Betroffenheit-Sadler’s Wells – May 31 2016

How do you tell the story of a breakdown? You can either, Wozzeck like, show a man put upon, defeated, and we observers watch this downfall, or one can, as in this work, journey into a mind, to feel, to see and hear pain and trauma.

And “what a mind was here overthrown”, and what minds here elevate that to a work of substantial poetry. Crystal Pite, Kidd Pivot and Electric Company Theatre collaborate to bring one of the strangest yet powerful things I have seen on a stage.

Straight confessional would be boring, and best left to a psychologist’s couch. Stage movement here, whether acting or dancing, has to be metaphor for suffering. And there is, one gathers through the fractured, murky lines of text, in the dance, voice, music –  as one picks one’s way through a narrative anything but clear – suffering.

Why though? Why suffering? A little background reading after the show reveals it is co-creator Jonathon Young‘s catharsis, or rather, re-suffering. An act enacting pain as if to come to terms with it.

Part one is the phantasmagoria. The scene is set in what appears to be a sanatorium. It is peopled by non-sequitur and oddities.A  parody vaudeville act, Brazilian music and show girls, a spangly “King of Comedy”-esque duo (Young and the fantastic Jermaine Maurice Spivey) comes out to entertain. A tap-dancer (David Raymond) menaces Young. Playback voices cut up and judder and assault the ear.  Cartoon-esque nightmare figures grapple protagonist Young. A clown-woman (Tiffany Tregarthen, I believe) pushes a box onstage. Young climbs into it. She pushes it around a bit. It later comes back onstage to haunt him. Is this where he represses his pain? Or where he hides?

Dancers mime in grotesque over-the-top gestures to piped in dialog. Young engages in duologue with another speaker, perhaps himself. The speaker offers psychological babble to console him. There was much talk of “self directed, self percolating” outcomes, starts which became perpetual starts and hence fail. The duologue entangled in itself, chasing its own foundation and tail, and failing. Guilt strangles sense.

A philosopher said once “Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs; he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter”. Nietzsche perhaps never thought laughter in the dark would be so chilling as here. Betroffenheit’s comedy only pushes alienation into one’s face. This is desperate life, despair from the depths of pain, laughter as defence.  Would that there was more laughter here, but it is not its remit. The comedy is levity, acutely judged, balanced and paced.

In performance and conception, Betroffenheit is resolutely post modern, Post-Bauschian. Bausch has involuted, shared insular worlds, festivals/spectacles of the absurd. Pite’s vision by contrast is here, the opposite: an engagement with a self: direct anxious questioning, a mind grappling with itself.

The insight into a mind fracturing then is painful, intensely so. Recursive, repeated patterns of recorded speech suggest nightmare of entrapment. This is not so much regression, as obsession. This is postmodern theatre and dance, and feels like it. It doesn’t so much pose question as demand them from the viewer. “Who is this man?” what’s happened to him?” and too a bit of “what’s going on?”. This is theatre of aporia.

After the havoc and chaos, the human spill of part one, came part two, which was here, almost pure dance. Here Pite’s dance language came to the fore, and Kidd Pivot thrilled. Jerky movements, group “strobing”, incredible synchronicity. The register was throughout kinetic, frantic, clamorous, exactly as the title of the piece connotes. Nuances of rictus crept in, disconcerting to watch.

Individual solos were graceful, articulate in design and expression, and group work was eye popping, the more so because I believe Mr Young has no formal dance training!

He was chased by the other dancers, pulled about as if a plaything, caught in time-freezing falls and poses, thrilling to see. Notable here was the animalistic trembling from all: palms on the floor, biceps quick-quivering in unison. Uncanny, un-human, almost. Young aped the same movement and was later left onstage alone. Head bowed, scampering on the floor slowly, he became devoid of face and thus became only form, movement: how quickly the mind forgets identity.

Spivey’s final solo showed off his remarkable skills, hints of “popping”, his facility with strobing, micromovements, and too, later, virtuoso tumbling and twirls and spins. All was mesmerising. One wonders, given Sellars’ same utilisation of dancers with street style as their focus, if similar dance forms might find poetic expression in contemporary theatre? I am thinking in particular of jookin’, whose grace and dignity or motion could lend grace and comment to anything which could so utilise it*.

Right near the end all that consoles Young is an embrace in the hush. Throughout, there has been depersonalisation, disorientation. Here, a moment of humane tenderness. Redemption, almost. One felt that in this quiet undisturbed by music, movement, audience noise, the moment would last for ever.

