Mark Morris, the most musically communicative and naturally lyrical of choreographers of the past 30 years (and an absentee from London theatres for too long), made L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, a dance masterpiece of a Handel oratorio using John Milton’s words. It was a miracle of pastoral sweetness, in rustic, human, amorous dancing, bodies singing the words and all the orchestral folderols too. It came unhelpfully to mind as I watched Mark Baldwin’s new creation for Rambert to Haydn’s oratorio using Milton’s words, The Creation.
I have a lot of time for Baldwin. Under his leadership for the past 14 years, Britain’s oldest dance company has got rather good at sneaking up behind the more generously funded ships of the ballet line and landing large fish. If you walk through the bombastic South Bank, you can hardly fail to have your breath stopped by the serenely minimal new Rambert HQ, a remarkable architectural beauty made for under £20 million, fundraised by a company on a mingey £2.2 million grant. It’s Baldwin’s Rambert, rather than the richer ballet companies, that most ambitiously commissions today’s composers, so it isn’t altogether surprising to see him leaping out of the mainstream again, joining hands with Garsington Opera for The Creation.
Garsington has a stunning glass opera house sailing on green hills, offering its productions in an unusually dazzling setting with the glories of nature visible through the walls, the evening sunbeams acting as stage lighting for the first half until gradually the darkness allows the illuminator’s art to shine. In the case of The Creation, you listen to the creation of nature with the glorious products themselves visible all around. Baldwin’s dance has a heck of a lot of competition.
Dance is the main event, placed in front of the excellent Garsington Opera orchestra and chorus, who are tucked behind designer Pablo Bronstein’s splendid medieval altar screen, with trombonists and violinists glimpsed through the piercings and the solo singers appearing like angels in niches. There seems no aesthetic link between the medieval theme behind and the anonymous tribes of barefooted dancers in front, sheathed in black or taupe leotards spattered with white pompoms and frills, suggesting fleets of commedia dell’arte Pierrots. Highly individualised music and musicians behind, anonymity of dance and dancers in front. It’s a split-brain experience.
With admirable stamina and memory, the dancers keep up two hours’ worth of highly worked, fluid contemporary choreography at an unvaried tempo largely unaffected by the music. The almost total ignoring of the chances to depict the wonders of nature in the language of dance has a sort of contrary Baldwinian humour about it. ‘To the ethereal vaults resound,’ trills Gabriel, and a lone man rolls on the ground and does slow back-somersaults. The children sitting in front of me were, I bet, looking forward to Leviathans, finny tribes, tawny lions, eagles and all, who are all in Papa Haydn’s storytelling music, but Baldwin just carries on knitting his long, long scarf of cool, aloof, lithe dancing, paying no attention.
The puzzle is diverting enough as long as it’s not actively unmusical. But why, during a sung phrase ascending to a pause, creating a silence that hangs questioningly in the air, have dancers stepping busily through that silence? Why plaster unheeding movement over the amazing theatricality of Haydn’s aural distinctions between the sun’s boisterous, explosive splendour and the moon’s silvery stillness, or his extraordinary frozen opening in chaos?
Still, once living creatures appeared in the second half (though it might have been the mellowing effect of the dinner interval), I felt the dance acquired warmer details, with some Baldwinian surprises — for ‘great swarms of insects’, a man lifts a woman high in a pose of ecstatic surrender to the air, and a worm does suddenly wriggle by. Gradually, the persistent refusal of pictorialism generates its own group momentum, and the culminating ‘Achieved is the glorious work’ explodes into a terrific communal harmony of singing and dancing, euphoric and exhilarating.
Adam and Eve’s naively loving duets draw out Baldwin’s affectionate side, and a charming series of six couples dance different gestures of love. Hats off to the dancers (including Rambert students), but more for efficiency than expressiveness, since they are largely refused that opportunity. It is a creation that has put brain before heart.
Australian Ballet last popped into the London Coliseum 11 years ago with its revision of Swan Lake by artistic director Graeme Murphy in 2005, when it was viewed as quite near the royal bone in its evocation of a princess driven nuts by her groom’s blatant romancing of another woman at their wedding.
It seems to me that if you want to update a classic’s mythic power, you’ve got to give the audience either a credible, moving psychological narrative (see Matthew Bourne and Mats Ek) or some edgy choreography to challenge your classically trained troupe (as we hope from Akram Khan with English National Ballet’s Giselle in September). Cartoon sentimentality and classic-lite dancing are no substitute, even when dressed in an adventurous cut of Tchaikovsky’s score.