For Scottish Ballet's outgoing artistic director, Ashley Page, this year's Edinburgh International Festival was a doubly moving experience, coupling a coup laced with personal nostalgia, in the revival of Kenneth MacMillan’s acclaimed 1960s work Song of the Earth, and the excitement of a world premiere, in the much sought-after Jorma Elo's Kings 2 Ends.
For the music critic, the latter poses something of a puzzle, if not an eternal mystery: just how do choreographers relate to the music they choose? To begin with, for Elo, in this work, silence is a significant element, with a lengthy passage danced to the sound of squeaking seats and coughing patrons before the Reich began, and further episodes between the Reich and Mozart, and again between the movements of the Mozart.
Then there is the strange juxtaposition of the deadpan-dead Reich with the live Mozart—deadpan-dead because Reich's genially vibrant Double Sextet is normally performed by one live and one recorded ensemble. There's a certain deadpan logic in having both sextets recorded, even if it is disappointing from the listener's perspective to be hearing it on the stereo, as it were. The Mozart, meanwhile, with all due respect to the immaculate performance of James Clark and the RSNO, is a bit bland, isn't it?
What's happening on the starkly lit bare stage is anything but bland, with frequently fast and dense constellations of movement alternating with more reflective episodes encompassing an element of mimed deadpan humour. In one particularly effective moment, in the silence before the Mozart finale, a girl rushes spiritedly across the stage apron, to be plucked from the air by a boy. With her gesture, he and the entire corps fall to the ground, to be re-animated by her further gestures—a nice evocation of feminine power, though it would be a misrepresentation to overstate the role of gender in such an abstract work.
Time was when Kenneth MacMillan had to fight tooth and nail for the opportunity to take an established concert-hall masterwork and remake it – or translate it – as dance theatre, proving the concept with Stuttgart Ballet in 1965 before the Royal Ballet relented the following year. Bringing The Song of the Earth to the Scottish stage, Ashley Page was able to bring in Donald MacLeary, who danced the principal male role at the Royal Ballet premiere, to lend advice and a sense of continuity that contributed to the considerable emotional charge generated by the production process.
It is appropriate to talk of MacMillan's vision in terms of translation: already the texts in Hans Bethige's Die chinesische Flöte remake the originals, found in Chinese masters of the Tang dynasty (and prior translators). Mahler's setting, in Das Lied von der Erde, profoundly transforms these texts, marrying bereavement and foreboding to a celebration of life; for MacMillan, approaching his project in the height of the cold war, and a period during which British culture was still tentatively re-making its relationship with that of its former enemy Germany, the score afforded the opportunity to create a timeless reaffirmation, accentuating the positive in Mahler's richly ambiguous and equivocal score, though the 'messenger of death' is always in attendance.
MacMillan does not mount a dramatization of the texts; on a bare stage, and using minimally simple costumes in white, grey and black that serve to focus attention entirely on the physicality of the dancers, he creates a mythic palette featuring a boy/girl narrative, stalked by the 'messenger', that finally resembles a sort of prequel to Orpheus—though compared to Elo's choreography it is noticeable how MacMillan's methods are tailored to a more traditional, hierarchical ballet structure with its soloists and chorus.
In the pit, the dancers' emotional charge was substantiated by a radiant, wholly engrossing performance from the RSNO under Sian Edwards. There's a harsh kindness about Mahler's score that puts the orchestra under scrutiny as individuals to an unusual degree, and while—in relation to prior discussion of the Seoul Philharmonic—that harshness exposed a couple of cracks, the kindness paid off handsomely in a richly characterful and ultimately moving reading. Indeed, relishing the orchestral sonorities, and attending to the movement on stage, it took a while to realize just how good Peter Wedd first of all, and then Katarina Karnéus, were in their performances of the two vocal roles.
It's a pity that a tiny handful of audience members felt at liberty to cough and splutter throughout.
Photo: Scottish Ballet
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