Sometimes one needs to read programme-notes in advance, sometimes it’s wise not to. It was definitely a mistake to read what concept-choreographer Klaus Obermaier had to say about the ‘live 3-D visuals’ he was going to impose (with the aid of a dancer) on the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’.
'Time layers and unusual perspectives’ would enable ‘a completely new perception of the body’; ‘real-time-generated virtual spaces’ would ‘communicate and interact’ with the dancer; the human body would ‘once more be the interface between reality and virtuality’. (Once more? When was the last time?) Music would ‘no longer be the only starting point’, it would become ‘the consummation of the choreography’. Obermaier concluded by asserting that the audience would ‘participate more closely’ than in ‘traditional theatre settings’; his show would ‘raise questions about our modern lives, in the light of the ongoing virtualisation of our habitats’.
Our ‘close participation’ merely involved putting on a pair of 3D specs. A dancer, the gorgeously androgynous Julia Mach, appeared on a side-stage, while on a screen her gestures turned into flowing red squiggles; these pulsated around her image, then turned into tendrils. The virtual floor became a trampoline on which she was tossed, then she multiplied and tumbled prettily through space: this at least was imagery of which Jean Cocteau would have approved. One of her arms morphed into the branch of a tree, then she was pixillated, and finally atomised.
Without Obermaier’s transfixingly pretentious spiel, one might have accepted the whole thing as watchable in that ‘virtual’ way which makes computer games so dangerously seductive, though it had none of the drama of Stravinsky and Nijinsky’s ballet. But the odd thing about this concert was that Obermaier’s claims could more legitimately have been made by Ilan Volkov and his brilliant orchestra. They kicked off with Edgard Varese’s ‘Tuning up’, one of the cleverest conceptual tricks ever played by a composer, in which the ramshackle impression of an orchestra tuning-up becomes an allusive work in itself. They followed that with Ligety’s ‘Lontano’, in which music becomes drifting mists and cloud-shapes, before dazzling us with Stravinsky. With works of this calibre, light-shows are superfluous.