Tuesday 16 July 2013

Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale

Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale is a compact piece, deliberately so. The work was written when Stravinsky was marooned in Switzerland during World War One and uses just seven instrumentalists and three actors, plus dancers to tell the story. It was conceived by Stravinsky and the Swiss writer CF Ramuz, based on a Russian folk-tale and was premiered in Lausanne in 1918 with Ernest Ansermet conducting. As part of the International Youth Arts Festival in Kingston-upon-Thames, the Constella Ballet and Orchestra mounted a production of the Soldier's Tale at the Rose Theatre on 15 July 2013 with choreography by Jaered Glavin.

The Constella Orchestra was founded by conductor/composer Leo Geyer and clarinettist Henry Clay as a student run ensemble featuring players from many of the UK universities and conservatoires. Since their founding in 2011 their impressive programme has encompassed Beethoven's Violin Concerto with Simon Standage, Stravinsky's Pulcinella and Clay's own opera The Mermaid of Zennor.

This new venture, a fully staged version of the Soldier's Tale was choreographed by Jaered Glavin who studied with the Royal Ballet School and danced with the Royal New Zealand Ballet from 2008 to 2012. Glavin's production used a black stage with just a table and chair stage left and the instrumental ensemble stage right. The narrator was Saul Boyer, a young actor, writer and director who is currently studying at Cambridge. He was placed standing next to the ensemble and was the only one of the actors to be amplified.

The roles of the Soldier and the Devil were double cast, the Soldier played by actor Joseph Brown and the dancer Pierre Doncq, the Devil by actress Rachel Maby and dance Sophie Apollonia. We first encountered the Soldier marching home, with dancer Pierre Doncq doing Glavin's rather over-athletic choreography. When Joseph Brown appeared, both he and Doncq were dressed alike, though one was dark skinned and the other pale. The two almost danced together, and when the Devil appeared in the guise of Maby and Apollonia, whilst Maby tempted Brown, Apollonia danced with Doncq and it was clear that in Glavin's view the temptation was a sexual one. His choreography for Doncq, when he interacted both with Apollonia and with Joanne Thwaite's Princess, used a highly sexual body language.

Whilst Glavin did choregraph some of Saul Boyer's speeches to interesting effect, he also knew when to do nothing, such as the moment when the Soldier (Brown) realised he had been away for three years not three days. And when Brown defeated Maby at cards (with the help of Boyer's narrator), it was Apollonia who helped raise the Princess from her sleep and the resulting dance was a pas de trois, between Apollonia, Doncq and Thwaite, showing that the Soldier is never rid of the Devil.

I had a high regard for Glavin's direction and his conception of the work, as stagecraft it worked very well. Where I had problems was with his choreography which was, for my taste, a little too athletic in style and too illustrative of the popular rhythms of Stravinsky's score, without moving to deeper, more tragic levels. The portrayal of the Devil rose above this because Maby was so wonderfully malevolent and somehow convinced as the dual aspect with Apollonia. Brown as the Soldier was far more passive, inevitably, and did not always gel so well with Doncq.

Glavin's danced sometimes commented aptly on the narrative, for instance with Apollonia and Doncq dancing in the background. But too often, the dance seemed to fulfil no narrative or emotional purpose, such as the very long sequence where Doncq danced with Apollonia and Thwaite, both scantily clad as attendants at the King's palace. This sequence was very popular with the audience but did not seem to add anything to the emotional narrative.

I wish that a way could have been found for Boyer not to be amplified. He had such a lovely, expressive and mellifluous voice that it was a pity we could not hear it naturally. But still, he made a very vivid and involved narrator.

I have only admiration and praise for the Constella Orchestra and their conductor Leo Geyer. Stravinsky's neo-classical writing leaves little room for instrumentalists to hide and the popular rhythms that underlay the music must be crisp and accurate. All this was in place along with some highly expressive playing, giving a darkness and depth to the music.

It seems a shame that the performance was rather buried, being at 1pm on a rather hot Monday afternoon. I do hope that Constella will be doing the production again. According to the group's publicity they have plans for further ballets.
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