The commitment of this company is what impresses, a sense of collaboration and dedication. The Bavarian State Ballet’s triple bill, Portrait of Wayne McGregor, was an ideal showcase for their talents.
The three half-hour works featured two recent pieces – Kairos created for the Zurich Ballet in 2014 and Borderlands for San Francisco Ballet in 2013 – as well as a new commission for the Munich company, Sunyata, which had its world premiere on 14 April.
The word Kairos can refer to the weather, in modern Greek, or the opportune moment for doing something in Ancient Greek. McGregor seems to have been inspired by both meanings as the score is Max Richer’s quite glorious reinterpretation of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, and Lucy Carter’s bold lighting freezes the dancers at certain moments in time with strobes and gauzes.
Kairos has the dancers physically inside the music as they move between front and back projections of musical notation. British artist Idris Khan’s set is dominated by a dark grey semi-circular wall that delineates the dance area and which the dancers move around, and even claw at and rub against leaving scratches and traces of sweat. The wall rises during the piece, casting strong black shadows across the stage. The dancers are often picked out with follow spots from above the stage that dramatically sculpt their bodies. It is ‘McGregor slick’, and so are the dancers.
Jonah Cook stood out – a dancer who was promoted to Principal last year by Igor Zelensky. He is pale, red-headed and intense: Munich’s own Edward Watson. McGregor’s demanding moves were never mechanical when filtered through his body, and he has a captivating stage aura.
During the first interval, two punters were dismissing Kairos as being ‘Wayne McGregor’. Apart from its unique look and sound, yes, it has many of his trademark moves, but isn’t that a good thing? He has his own voice, like it or not. If I eat fish and chips, I don’t want them tasting of chocolate and strawberry. Of course, sometimes I order plaice instead of cod, but I’m still getting fish and chips. I resisted asking them why they had bought tickets to an all-McGregor programme.
The new work is certainly ‘Wayne McGregor’, but very different from the other two works on the programme. Sunyata springs from six poems by Persian Sufi mystic Rumi, and Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho has used them to compose a new piece for full orchestra, beefed up with extra percussion for oriental colour. On stage, however, there are just four couples, and the mood is generally lyrical, often in sinewy slow-motion, disturbed by jabs and thrusts.
Rumi was born in 1207 in present-day Afghanistan yet today he’s one of the world’s best-selling poets. His gift for universal communication has seen his words appear on coffee mugs and in internet memes. He has inspired Deepak Chopra, Madonna… and McGregor. Persian art – turned at 90° so as not to dominate the stage picture – has a cut-out circle revealing a bright red backlit panel, and the piece cut out is laid on the floor – a circular Persian rug! Circularity is the topic of one of Rumi’s six poems. The red panel slowly rises during the piece leaving a black hole, dramatically lit by Carter, creating some stunning stage pictures.
Several dancers seemed reticent as though the moves were not entirely in their bodies. It was not the opening cast so maybe they just lacked rehearsal and stage time. They perform in various conformations, but McGregor doesn’t pull the audience’s attention to one place or another, rather like the Persian backdrop where all the figures are the same size whether in the foreground or in the distance – viewers can gaze idly and settle on what grabs their attention.
Borderlands was inspired by Joseph Albers’ book “Interaction of Colour” on how colour can change mood and atmosphere, and by his “Homage to the Square” paintings. McGregor puts his dancers inside those paintings, those environments. Joel Cadbury and Paul Stoney’s ubiquitous electronic score flows over the auditorium, and Carter’s ever shifting, moody lighting, creates a dangerous, and sometimes sexually tense, Blade Runner like world. The twelve dancers were edgy and brutal — Stefano Maggiolo and Jinhao Zhang were especially powerful. Their efforts were rewarded with a long ovation from a packed house. It was richly deserved.