Fauré’s Requiem as Theatre: Stephen Baynes Choreographs the Australian Ballet

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Kirsty Martin and Kevin Jackson's pas de deux from Stephen Baynes' Requiem. Photo: Jeff Busby.

The Arts Centre, State Theatre, Melbourne: 9 June 2011
continues until 18 June

The Australian Ballet in partnership with Victorian Opera with Orchestra Victoria

Beyond Bach
choreography – Stephen Baynes
music – Johann Sebastian Bach: Sonata for viola da gamba and cembolo BWV 1028 adagio; Overture (suite) no. 3 in D Major 1068; Sheep May Safely Graze (from William Walton’s arrangements for “The Wise Virgins”)
costume design – Anna French
set design – Andrew Carter
lighting design – Kenneth Rayner

Juliet Burnett
Adam Bull
Amber Scott
Andrew Killian

choreography – Stephen Baynes
music – Gabriel Fauré: Requiem Op 48
costume design – Anna French
set design – Richard Roberts
lighting design – Nigel Levings

Marilyn Jones
Kirsty Martin
Madeleine Eastoe
Lana Jones
Kevin Jackson
Robert Curran
Andrew Killian

Soprano – Janet Todd
Baritone – Gary Rowley
Members of the Victorian Opera Chorus

Orchestra Victoria
conducted by Nicolette Fraillon

Resident Australian Ballet choreographer Stephen Baynes just in the act of choosing Fauré’s Requiem mass for a new ballet for the (Australian) Federation Centenary in 2001 clearly stated his concept. He bravely steered to a huge and personal topic in creating a ballet around death with that intimate choral music, and his keen understanding of the music and inventive choreography insure that neither the dancing nor the musical elements step on the other’s toes, as it were. On the contrary the close marriage of choreography and music, though of course not written with the slightest intention for the ballet, sets it as an excellent example of ‘old’ music though already near perfect, benefiting from the added dancing, the choreography finding new depths, no deeper or shallower than the music’s alone, but different depths found only in theatrical arts. Indeed, Stephen Baynes’ ballet introduced me to new approaches to Fauré’s music. Beyond Bach, the other ballet in this all-Baynes double bill showing only in Melbourne, is powerful enough to stand alongside Requiem with neither overshadowing the other. It is almost abstract and shows a deep love for history and J. S. Bach.

Beyond Bach, unlike Requiem, very much follows the traditional classical ballet style, so we can see just in this program some of Stephen Baynes’ great versatility, but at the same time his unique world view shows just as clearly from a different facet in the more traditional work. Baynes proves tradition is in no way restrictive here. Indeed the classical form speaks perfectly to the music so that perhaps it was the only natural choice. The staging is original too: a faint mist of incense evenly covers the stage, the scent in the theatre is very light, but it blurs shapes in the back of the stage slightly. The lighting reinforces this effect by picking out cooler, dimmer colors in the costumes in the back and warmer, clearer ones in the front, presenting an image like a painting where perspective and also choice of colors and light convince the viewer of a real world behind the frame which they could walk into, but in this case the world is behind the proscenium.

There is a curving staircase stage left, and on the other side three pieces of furniture like large compasses or Newton’s pendula hanging from above, which are lifted up like chandeliers near the beginning of the ballet. These, and the small window in the back of the stage showing a view of a bright blue sky painted with idealized cumulus clouds, evoke the Age of Enlightenment, underlining that quality of the music. The feeling of curiosity, hope, faith in the future and exaltation in existence of the refined choreography and the dancers’ unself-conscious absorption into the music which has these same feelings, enveloped the audience in this newly-created sub-world.

Amber Scott and Andrew Killian in Stephen Baynes' Beyond Bach. Photo: Jeff Busby.

To open and close the ballet, a woman in a wig and subtly variegated purple-mauve silk gown floats across the stage, matronly, stately and graceful, as if protecting and fostering the ballet’s world and its dancing without directly interacting or taking part, like a fairy. Otherwise the dancers generally dance in couples, with some swapping, or rather communication between them. The ballet has a festive, celebratory atmosphere, even if there are some very poignant parts in the middle. At one prominent point three men do dance together alone on stage, which seems to be something of a Stephen Baynes signature.

Although all contribute nearly equally to a ballet which is mainly a single dynamic grouping, there would seem to be a main couple who dance a sort of climax to the ballet with Sheep may safely graze. After he runs on from the back, emerging from the misty background, she comes down the stairs, subtly exuding much character in her careful descent — very slightly reticent, mixed with blushing pleasure and excited anticipation. As is generally the case in Baynes’ pas de deux and partnered dancing, the two dancers form graceful shapes together while he supports her, reaching out to follow her arabesque or her turning with extended arms. They are joined by the others and Walton’s rather English Romantic orchestration of the Bach aria stands out as a nice contrast to the very Baroque Overture (suite) no. 2 and viola da gamba sonata in the earlier parts.

The piece ends rather abruptly, which is my only criticism of the choreography, if that is critical. The ballet is leisurely and well-paced and I felt still had momentum enough to go on for hours, though without an explicit plot and only a minimal concept, so I was sad to see it end. The music was so wonderfully played and unrushed  under conductor Nicolette Fraillon so that it would have made a fine concert program on its own, but also the choreography was in close harmony with it, forming a strongly melded whole. More importantly, it looked as if the dancers took enormous pleasure to dance those steps to that music, as if they could have gone on for much longer.

