Gustav Mahler’s music has the ability to re-open the wounds of the listener’s soul and make them feel like fresh cuts. A ritardando passage of Mahler's flute notes can slow one’s breathing, cause the throat to tighten, and lower one into deep despair. His music often then brings the listener out of the sorrow and into a peaceful, transcendent place with its conclusion, though not always.
Mahler was described as a bridge between the music of the 19th century and the modernism of the 20th century. “The spirit can assert itself only through the medium of clear form,” he said. Conductor Bruno Walter believed that Mahler’s work survived due to the "coexistence of highly modern harmony and polyphony with profound depth of feeling, ranging from human to divine.” That description might well apply to Kenneth MacMillan's work, too.
MacMillan used six of the songs from Mahler’s Das lied von der Erde to make his groundbreaking ballet Song of the Earth in 1965. The choreography, so highly modern that in its golden anniversary year, it looks like it could have been created last week; so strict in its form that it looks like its own brand of classical; so potent with feelings of sadness and acceptance that it brought to mind Tudor’s Dark Elegies, a masterpiece from 1937 danced to the five songs of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder.
From the Kenneth MacMillan website:
MacMillan described the theme of his ballet succinctly: ‘A man and a woman; death takes the man; they both return to her and at the end of the ballet, we find that in death there is the promise of renewal.’ The central couple are part of a group of young people who are blissfully unaware of their own mortality. Among them is a man with a colourless half-mask over his face: he is Der Ewige – the Eternal One. In the English translation he is the Messenger of Death, which lends him a more sinister aspect. MacMillan liked to cast a slight young dancer in the role, apparently no more menacing than his companions, except that he knows what they choose to ignore. (Some interpreters, however, perform the Messenger as though he were Death itself.)
The Messenger shadows the leading man at the start of the ballet, and takes part in the men’s horseplay. He will be present, however briefly, by the end of every song. (MacMillan added him in the fourth song in 1990.) The leading woman appears in the contemplative second song, Autumn Solitude, in which the words reveal her loneliness, her fear of death and her longing for a companion. She is the MacMillan ‘outsider’, sensing that she does not belong to the light-hearted group who amuse themselves during the songs that follow. She finds a lover in a long pas de deux, only to lose him to death. In her final solo, she has to reach an acceptance of her loss, the return of her isolation and the inevitability of death. As she resigns herself to a fate beyond her control, the Messenger returns with the man, who is now wearing a white half-mask symbolising death. All three link hands and step forward together in slow motion, as if into eternity. The curtain falls on their still-pacing figures.
It probably would have been very helpful for the audience to have had a little bit of the above information in the Playbill rather than just it’s about “life, death, love, and eternity” which could refer to a Petipa classic.
Friday night’s performance featured Lauren Cuthbertson, Edward Watson as the Messenger of Death, and Ryochi Hirano. (Haglund also saw Thursday night’s cast which included Watson, Laura Morero and Nehemiah Kish but missed Wednesday night’s cast in order to soar with Veronika across the Plaza.)
Let’s just say that we can’t wait to see more of Lauren Cuthbertson this weekend, no matter what we have to sit through to do it. What a beautiful, compelling artist who had our attention and empathy from her very first step onto the stage. We couldn’t take our eyes off of her. Those arabesques of perfect geometry; the portrayal of searching, loss, and acceptance so clear in her face; the whole ballet made such clear sense. When she danced with Watson, his character became something that lurked in the back of her mind as opposed to being present literally. They were theatrically riveting together.
The corps de ballet and others dancing featured roles, particularly Yuhui Choe, were outstanding both nights but seemed to have more intensity on Friday night. The modern shapes of crossed forearms and elbows, and the strongly-angled legs were conveyed with more clarity.
The vocal soloists, Katharine Goeldner and Thomas Randle, were extraordinary. Since Thursday night’s performance, Haglund has not been able to stop listening to this Mahler work which is available in an especially fine 1959 Chicago Symphony Orchestra recording on YouTube.
The first ballet on the program was Ashton’s The Dream. Thursday and Friday were led by Natalia Osipova and Matthew Golding. Haglund was very happy to see Golding again – the last time being when he was carrying some spear in the back of one of ABT’s productions. He was outstanding technically both on Thursday and Friday, but much better theatrically on Friday. He will have to grow more into the role of Oberon. There is no sign of Anthony Dowell’s Oberon in his carriage or presentation, but hopefully there will be some day. Holding his character when not dancing seems to be one of his few weak points and making Oberon a little more fantastical without going overboard would help. But, boy, what an incredible dancer.
Without ABT’s installed claque and screamers, Natalia Osipova doesn’t appear to be much of a draw in New York. She couldn’t even sell out a quarter of the fourth ring for either night’s performance. Haglund found her completely unappealing in the role of Titania, although not offensive. She looked good in the strawberry blond wig and should consider that for her stage haircolor. She looks much less harsh without the black hair. The shapes of her feet are still hideous. The way she mashes up her shoes and makes them filthy actually compromises her balletic line. Her feet are quite misshapen and attached to muscly legs that don’t exactly sing the words “classical line.” Throughout each performance, she seemed to look for those opportunities where she could make something bigger. The chin was stuck out most of the night and her whole character bordered on Manon.
Valentino Zucchetti had a stunning performance as Puck on Friday night - much better than on Thursday. Right before an exit, he reeled off a turn that opened with a developpe to the front at about 170 degrees and he just held it there like it was some kind of an arrow directed toward the ceiling. He was very, very funny and charming throughout the night.
As in all previous performances, the corps de ballet amazed with its high level of competence and energy. Such beauty at the Royal Ballet . . .
So, it's time to go back to the theater to try to find Lauren Cuthbertson in something this afternoon, this evening, and tomorrow. The HH Pump Bump Award, a little New York souvenir by Giuseppe Zanotti, is bestowed upon Lauren for her most wonderful performance in Song of the Earth. Love, love, love the Royal Ballet.