Kings 2 Ends / Song of the Earth

Choreographed by Jorma Elo / Kenneth MacMillan

Scottish Ballet

Sadler's Wells

(2011)

Review by Vera Liber

Two shows only at Sadler's Wells of a double bill of two contrasting halves, which includes a dance of two incongruous halves, juxtapositions true to Scottish Ballet's founding father, Peter Darrell's, vision of a 'strong classical technique with a contemporary attitude', which departing artistic director Ashley Page has maintained over the last nine years. Artistic Director Designate Christopher Hampson takes over in August 2012.

Under Page Scottish Ballet has gone from strength to strength, and now has its own spanking new purpose-built national headquarters at the Tramway international arts centre in Glasgow. Not a bad trajectory since its inauspicious beginnings there in 1969. There is also a glossy souvenir picture book by Mary Brennan celebrating forty years of Scottish Ballet. And a world premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire from Nancy Meckler and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa to look forward to in April 2012.

That's pretty dynamic, in spite of the gossip of acrimonious conflict at the heart of its being, Page's departure apparently not entirely happy. According to Giannandrea Poesio, 'Page, who received an OBE in 2006, believes firmly in keeping the Company abreast of the ever-shifting changes that underscore the arts world. And the various accolades the company has received under his directorship such as the TMA Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance in 2004 and the Critic's Circle National Dance Award for Outstanding Repertoire (Classical) in 2008 - demonstrate he is totally right.' Grapevine tells of a more conservative future in programming. We shall see.

What we do see is a bold company in good dancing health in a programme first seen and highly praised at this year's Edinburgh International Festival: resident choreographer at Boston Ballet, Finnish-born Jorma Elo's new Kings 2 Ends (2011) to music by Steve Reich and Mozart, and Kenneth MacMillan's Song of the Earth, which was created for Stuttgart Ballet in 1965 after the Royal Ballet had turned him down. More creative conflict…

But out of conflict comes an energizing force, or so Elo would have us believe, exploring with wit and flair the energies in music centuries apart yet very like in playfulness. One listens anew to Mozart's Violin Concerto No 1 in B flat after Reich's jazzy minimalistic Double Sextet, which drives the dance along at a tremendous pace. Elo's choreography tests the dancers' speed, precision and dreamy lyricism - Erik Cavallari powers through the leaps and turns.

Jordan Tuinman's lighting, shading from purple to blue and orange, with horizontal stave lines for the dancers' moving notation, and Yumiko Takeshima's costumes, black for the Reich, over-laid by warm russet red for the Mozart, add visual layers of pleasure to Kings 2 Ends, asking us to make of it what we will.

The mind wanders through John Cage style silences, robotic, gymnastic, and freeform Merce Cunningham-like moves, and crisp classical lines. Speedy sassy transitions, funny hand flourishes in the Mozart, exuberant oscillation between the old and the new.

Elo puts his dancers through it. But so does MacMillan's Song of the Earth - emotionally. Not sure whether this young company of dancers has the measure of it yet, or whether MacMillan's introspection has had its day. My 'man on the omnibus' companion preferred Elo's carefree abstraction to the intellectual MacMillan / Mahler double act.

Mahler's song cycle Das Lied von der Erde, performed live by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra and sung by the mezzo soprano Karen Cargill and tenor Richard Berkeley-Steele, is a demanding hour - a contemplation of our own mortality. After the empty effervescence of Kings 2 Ends the lights dim and the heart aches.

Grateful for having the lyrics, inspired and loosely translated from a collection of eighth century Chinese poems, printed in the informative programme in German and English, one can be in little doubt about the interpretation on offer. MacMillan's Song of the Earth broods with gravitas and solemnity on life's transient joys.

Gloomy grey black marbled floor and wall, monochrome costumes, five short scenes followed by the sixth, as long as the five together, which ends in a moving dying fall. Horns call, drink drowns sorrows, death the eternal is at our shoulders - 'dark is life, and so is death'.

A bucolic, peaceful scene, flutes play, and death whispers in a young girl's ear. Chinese motifs, bows and delicate wrists, playful cartwheels turned in the air - death is never far away to catch them in the midst of play. A sense of Ovid and classical Greek in these Chinese elegiac poems...

Garlands of girls, warrior men, ever-present death in blank mask stalks the lovers, dances with the man, bells peel, an ominous bassoon sounds. In tableaux of poses, the motions of life go on until death sweeps them away. The woman opposes death, but he bides his time.

She dances with her women in Bronislava Nijinska close formation, safety in unity, but death returns and takes the man. The farewell duet, lingering, longing, is curtailed with a hand over the mouth. In the final moments, as the three move in overlapping cruciform arms towards the light in resignation and acceptance one sees William Blake, and the curtain slowly lowers. MacMillan's dramatic inclinations played out to the full.