Bach-ing up the wrong tree*
When Nacho Duato startled the ballet world in January 2011 by taking over the artistic reins at St Petersburg’s staunchly classical Mikhailovsky Ballet he took with him a raft of his own contemporary-based works. Multiplicity. Forms of Silence and Emptiness, his fairly abstract take on composer Johann Sebastian Bach’s life story, was originally created for Weimar’s Deutsches Nationaltheater in 1997 and first performed by the Mikhailovsky a year after Duato joined.
The piece is split into two halves: Multiplicity and Forms of Silence and Emptiness, although the stylistic differences between them are minimal. Against the backdrop of Jaffar Chalabi’s imposing stave-like scaffolding, the 18th century figure of J.S. Bach prowls the stage appearing variously to be inspired or tortured by the music he’s creating. Polina Semionova flits in and out in the guise of muse wearing a beautiful black dress with see-through mesh top and she ultimately oversees the death of the composer.
Semionova doesn’t have a great deal of stage-time but still manages to dominate proceedings. Her opening solo when taking the part of the violin is an exhibition of furious litheness; she’s so supple that even when gently picked up by the midriff she expels a lyrical reaction that transmits up through her torso and out from every limb. She’s a rare dancer who can make every movement glide.
Duato’s choreography is not so finely-tuned. Despite some wonderful moments – the second scene of Multiplicity where Bach conducts the dancers as though they were a small chamber orchestra was fantastic – the piece virtually grinds to halt in the second half with repetitive, fairly aimless contemporary ensemble numbers and duets.
This was a shame because the opening twenty minutes or so was a witty exploration of the human body literally as instrument; Marat Shemiunov and Sabina Yapparova’s duet with Yapparova writhing rapturously around as Bach’s cello was erotically potent. The final scene of the piece, a kind of reversal of La Bayadère’s famous entrance of the Shades where the dancers instead walk heavenwards, was also a memorably uplifting homage to Bach’s musical legacy.
Duato’s costumes were a rich mix of contemporary designs melded with 18th century fashions and were visually tremendous, lending real atmosphere to the performances. But even they couldn’t shake off the looking-at-the-watch-to-see-how-long-there-was-to-go feeling. Perhaps the Triple Bill of Duato’s choreography this coming Sunday, which includes two works he created for the Mikhailovsky, will give a fairer indication of why he’s so highly regarded in many parts of the world.
Tickets for the final two performances of the Mikhailovsky’s 2013 London season are available on the eno website.
*with apologies to anyone who’s had to endure way too many Bach puns in their time.