a man with bull horns on his head the effect was more like a surrealistic porn film than anything else.

While the musical foundation is Bizet, the orchestra stops playing for long stretches (half of them watch the dance with vivid interest, the other look down in dejected shock, wondering why Bizet has been so rudely interrupted) for interjections of ambient noise. There are five more composers on the program, including arrangist Béla Fischer.

Of the men, only Denys Cherevychenko impressed. While too young to fully master the role of bandit chief García, he made up for his youth with pyrotechnical flips and flourishes. If he keeps his eye on the dramaturgy and not just impressing his fellow dancers, he’s a dancer to watch.

Bombana’s Carmen was originally a one-act show. At the end of the evening one feels that he stretched his material a bit thin to make a two-acter out of it. The story of Carmen is so strong that it doesn’t really need all of this frippery to touch. One wishes Bombana had spent more time refining the dance and less time working on tricks. Still my companion had tears in her eyes when Carmen throws herself on José’s knife rather than live another day with him. The dancers’ enthusiasm, the story and Bizet’s music make Carmen an excellent dance evening.

Carmen comes again on Dec. 5, Jan. 24 and 28, Feb. 2. Tickets from 2 to 65 euros.
www.volksoper.at.

 

Everest

After arriving two years ago in Bratislava from Montreal, Slovak National Ballet Director Mário Radačovský has now staged his second full-length evening work. Everest seeks to communicate four stages of existence: life, death, after-life and resurrection. But the theology is definitely more pagan than Christian. Everest begins with the crawling and fluttering of Lemurans, the half-animal half-man inhabitants who antedate Atlantis.

To meet these lofty ambitions Radačovský has used more lights and smoke than the flashiest Andrew Lloyd Webber production in the West End. In technical terms Everest is as ambitious a production as I’ve seen in a ballet theater.

The upside of Everest is a live choir. The downside is the score. Unlike the lyrics that rocket back and forth between camp and profound, the music remains resolutely shallow. The pop clichés of sad moans and synthetic chords don’t match at all the wonders we see on stage.

In the beginning, Everest contrasts the bustle of the city and ethereal retreat. In the second, the fog machines are left to run while lasers move slowly up and down through what looks now like rocking clouds. Up until half time, though, we see scant little dance after the crawling of the Lemurans. The piece is more made up of still-lifes and effects. The effects are so strong that one feels one is inside a life-size videogame just in front on stage.

Finally the full cast strolls slowly out and lays candles at the front of the stage. As a group they perform a synchronised choreography. At the back of the stage, there is a miniature mountain. Some of the dancers head back to it and dance their way up to the top. But this splendid scene was the end and not the beginning. When the lights come down only the candles burn alone at the front of the stage. A wonder how after all the lasers and fog, a lighted row of forty simple candles can touch an audience so deeply.

Everest is a colossal production that easily fills two acts. If anything it is too much. But if you like your theater big and flashy, the pyrotechnics are worth the hour-long journey, as even the best tickets are almost free.

Like politicians, both Carmen and Everest seem to have lost their bearings a little bit in their pursuit of popular acclaim. Dance is beautiful in its simplicity. Effects should be there to enhance a piece not to distract from it. Will appealing to audiences’ sweet tooth with Broadway effects bring new visitors to the ballet? You decide.

Everest won’t return until February 2010.
Book your seats here:  www.snd.sk/?box-office
Schedule in English: www.snd.sk/?program-8&mesiac=12.

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