Watching Betroffenheit, one thinks of new syncretisms, new developments within the performing arts. It is thrilling to see the interstices of drama, comedy and dance create something so refreshingly whole. And technically, what a tour de force of theatre. Tom Visser‘s lighting demands precise cues and fast changes, a real workout I imagine for any technician. Nancy Bryant‘s costuming, 70’s sequins, showgirl feathers, modern-wear, nightmare-wear, must merely hint at her versatility and imagination. Owen Belton, Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe‘s sound and composition underpin the whole strange work, sound in particular being used to amplify stage drama.

Granted, more could be done perhaps to explicate the meanings within the piece, especially in the first half. Its narrative, for those of us with no programmes was – purposefully? – opaque. This was less story than experience, sound and fury suggesting much. Nevertheless, it presented trauma from which one cannot turn away and, confronts us with dance of striking power of concept.It unsettles, and in art, sometimes that is to be applauded as it was here, by those who, realising what they had witnessed was brave and beautiful, cheered and applauded.




*which is not to suggest these art forms “appropriate” it, merely that it deserves wider audiences, and the best way to do this might be to couch it in things people will go to see.








Lohengrin, Bayerische Staatsoper, March 31st 2016

I had booked for Klaus Florian Vogt, in the title role of this, one of his fêted roles. I was disappointed to see he was to be replaced. Burkhard Fritz was an unknown singer to me, but by the close of this show, I was won over, indeed, moved by his performance.

Here was a Lohengrin of humanity – and it worked. Fritz’s is not quite the angelic mein of Vogt, the paladin straight from Monsalvat, not the stolid crusader one imagines Robert Dean Smith (another replacement) may have done , nor the dream(swan)boat of Jonas Kaufmann. My fellow opera go-er friend likened him more to looking like a psychiatric nurse. The tracksuit with silver stripes and the blue t-shirt are a world away from more traditional productions. (I recall footage of Domingo in full armour off Youtube…). Director Richard Jones shies away from this imagery, and produces instead a cogent work which moves right to the core of Wagner’s concerns. In the hands of Fritz, the work was done good justice. He doesn’t have the strongest, nor the loudest voice but that’s not his selling point. He made up for any quibbles about his voice by investing his performance with sincerity and belief. the text flowed through him, and the libretto was given depth by virtue of nuance, perhaps more instinct than from study. Partly this may be because he was rather a last minute choice, without much time to prepare and partly too, because Mr Fritz is a stage animal, with good stage instincts. The performance was full of splendid moments.

I like Jones’ staging, where a house is raised almost before an audience’s eyes – much easier to build than a castle! – as it links the two lovers together, and becomes something they share. This Lohengrin’s love for Elsa was pure and strong. He kissed her on the forehead in gentle tenderness when in the house and laid down a cot with the light of hope and promise on his face. The remorse he felt  at Telramund’s slaying was shattering to see.  Knowing his life at Brabant over, we saw his sorrow as he knew that cot would be empty forever. We saw him take it down and then raze the house with fire. The interior journey, its movement from joy then in to pain was fully human, and if not quite in keeping with the idea of a pure Knight of Faith, then forgiveable because affecting, in keeping with Wagner’s setting of a doomed love.

Whereas Vogt often sings”In fernem land” as if witnessing the beatific, a vision as Wagner intended (Nelsons helps here of course), and Kaufmann’s care for cadence and attack work to suggest true nobility, Fritz brought forth from within himself memory, love, a saudade of a kind, and a grief at losing Elsa. His hands held together in contemplation, resolve and prayer, Fritz drew us all to him, and to his story (except the gentleman behind me who noisily cleared his throat as the aria was a few line young.) When remembering his father Lohengrin hugged the invisible form of the King to himself; one saw the grail before him and knew he had seen Monsalvat and loved it, and at the fatal utterance “bin Lohengrin genannt” his voice cracked (with sorrow, not force or shaky technique) at “bin”. Unfeigned, I think, and more powerful for it.

Summoning his swan (“Mein lieber Schwan”) he knelt at front of the stage over the pit and beckoned to its imaginary form, as it came closer he stroked it in affection and love. This was a man for whom Lohengrin the man and Lohengrin the opera mattered, and as such, it mattered for us.

Edith Haller as Elsa had an agile, youthful voice perhaps chosen for its potential match with Vogt. Some greater intensity of acting would have been good to have had, but her pairing with Fritz worked fine.

Günther Groissböck as the King was sonorous and one empathised with his conduct, his difficult position of leadership. Petra Lang seemed a little underpowered when she was not declaiming (but her declaiming “Gott?” was rather chilling!). She could do this role in her sleep I think, and certain critics might charge her with doing so, lately. Thomas J. Mayer as Telramund her husband gave  a strong performance, but not perhaps as evil as I would have liked. Notable for me was one of his henchmen, Tim Kuypers, who lent sincerity to his role and belief in the libretto. A stand-out performance, and a singer to keep an eye on.

