Penelope and the seven suitors, or the absurd atmosphere of hopeful hopelessness.
“The Return of Ulysses”
Choreography by Christian Spuck
Royal Ballet of Flanders
Stadsschouwburg Antwerp, Belgium
24 November 2006
by Marc Haegeman
copyright 2006 by Marc Haegeman
The Royal Ballet of Flanders opened its season with a piece of absurd movement theatre. Kathryn Bennetts introduced her second year at the helm of Belgium’s only classical company with the world premiere of Christian Spuck’s “The Return of Ulysses”. To bring innovation, encourage young talent as well as preserve the classics in the best possible conditions — in that order — have been Bennett’s main goals so far. However, after seeing Spuck’s Ulysses return in Antwerp, I fear this is one more example where ‘innovation’ is confused with ‘new to the repertory’ and ‘creation’. And why yet another foray into alien Tanztheater territory (after Forsythe’s “Impressing the Czar” last season and re-scheduled this month), with no concessions to the company’s own identity whatsoever, should prove such a great asset to the Royal Ballet of Flanders escapes me completely.
After studying at the John Cranko Schule, German Christian Spuck mainly worked in Stuttgart. As a dancer he spent some time with contemporary dance troupe Rosas in Brussels — and judging from his “Ulysses” still bears the scars from that encounter. His first pieces for Stuttgart date from 1997 and in 2001 he was appointed resident choreographer of Stuttgart Ballet. He also created for troupes in Mannheim, Saarbrücken, Essen, for the Staatsoper Berlin, Aterballetto, Hubbard Street Dance 2 Chicago, and New York City Ballet.
“The Return of Ulysses”, apparently one of Spuck’s life fascinations, is helpfully described as an “account of a deadlock”, “showing the absurd atmosphere of hopeful hopelessness.” We reportedly witness Penelope waiting for her husband Ulysses to return home from the Trojan War. Her actions have become meaningless rituals and she is caught in a tape-loopish daily scheme, harassed by many suitors. When Ulysses finally comes home after twenty years, she fails to recognize him. Boredom is her fate — and ours.
What there is of an account in Spuck’s interpretation is transferred into the obligate murk, indefinable never-land surroundings (designs by Emma Ryott, lights by Peter Van Praet). Depression and blackout rule in Ithaca. There are chairs and tables which serve as a hiding place for some character (who seems to be Telemach, Penelope’s son, but of no further consequence), a tape recorder, and some scale models of sailing boats. The main characters are dressed in black, Penelope in long dress and soft shoes, the suitors in modern two-piece suits. The narrative is limited to a few snapshots which are repeated ad infinitum: Penelope keeps the horny suitors at a distance. One has to credit Spuck for his skill in creating a sense of endlesness. It took this Ulysses only 1 hour 20 minutes to return, but performed without an interval it felt like aeons. Not because so much happened, but because what did happen was so theatrically weak that ten minutes sufficed to realize that Spuck had by then already showed all his tricks.
“The Return of Ulysses” is indeed a string of rehashed ideas which have appeared more daring in other hands, and brings very little dancing really worth the trip. With Spuck you won’t find any expansion of the classical idiom of dance, instead his dance manner resembles a vacillating mix of short-breathed snippets and styles that fail to make a fist. His hesitancy is readily explained as a means to create absurdity. Right, but what’s new under the sun? He generously plunged into the pool of contemporary dance-makers (Forsythe, Kylian, Duato, De Keersmaker, …), but he is unable as yet to make something personal. Like the whole piece itself, movements and music are reduced to loose crumbs which kill rather then generate development, emotion or interest. The scenes — all 23 of them — create as much sense of expectation as a broken record. Spuck’s imagery remains with the exception of a few unguarded moments commendably polite. He never surprises, let alone shocks. Is this the “trend-setting repertory” that the Royal Ballet of Flanders is supposed to own now, as one enthusiastic local newspaper reported already before the premiere? Frankly my dear, I fear it’s a dead-end.
Spuck’s world is populated with the obligate unidentifiable characters who turn up in absurd situations. One has to grab for the programme book to understand that Geneviève Van Quaquebeke with a platinum blonde wig and clad in a gold lame suit and black stockings is the goddess Athena. At one point she appears as an air stewardess, voicing through a megaphone: “We kindly remind you that smoking in the lavatories is prohibited.” Or that a naked Priit Kripson, stealthily walking with goggles, flippers and in a cloud-shaped tutu is sea-god Poseidon. I record the comical peak of the show.
Eva Dewaele, who previously danced with Cullberg and the Opera de Lyon and joined the company last year as first soloist, was selected for the ungrateful role of Penelope. She faithfully flounders and stares through the endless reeling, stooping, fainting in coils, and rolling over the floor, now solo, then with one of the suitors, yet fails for all that to draw you into her plight. The show was very much stolen by a perky Geneviève Van Quaquebeke, who has natural presence and a nonchalant charm to boast. Some of the company’s best male dancers like Wim Vanlessen and Alain Honorez appeared in the gang of seven suitors. Spuck devised some ensemble work for them based on classical steps. It suffices to show what these dancers really should be doing. Every now and then another mixed group comes and goes (the programme calls them the courtiers), women on pointe shoes, but nothing is done with them except some music-hall steps and silly arm movements.
The musical accompaniment of the performance consists of an equally ponderous mixture of orchestral pieces and aria’s by Henry Purcell (played live by deFilharmonie under Benjamin Pope) and American and French pop songs from the 1940-50’s by Doris Day, Perry Como, Bobby Vinton, and Charles Trenet. While Purcell was hesitantly played from the pit and it was left to German soprano Susanne Duwe’s beautiful singing on stage to touch the heart, dancers continuously switched on the reel to reel tape recorder to play the songs. It’s impossible to tell how Spuck hears Purcell’s fragments and no doubt it wouldn’t have mattered if goddess fate had chosen a completely different score - or if there was no music whatsoever. But then again what can you expect from a dance-maker who declares in interviews that audiences need to be irritated by the choice of music in order to keep them awake and be attentive to what happens onstage?
Needless to say, we were all very attentive when Perry Como crooned “Magic Moments” and the suitors one by one started fondling Eva Dewaele’s breasts and crotch. Undoubtedly the emotional climax of the evening and by any means an unforgettable theatrical experience.
The rapturous reception of “The Return of Ulysses” on opening night suggested that audiences out here enjoy these descents into depression land and absurdistan. Fine, but may we next have some ballet, please?
All photos by Johann Person:
Top: Eva Dewaele.
Middle: Eva Dewaele and Howard Quintero.
Bottom: Eva Dewaele.
Volume 4, No. 43
December 4, 2006
copyright ©2006 by Marc Haegeman