Requiem begins in silence, with the curtain lifted a quarter of the way, the stage dark with barely visible humanoid shapes deep in the back. The figures move forward into the light so that they gradually grow into recognizable human bodies dressed in black which continue to walk very slowly and steadily towards us. They turn and walk back as others emerge from their shadows to take their place at the front of the stage. With this silence extending for a couple of minutes at least, the effect is very dramatic and deeply moving, quite frightening in fact. By the time the music begins with its fortissimo horn and bassoon dyad, played here with quite a bite, almost snarly for an instant — interestingly, a quality that horn looses in the repeat at the end of the piece, — the stage is illuminated, though lowly. It is a neutral gray box without wings fading into a black pointillist pattern at the top of the walls, which proves to be enough but not too much set, for the music becomes the dancers’ environment. The dancers stand along the sides of the walls, randomly spaced when not dancing. Their costumes are plain: black dresses, the skirts varying in length, either to the ankle, knee or miniskirt, some in mesh fabric. The men’s are black pants with black shirts, some sleeveless, some with short sleeves. A sole, older woman (Marilyn Jones) appears first and would seem to be ‘in charge’, somewhat like the woman in purple in Beyond Bach, but she has a maternal air, more human, though perhaps more like a queen-goddess, which would remove the piece further from the Church. The variation in the style of clothes and movement of the dancers is enough to suggest individuals in a community. When the chorus, hidden behind the thin back curtain-wall begin to sing “requiem aeternam” the dancers become afraid, they prick their ears and try to flee the massed disembodied voices, make a circuit around the set, and the music leaves the dancers cast about the stage.

The dancing, though the steps, forms and technique are classical, are used in an untraditional, unfamiliar way, evoking something ‘other’. There are different dances for each of the sections of the mass but they follow each other nearly continuously. There is nothing ecclesiastical about the ballet, it is secular in so far as the subject allows, and very much humanist; the ‘characters’ seem exposed to the outdoors, to nature, to the greater, raw element. The choreography feels the music deeply and is poetic; the ballet has a transcendental quality in the way it unfolds and ends. The whole ballet flows continuously seeming without discrete steps, without any disjunction of feeling, though there are great changes, great at least within the subtlety of the ballet, but epiphanies of sorts. Towards the end, a woman dances a solo, the lights come up as bright as ever in the whole piece, and her bright, light fluttering, small-bird-like dance is like a fresh breeze, like coming upon the Arthur Streeton plein air paintings in the Ian Potter Centre after all the grand early- and mid-nineteenth century naturalist landscapes, not necessarily better than what came earlier, but just the right change at just the right moment. Also the pas de deux over the Sanctus (with Madeleine Eastoe and Robert Curran, I believe), though more poignant and serious, has a sweet freshness to it. They dance upon a pond of light projected down on the stage, dappled by small shadows. The music seems to drip light down on them, but at one point he runs off, apprehensive or scared, and she runs after him to put her hands on his shoulders. Their movements are flowing and tender, light but still tactile, still strong and resisting to pressure, just enough friction for them to communicate their inner thoughts and feelings and the arabesque-like patterns they form of their bodies together make for a very moving empathic conversation, a deep feeling-into the human condition, immediately felt also by the viewer. These detailed and nuanced feelings exists through and through the ballet.

Like Stephen Baynes’ other works, this one is so much a collective creation of the whole company it is hard to single out individuals, though at the same time the choreography is very detailed. When, as in most of Requiem, there are several couple dancing at once, they all dance different steps together and it gets quite complex. This versatility of the choreography seems to fit and complement each of the dancers in each of their rôles so well that there is a very strong sense of characterization,  each character with a real personality, separate from their partner and the others, despite the lack of of plot, story or libretto which usually helps an actor-dancer with their character’s behavior and motivations.

I admit to having a prejudice against the idea of a ballet with singing in its score, though Requiem clearly proves this wrong. Having words in a ballet can feel like cheating and I think sometimes breaks up the flow of expressive movement, the added human voice distracts, competing for attention and fighting against the dancer on stage. Perhaps this is a basic problem for works of total theatre in general which makes their creation so difficult. In Requiem however, the three way creation (a Trinity?)— orchestra, dancers and singers, even when the soloists sing, illuminated as they are behind the screen in the back, feels cooperative, all adding to an irreducible whole, all as equal partners — a shining example of total theatre. It likely helps here that the mass lyrics are not narrative or illustrative in any sense and the singers seem involved, unlike a greek chorus. It’s as if such a large crew were needed to support one another in this transcendental exploration, though there is never a feeling of a large cast or a crowd on the stage nor grandeur, just as the music is so gentle and subtle despite the number of musicians and ranging colors of sound. The subject of death really is not grand and has no pomp, but is common, after all everything in the universe feels its effect, but the sense of wonder of all involved in this piece, not least Nicolette Fraillon in her conducting of the orchestra, is so expansive that it pushes out on those grey walls, despite the deep fear felt on occasion, though perhaps wonder always has an in-built tinge of fear. Indeed near the end, the solidity of the walls is broken when a powerful sunny light shines through one of the sides and the full chorus is illuminated behind the back curtain-wall.

Even if there is no obvious sharp climax in Requiem, the ballet’s participants, dancers and musicians as characters do seem to arrive at the end, not at some pre-imposed goal or end or trite sense of ‘closure’, but at a continuing epiphany, a state of greater wisdom even if not all their questions are, or can be, answered. In this way they become much like the Enlightened people in Beyond Bach, and one looking on from the audience I think too is so moved.

About the author

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller lives in Sydney and writes mostly about music and theatre, especially ballet and opera.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and once studied the piano and trombone.

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