Vienna is Not Paris

At the Wiener Staatsoper, Manuel Legris’ Masterworks of the 20th Century is part talent show, part deep emotion

On The Town | Alec Kinnear | March 2012

Rarely has the stage of the Staatsoper appeared so impressive. The curtain opens to reveal dozens of dancers on three levels, the women in gleaming white tutus, the men in black leggings and handsome white shirts. But first impressions are often misleading. So it is with Serge Lifar’s Suite en Blanc.

The audience collectively takes a breath, expecting the full stage to explode in dance. No dice. All but two dancers slowly slink off to the wings. Over the course of the next half hour, the deserted stage is gradually built back up to full, but never does Suite en Blanc manage to equal the thunder of its opening salvo.

Quickly Suite en Blanc turns into a battle of ballerinas, as they parade out one by one to show their dressage qualities.

Highly rated Ludmila Konovalova has finally found costume designers who understand her figure, and for once her kit softens the sharp angles of her powerful body into more graceful curves. She acquits herself well, with Alexis Forabosco and Shane A. Wuerthner providing steady support.

Prima Olge Esina copes better with the absence of story. Esina is regal, each move effortless, beautiful, poised. She unleashes 20 fast pirouettes at the end of her solo to thundering applause.

While the costumes gleam, Suite en Blanc’s steps are fairly bland throughout. High leg extensions. Leaps here and there. Pirouettes and enjambés. It is like a ballet class. We shouldn’t be surprised. Suite en Blanc was put together for the 1943 season in Paris to show off the abilities of the Opéra’s dancers to the occupying Nazis.

Its choreographer Lifar was the one personality the French got to keep from Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Balanchine and Fokine left to America. While an important part of French ballet history, the work is little more than that. Lifar himself described Suite en Blanc as a "true parade of technique, a demonstration of developments in contemporary dance."

Happily, Nils Christie’s Before Nightfall is as deep as Suite en Blanc is shallow.

Built on the music of Bohuslav Martinů’s Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani, Before Nightfall is a voyage into profound feeling. Dark colours and dim lights left us in the solitariness of the woods. Elegant costumes, with bare arms and the men bare to the midriff.

Ketevan Papava, the only principal ballerina not performing in Suite en Blanc, quickly made an impression with her long expressive arms. In principle, she was in a dream couple with Eno Peci. Alas, Peci while both beautiful and dancing well enough, didn’t seem to have his head in the game, so Papava had to carry all the drama of the opening set herself.

Liudmila Konovalova and Mihail Sosnovschi put in a perfectly satisfactory performance as the third couple, but with less flair than Papava-Peci or Poláková-Lazik. In contrast, the supporting couples were astonishingly good, particularly Ionna Avraam, whose talent continues to menace the stars ahead of her and the three men Richard Szabó, Masayu Kimoto and Davide Dato.

The final work of the evening was Roland Petit’s L’Arlésienne. Petit is most famous for Death and the Young Man (1946). An equally tragic love story, L’Arlésienne came much later, in 1974. With a casting of real life couple Maria Yakovleva and Kirill Kourlaev, hopes were high for an incredibly moving and powerful experience.

The curtains open on half a dozen women in peasant dress costume, dancing a jig with a half dozen men looking like Italian sailors, against a Van Gogh backdrop. George Bizet’s loud and relentlessly cheerful L’Arlésienne Suites Number 1 and 2, sounding almost Soviet, hits you over the head like a marching band.

Kourlaev’s character Frédéri is experiencing pre-marriage jitters. By the time he is naked to the waist and losing his mind, the intensity picks up a bit. Still, Kourlaev seemed to be holding back and not dancing with his usual abandon, perhaps not fully recovered from a recent leg injury. Despite their real life romance, Yakovleva and Kourlaev are not a particularly expressive couple on stage.

The evening is called "Masterworks of the 20th Century". A more fitting name would be "Productions danced by Opéra de Paris during Manuel Legris’ time as a dancer". The only piece worth rescuing is Before Nightfall.

One can see why the Opéra de Paris might want to replay its history, but why use tired French works when there is a world of fresh choreography out there, and many true masterworks to perform? Indeed, it is only Manuel Legris’ second small misstep as artistic director of the Vienna State Opera Ballet, after a confusing Marie Antoinette at the Volksoper. It is nevertheless worrisome that Legris seems to be working with an eye more on Paris than Vienna.

General Director Dominique Meyer of the Vienna Staatsoper has just signed a five year contract extension. Hopefully he can keep Legris’ mind on Vienna, whose best calling card would be to turn the Vienna State Opera Ballet into a world class company performing original work – not a second string clone of the Opéra de Paris.

Fortunately Before Nightfall is a strong enough piece to reward an evening out.

The Volksoper will borrow some dancers from the Staatsoper for another original production, Carmina Burana by new Volksoper ballet director Vesna Orlic with her dancers András Lukács and Boris Nebyla on 2 Mar. The score includes Ravel’s Bolero, Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun and Carl Orff’s eponymous Carmina Burana. Volksoper dancers like Florian Hurler, Samuel Colombet, Ekaterina Fitzka and Gala Jovanovic, who are normally confined to operetta and musicals, will have a chance to shine in original choreography.

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