Lothar Koenigs‘s conducting was of a generally high quality, but I would have enjoyed a more numinous accent to the opening of the whole work, and some more celestial shading at moments needing it.  (I don’t ask much, right?) The choir of the Staatsoper performed well, but some acting was variable, as was their “you’re on stage” discipline. Shuffling feet and wiping noses may be natural but can be a bit distracting! I enjoyed the fanfare trumpets being distributed around the house, aurally involving the audience, and it was a pleasure to see Utz and Jones’ intelligent staging of this magical text unfold before my eyes. Worth the trip.

A Swan Lake sublime

Swan Lake – Birmingham Royal Ballet – Mathews, Lawrence, Dingman – Jan 28 2016, The Mayflower, Southampton.


John Keats and Russian myth don’t seem at first sight to be related but seeing Delia Mathews and Brandon Lawrence dance together was an event underlining the idea that sometimes truth is really beauty, and beauty truth. In the hands of these strong dance communicators there was here beauty, and so too truth, recognisable as great art.  The Swans may (and to pun, slightly) like Keats ancient vase, be mute, but thanks to Marius Petipa and Birmingham Royal Ballet’s fine body of dancers, they sing in other ways.
The Greeks may not have quite romanticised the Swan as the Germans and Russians did in the 19th Century (Leda is a close comparator, even though Zeus is in his potencies rather more mighty than Rothbart, who is of a more rural, domestic, druidic type of evil) but they surely understood the power of Terpsichore, the Muse of dance, whom they held to be sacred, and the line from her to Petipa and Ivanov is, despite the distance of millennia, traceable at least in shared ideals. Why else do we watch dance, and stories in-dance in particular if not to be edified, or even moved?


Swan Lake – Birmingham Royal Ballet – Mathews, Lawrence, Maslen – October 14th Matinee

Delia Mathews Odette is one of the most exquisite characterisations of the role I have ever had the pleasure to see. (Her Odette is excellent too.) Rarely have I been more moved by the slow story of new love which is the Act II pas de deux. Mathews found the lyricism inherent in the narrative, and matched it with dancing that was beautifully serene. Steps were unrushed and were given “soul”. She found the drama in the dancing.


Ariadne auf Naxos – Mattila, Smith, Archibald, Donose – October 10th 2015 – The Royal Opera House

Part I

Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is a strange thing. Part light comedy (Prologue), part drama (The Opera) and at times a weird mixture of both (The Opera, again). Strauss seems to be playing with our expectations of what those forms of entertainment mean and what they can offer us of value.


The Sleeping Beauty – La Scala – Zakharova, Tissi, Murru – October 2 2015

It became apparent to me on this, my second viewing, that Team Ratmansky and Doug Fullington’s reconstruction of this ballet is something of a master-work. Genuinely fairy-tale like, it has an unashamed aspiration to be beautiful. Some would say it is High Art and I agree. It is importantly, crafted with love.


Woolf Works – The Royal Ballet, 20th May 2015

Quite who suggested the subject matter of Virginia Woolf for a new ballet, and quite why they did so, is anyone’s guess*.  Still good art can come from unlikely places, or can be sourced from curious themes, and McGregor’s art suceeds: this Woolf works. It sketches powerful moments – indeed in some places, it achieves a rare beauty all of its own. Parts I and III of this triptych are by far the strongest. Part II feels like the campest thing ever committed to stage. (More on that later.)


La Fille mal gardée – Osipova, McRae, Mosley, Saunders, Kay, Peregrine – April 29th 2015

This was another delightful Fille, courtesy of principals Natalia Osipova and Steven McRae. Naturally the setting – a pure ray of sunshine fit to warm the heart – contributed, and so did strong corps work too.


Swan Lake – Salenko, McRae, Gartside Gruzin – March 21st 2015 (matinee)

Of all the Swan Lake performances I have seen this season, this was the best. A strong statement but one borne from fact, consideration and some portion of emotion.


The Mastersingers, English National Opera, The Coliseum, March 7th 2015

With a running time of five hours forty minutes, some would have judged this evening of The Mastersingers something of an endurance test. Far from it. The evening zipped past, Act III achieving something close to actually sublime and the evening as a whole bestowing enduring rewards. One felt greatly rewarded by the return on whichever “investment” one cared to use to analyse. In sum edification, entertainment (if one wishes to think of it that way) value for money (again, if one judges reward by value for money) and more simply and infinitely more rewarding: I was left with a surfeit of joy. This was opera which had done the job well.