Requiem!!, Grand Theatre, Leeds

Dance to the music of death

Nadine Meisner
Thursday 20 February 2003 01:00
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Northern Ballet Theatre's Requiem!! (why have one exclamation mark when you can have two?) is story-less, interval-less and lasts just 75 minutes; all of which makes it a big departure from the company's habitual product. For that alone, I'd offer applause – that, plus the wholehearted and brave performances from the company's orchestra (under John Pryce-Jones's baton), the singers (the Leeds Festival Chorus led by four soloists) and, on stage, the dancers.

Receiving its British premiere, Requiem!! was created by the German choreographer Birgit Scherzer for the Saarbrücken Ballet in 1991, the 200th anniversary of Mozart's death. The NBT cast meet the unfamiliar challenge of sacred music (Mozart's Requiem) and spiritual themes with fire in their own souls – all of them, from the ensemble performers, collecting in serried lines or fragmenting in panic-stricken disarray, to the soloists.

Jonathan Ollivier summons all his dark drama and considerable athleticism as the figure of Death, overseeing things standing high at the back or suspended from ropes. Desiré Samaai and Christopher Giles are a vivid Couple, their flesh-coloured lycra perhaps suggesting universality (but what do I know?); and then there are the three figures called just M, played with such conviction by Christian Broomhall, Hironao Takahashi and Jonathan Renna that they practically haul their guts out, even if their dual symbolism as man and Mozart is often confusing.

With Mozart's sublime, overwhelming Requiem, you could, if you felt so inclined, follow Balanchine's dictum about closing your eyes and just listening to the music. Purists, however, and others like me, will howl at the liberties Scherzer has taken, chopping about, adding repetitions, inserting sections of silence and percussion.

On the other hand, there were times when – in brutal honesty – I really did want to close my eyes; not to escape the dancers, but the concept. It's not Scherzer's slightly clichéd expressionist language, oscillating between rough-hewn modern dance and pared-down ballet. Or her organisation of space – the groupings are in fact highly theatrical. Neither is it Brigitte Benner's austere set, transforming the stage into a narrow room and ramp that intermittently becomes a slatted stairway for Death's descent.

Rather, it's that Scherzer piles on the metaphors, dualities and ambiguities, producing a chaotic tangle of associations and weakly identified characters. Not content with linking man and Mozart into single individuals, Scherzer occasionally blends in Christ as well. And while modishly modern props such as shoes and suitcases suggested a life's journey clearly enough, the manner in which they are incorporated into the choreography often seems entirely meaningless.

At first I struggled to devise some thematic scheme, but after a while I gave up. Later I discovered in the programme synopsis that I had been on completely the wrong track. Perhaps what this piece demands is a second viewing. After the final image of a flame snuffed out – Mozart, man, whatever – the people round me started talking. They were highly puzzled. But they were also intrigued and moved, and that's already something.

To Saturday (0113 222 6222); then on tour to Edinburgh (25 Feb to 1 Mar) and Norwich (6-10 May)

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