Dance: A trilogy - but not a holy trinity

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Indy Lifestyle Online
AN EDINBURGH ballet lover made a complaint to the management of the Festival Theatre last week on the grounds that there weren't any tutus in its current run of Tchaikovsky ballets. You could call him unimaginative and curmudgeonly (as in private I'm sure they did). Or you could say he was merely playing his part in the long tradition of resistance to change which is partly what classical ballet is about. I'm only surprised it was the costumes that bugged him. Never before have Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker been run together as if they were episodes of the same story, viewed over three nights. It's no more outlandish than getting opera fans to sit through The Ring. But it's never been done, perhaps because a thematic connection between the ballets isn't very obvious, perhaps because until now no one has dared.

Enter Peter Schaufuss, a man whose career as a director has been characterised by artistic daring, or high-handedness, depending on how you feel about new things being done to old ballets. Britons will remember him as the Dane who transformed staid old Festival Ballet into glamorous ENB. They may also remember his sudden and acrimonious departure in 1990 following a spat with the board. He's repeated the pattern since: a short spell heading Berlin's Deutsche Oper Ballet; an even shorter one with the Royal Danish. Undaunted, Schaufuss has bounced back with his own outfit of 23 classically trained dancers and a debut programme he audaciously calls The Tchaikovsky Trilogy - the definite article suggesting it's an obvious thing to do with three perfectly self-contained works of art. Let's get one thing straight: it's not. Schaufuss has had to do an awful lot of tweaking. But the results are interesting, if only partially successful.

The principal idea is that all three stories are dreams dreamt by the composer himself, revealing a troubled psyche. Schaufuss has clearly read the biographies and makes the kind of life-into-art assumptions that most artists find infuriating, but which in this context seems plausible enough. Tchaikovsky was writing Swan Lake during the year of his disastrous marriage (the dream as nightmare); he wrote Beauty when he'd faced up to his homosexuality (a sensual dream); he was mourning his beloved sister when he wrote Nutcracker (a regressive fantasy).

Designer Steven Scott has produced a starkly streamlined set to reinforce this scheme: no misty lakesides or rococo halls here. Each ballet opens with someone asleep on a bed, set on a vivid square of colour: deep blue for Swan Lake, red for Beauty, yellow for Nutcracker, and these colours continue through the costumes and lighting to track the progress of the dream in symbolist code - easy to decipher at first, but at the point Clara, her nutcracker idol and the Drosselmeyer character (who appears in all three ballets as the "Dream Master", Tchaikovsky) began to dance throwing orange and green shadows on a yellow square, I gave up in confusion. The patterns were very pretty, though.

Another bold contribution to the dream imagery is the use of a high, glass-sided walkway on the back wall of the stage, across which characters can stalk, prowl or flit to remind us of their emblematic presence without disturbing the narrative. Thus we see Prince Siegfried's mother being pursued by Von Rothbart and Odile long before the sinister pair make their entrance at the ball. And Carabosse hovers spitefully over every scene of Aurora's tale. This is all very neat and coherent as far as it goes, but Schaufuss sets too much store by design and plot strategy, and seems to have forgotten why a ballet such as Swan Lake came to be loved in the first place. He uses piped music (a severe disappointment) and his hybrid of academic and contemporary dance consistently fails to rise to the exquisite cues of the score.

However many dozens of times I see Ivanov's swan choreography I never cease to get a thrill on seeing that absurd but lovely wings-out, head- ducked first image of swan maidens. Schaufuss's mixed-sex flock, in their see-through white bellbottoms and Andy Warhol wigs, wade into view like a team of synchronised swimmers. And when Siegfried falls in love, he yanks Odette from the melee with all the tact and courtesy of a farmer choosing a tasty bird for the table. Courtship? No time for that. Within seconds - to the strains of Tchaikovsky's oh-so-tentative and exquisite violin - they are grappling on the ground together, rolling and swivelling across the large white square of the stage like honeymooners in a king- sized hotel bed.

There's more up-front sex when Odile appears (sheer black bell-bottoms for her), but precious little by way of choreographic inspiration. The nadir comes while Von Rothbart and the Queen are busy feeling each other's thighs, and Odile performs violent fellatio on Siegfried in the middle of the party (give me strength). No wonder he staggers back to the lake in shame and horror. These same characters reappear unchanged in Sleeping Beauty, Odile as a sexy, vampish Carabosse (which works fine); but the Queen and Von Rothbart as Aurora's blameless parents is deeply confusing. OK, so dreams are sometimes a bit of muddle, but that's an excuse I can't accept.

Schaufuss comes up with rather more memorable set pieces for Sleeping Beauty (liberated perhaps by the fact that this is the one Matthew Bourne hasn't tried). His Rose Adagio turns the famous Petipa sequence wittily on its head by having the four suitors offer the soles of their feet to support Aurora's slow pirouettes, while they swivel on the floor on their elbows. In Nutcracker his Dance of the Snow Flakes is both comic and pretty, and his Arabian dance the most sensually inventive I've seen.

When the Peter Schaufuss Ballet returns to Britain with this programme (which it undoubtedly will in due course), take no heed of publicity which says you can see these ballets singly. They only work as a group and in the correct order. Without Schaufuss's clumsy but dogged sub-Freudian analysis, how else do you expect to arrive at a suicidally morose close to the Nutcracker? The final clue is a musical conundrum against which all other biographical conjecture pales. The music of Nutcracker's second pas de deux is a funeral march played backwards. Stuff the lack of tutus, that's the real shocker: the world's favourite idealised dream of childhood ends in a crushing sense of loss.

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