17 November 2015
Kats-Chernin's 'The Three Dancers' in London
Malcolm Gillies wrote about Elena Kats-Chernin's Three Dancers in August, after performances in Townsville as part of the Australian Chamber Music Festival. The work, inspired by the 1925 painting by Picasso, is now halfway through a long season as a ballet in the UK, with performances in regional centres as well as at Sadler's Wells Theatre in London. The production by the famous Rambert dance company and choreographer Didy Veldman will continue touring the UK until February.
When Elena Kats-Chernin wrote her Three Dancers she was insistent that it serve equally as a piece of chamber music and a score for a ballet. In fact, this was an expectation of the complex, tri-continental commissioning of the work (see: my article on Resonate in August).
So, after the huge success of the chamber premiere in Townsville, how did it work out as a ballet? How was the play of trios, in Picasso's picture and Kats-Chernin's music, interpreted in the choreography? How much did the music have to accommodate to the above-pit performers?
The Three Dancers, as ballet, premiered in Plymouth on 23 September, and toured regionally in Britain, before debuting in London on 3 November. There, it appeared as part of a Rambert 'Love, Art & Rock n Roll' triple bill, at Sadler's Wells Theatre. Rambert has an almost cult status in Britain, particularly among London's hordes of young dancers, who hung attentively, even spellbound, on this performance. The Daily Telegraph the following day hailed it as a 'trifecta of dynamic choreography, deft set design and a bewitching original score'.
In devising her choreography, Didy Veldman had worked closely with Kats-Chernin. Talking to The Guardian (31 August), Veldman explained that she eschewed reference to the 'linear narrative' of the tragic love triangle reflected in Picasso's painting. Rather, she wanted to leave the audience 'with the imprint of the painting's emotions of love and death'. Kats-Chernin similarly speaks of not telling the story but portraying 'the tragic and tense mood'.
But Veldman has an even darker take upon the painting's emotions than the habitually colourful Kats-Chernin. Picasso's work just breathes hate and violence to her: 'if you look at those three people, they seem to be holding hands as if they're unable to let go', Veldman observed to Guardian readers. And so, to her choreography, featuring in the ballet's opener and finale, two segregated trios - one clothed in white; the other, 'shadows' (drawn from Picasso's picture) in black - and making much of the desperate holding of hands, while bodies move and writhe within those clasps.
This choreography has elsewhere a more fluid, and definitely non-narrative, interplay of subsets of these three 'white' figures (Miguel Altunaga, Daniel Davidson, Brenda Lee Grech) and their dark shadows (Dane Hurst, Liam Francis, Simone Damberg Würtz). The climactic 'Cubist Counterpoint' fifth movement flexibly involves all six characters, now depicted with greater individualism. Amid the violence and energy, later in the work, there is even an endearing quartet, where the serene attraction of a male-female 'white' pair is played out while their 'black shadows' dance, and are eventually enfolded, between them.
For Veldman an essential challenge was to depict cubism in movement, 'by layering different dynamics and styles, and playing with light and shadow'. The light square of the set, surrounded by varying degrees of darkness, played so simply to this cubist intention, as did the insertion progressively of three mirrored shards into the square's centre during the second half of the drama. In contrast with the rich array of colours in Kats-Chernin's tango-influenced score, with its careful movement transitions, Veldman, in collaboration with set designer Kimie Nakano and lighting by Ben Ormerod, has most effectively represented something monochromatic, angular, even fragmented.
Kats-Chernin's score was inspiringly realised by a septet of London musicians, led by Alexandra Wood, and conducted by Rambert's music director, Paul Hoskins. There were a few minor tweaks to the Townsville score, including sixteen additional bars when the first shard descends, some changes to dynamic levels, and a reduction in the extent of the saxophone's melody in 'Cubic Counterpoint' to heighten the rawly rhythmic effect Veldman sought for the dancers in this central movement.
Fresh from the Berlin premiere of her opera for children, Snow White and the 77 Dwarves, Kats-Chernin managed to take in Three Dancers' final rehearsal, and commented, in interview, on Veldman's 'very elegant, exquisite and exact' choreography. She also noted the stark contrasts in colour between her score and the austere set and costumes, which create an effect almost of 'a black-and-white film'.
And the symbolism of trios? Kats-Chernin observes that in the choreographed version the musicians are off-stage, so the visual element of the instrumentation is lacking. 'Whether trios, duos or quartets might not be as apparent as when the piece is played in a concert setting', she comments, 'for it is the choreography that holds the focus of the audience'.
While visual, dance and musical aspects all have their trio symbolisms, 'they pursue their different paths, drawn by the creators' instincts', she explains. So, just as Veldman did not want any narrative implied by Picasso's picture to become a narrative for the dancers, so, too, Kats-Chernin does not expect the dancers to play out any implied narrative of the music. 'Veldman has done a brilliant job', she concludes.
After its London season, Three Dancers moves with Rambert to play in Bath, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Aberdeen, before reaching Nottingham in late February 2016. Meanwhile, the work's concert version gains its British premiere on 25 November, at the Wimbledon Music Festival, the initiating commissioner of this grand venture. Further performances will occur next year at festivals in Alaska, Washington state and Texas.
Elena Kats-Chernin - AMC profile (biography, recordings,
The Rambert website - all tour dates and locations
The Three Dancers ballet, Sadler's Wells, London 3-7 November: AMC Calendar - see also the Sadler's Wells website
© Australian Music Centre (2015) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
Malcolm Gillies is a London-based musicologist.
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