Michelangelo – Sculpting Dance in Living Marble

In Linz, a new ballet about the inner torments of one of the world’s most famous artists

Sculpted: Irene Bauer, Matej Pajgert, Fabrice Jucquois, Anna Štěrbová and Martin Dvořák | Photo: Ursula Kaufmann

The stage juts out into the audience; as the curtains open we see a tableau vivant of a sculpting studio in motion. The orchestra fills the deep back of the theatre, with the audience both around and between. This was just the first of several successful staging decisions of the evening. With the orchestra pit closed and the orchestra at the back of the hall, the Landestheater Linz becomes a magnificent concert hall.

Once again, the music in Jochen Ulrich’s new ballet, called Michelangelo, is outstanding. Here he chose Arvo Pärt’s Collage Über B-A-C-H, Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten and Spiegel in Spiegel, and finally Pärt’s Lamentate for Piano and Orchestra. From Britten we have the Requiem. Despite the two nominally very different composers, sonically the evening holds together perfectly. It is a complete and powerful ballet score.

Fortunately, both subject and dance are up to the music. Ulrich has found, across so many centuries, in the figure of Michelangelo une âme soeur. Like his protagonist, Ulrich has lived an often lonely and tempestuous life of creation, although he sculpts not in stone, but with live bodies.

Michelangelo’s problems are Ulrich’s very own; his personal relationship to his subject matter has stirred Ulrich’s deepest powers.

Ulrich’s underlying conceit is to divide Michelangelo’s role between three dancers. This time, the three incarnations are not sequential but simultaneous. Michelangelo’s “id” dances with his “ego” and “superego”. A real artist surely holds several personalities within himself – from charming to vicious, from naïve to lascivious – so the division quickly seems quite natural and sensible instead of contrived.

Much of the first act is a moving sculpture of naked men, portraying how Michelangelo learns his craft from Ancient Greek models and subsequently creates his David. Michelangelo then copes with success and the patrons who frequent his atelier, seducing both him and his lovers. White-gowned women appear and fill the studio with another tragic energy: All of Michelangelo’s women are either Madonnas or harlots.

Ulrich bravely attempts to convey the discussions about art and religion held between Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonnna, an Italian noblewoman and poet who was long the artist’s close friend. Long-time Ulrich muse Irene Bauer offers a deep and reflective performance as Colonna, but even she struggles with this bit of the libretto. Verbal nuance and philosophy are complicated to communicate through dance.

Ulrich’s rendition of the creation of the individual masterpieces like David, Study on Piety and Leda with the Swan are the strongest moments.

At the end of the first act there is a troubled scene with a man in ecclesiastical robes who represents one of Michelangelo’s patrons. This arrogant figure, convincingly portrayed by Ziga Jereb, steals Michelangelo’s lovers. But the bedroom scenes on either side of the projected stage lack the clarity of the rest of the ballet and border on the sordid.

And unfortunately, in the second half, Ulrich is a victim of his own success. He has shown us the process of creation and revealed Michelangelo’s complicated relationships with lovers, collaborators and patrons. The ballet can now only repeat itself: creations of new works with the same agonies.

The threes sides of Michelangelo are found in the roles of Martin Dvořák, Wallace Jones and Fabrice Jucquois. Dvořák, in his long robe, long beard and long hair, seems to carry Michelangelo’s spirit in him. For him it must surely be a dream role: to incarnate one of the greatest and most tormented artists in history.

Jucquois’ portrayal of Michelangelo’s love is more strained. While his movement is adequate, he lacks his colleagues’ reflective depth and resonance.

Wallace Jones, representing Michelangelo’s physical side, is in top form and particularly gorgeous. With wide eyes, succulent lips and a lissom frame, we believe in this incarnation of Renaissance sensuality. He handles the most challenging lifts of the other male dancers, including the not insubstantial Dvořák and Jucquois, with aplomb.

In fact, the pas de trois with the three Michelangelos are occasionally magnificent. This is some of the strongest male-on-male choreography I have seen either here or abroad.

Stefan Weinert’s art direction is precise and deserves praise for its transparency. With a bare minimum of costume and decorations, Weinert builds imaginary palaces, sculpting studios, the Sistine Chapel. A great white block, which fills a third of the stage, is the only substantial prop. Ulrich’s dancers, with their attitudes and poses, create all the rest.

It has been four years since Weinart and Ulrich have collaborated; one hopes we will not have to wait so long for their next work. Indeed, the right art director helps a choreographer achieve greatness.

Ulrich’s Michelangelo is a masterpiece and well worth the one-and-a-half-hour train ride to Linz from Vienna. And after the performance, don’t miss dining in the Promenadenhof, which has a direct entrance from the theatre to avoid the winter cold.


Upcoming performances:
11, 15, 18, 23 Dec., 6 Jan., 8 Feb.,
Landestheater Linz: Grosses Haus
Promenade 39, 4010 Linz
(0732) 76110

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