BWW Review: Soloists Shine, but Ambitious SHADES OF LOVE is Undercut by Whitewashing and Poor Design
Cape Town City Ballet is nothing if not ambitious. SHADES OF LOVE, the current offering from the struggling company, sees choreographer Ashley Killar stage a five-piece programme consisting three of his own pieces and two recreations of mid-twentieth century pieces by John Cranko. While SHADES OF LOVE sees some of the company's featured artists dancing superbly, the production never coheres into a fully-realised evening of ballet. Part of this is because the theme is approached, at times, in too general a manner; part of it is because the production design is, frankly, sub-par.
SHADES OF LOVE opens with "Towards Illusion", a dance about dancing that is not danced particularly well - at least by the corps de ballet, whose work in unison is slipshod and whose canons lack dynamics. Set to Benjamin Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, this was a rather underwhelming start to the evening's proceedings, with the company's principals and soloists working hard to buoy the piece. Xola Putye and Thomas Thorne are memorable as a pair of dancers with different strengths whose mini-narrative around cultural exchange makes for an entertaining diversion. Martin Milner and Tracy Li's pas de deux also lift the spirits, with Milner's extension and comic play leaving a particular imprint on the mind. Nonetheless, the dilemma of a corps de ballet that cannot dance as an ensemble has plagued Cape Town City Ballet for several years and it is high time that the company addressed this problem in a more urgent manner.
"Beauty and the Beast" is an abridged retelling of the famous fairy tale first written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. Focusing on the interaction between the two titular characters, the original version of this ballet, choreographed by John Cranko to selections from Marice Ravel's Ma mère l'Oye, appeared in 1949 and is reconstructed by Killar for this presentation. The choreography has a formal beauty that is of its time, but Claire Spector and Daniel Szybkowski's interpretation makes the piece feel immediate without compromising its style. Spector, in particular, is excellent in this extended pas de deux, her beautiful line, her graceful port de bra and her articulate footwork all coming together in the service of character, storytelling and dance. Perhaps unexpectedly, "Beauty and the Beast" ends up being a most remarkable inclusion in the programme owing to the palpable sense of watching history both recreated and interrogated anew.
The third item in the line-up is "The Miraculous Mandarin". The original story by Menyhért Lengyel inspired Béla Bartók to set the story to music, describing his setting as a pantomime rather than a ballet because he wanted to break the association between traditional perceptions of ballet music and his composition. Killar composed his choreography for this piece, the most compelling of his three original pieces in SHADES OF LOVE, in 1989 for the NAPAC Dance Company.
In this staging of the piece, "The Miraculous Mandarin" becomes something of a semiotic nightmare. Like "Beauty and the Beast", "The Miraculous Mandarin" is set up as a tale of the transformative power of compassionate love. Its origins present some ideas that require intervention in contemporary stagings of the piece - and not because of its history of being banned on the grounds of immorality. There are the Orientalist references and motifs that so often appear in modernist works. In Bartók's music, a typical nod to early-century perceptions of Asian music is heard in a theme played by the trombones when the Mandarin is lured into the den of a group of con-artists by a woman who performs sensual dances as an ambush for unsuspecting victims. The Mandarin's desire for sexual consummation is so great that not even death stills his yearning. Only the woman's pity can release him from his pain. Thus, a white saviour narrative is layered onto a view of Chinese culture that is characterised, via the Mandarin and modernist attitudes, by insatiable sexuality, by a perceived Chinese gaze that objectifies Caucasian women, and as a static set of traditions that is out of touch with the modern world. Adding to an already convoluted foundation, Killar and the Cape Town City Ballet casts a white ballet dancer to play a Chinese role, negotiating neither the original characterisation of the Mandarin nor the politics of racial representation on stage in 2016. Exacerbating matters is the casting of the pimp and his two thugs as a white boss with black servants, an example of visual rhetoric that has no place on a South African stage outside of a production dramatising history - and even there the choice needs thorough consideration.
The performances of Ivan Boonzaaier as the Mandarin and Rosamund Ford as the Girl are excellent. It is devastating that Boonzaaier gives the performance of the night in a role that he should not be dancing. He is powerful and dynamic, with an ability to convey intense emotional truth through the choreography. Ford too pushes to develop an emotional throughline in her role, her purposefully unenthused lockspiel developing into an unbridled display of character and technique elsewhere in the piece. In a cameo as a Young Man, Craig Pedro also impresses with his accuracy and ability to characterise.
The programme of SHADES OF LOVE highlights the use of Peter Cazalet's original set designs for "The Miraclous Mandarin", the only credit given for the scenic design of any of the dances presented here. As realised on stage in this production, the design is a failure, lacking cohesion and dimension. The design Faheem Bardien's lighting design, which is bland throughout, flattens the design along with any atmosphere the ballet attempts to contrive. Additionally, as in all the other ballets, the lighting of the mostly uninspired scenic design lacks imagination and focus, reflecting no effort whatsoever to contribute to the storytelling or mood. The sound design is dreadful throughout the performance, with the mix coming through the speakers failing even to attempt any compensation for the lack of a live orchestra. At no point does the music feel present in the space.
The penultimate piece in SHADES OF LOVE is "Tritsch-Tratsh", a John Cranko ballet that celebrates its seventieth anniversary this year. A charming piece danced exuberantly by Elizabeth Nienaber, Revil Yon and Conrad Nusser to a score by Johann Strauss II, it is nonetheless padding that extends the programme without augmenting it.
SHADES OF LOVE closes with "Sarabande", the second key piece in the programme. Originally choreographed for PACT Ballet, Killar has revised his ballet extensively for Cape Town City Ballet. Set to Maurice Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, "Sarabande" takes a more abstract view of love, flirting with Symbolism as cloaked figures surround a man and the woman he loves. There is some flashy work here in both design and execution, with Thomas Thone partnering Laura Bosenberg in an effortless execution of Killar's steps. The final image is superb.
Cape Town City Ballet perpetually seems to be at a turning point. At every production I attend, I hope to see the company boldly break free from everything that prevents it being what it would like to be: an organisation that delivers 'unique, world-class dance entertainment through integrity, creativity and excellence.' While SHADES OF LOVE is certainly a creative endeavour, the whitewashing of a role in a racially diverse company sees the production fall short on integrity, while its thematic looseness, poor design and the variable levels of proficiency in dance performance mean than it cannot be called excellent. With productions of COPPELIA, the double bill of THE VORTEX and OF GODS AND MEN, and THE SLEEPING BEAUTY forthcoming, it is time for Cape Town City Ballet works mindfully and more purposefully to meet its goal.
SHADES OF LOVE runs in the Artscape Opera House in Cape Town until 22 May, with tickets for the evening performances costing R120 - R200 and those for the matinees (which exclude "The Miraculous Mandarin" in favour of two family friendly extracts) costing R100 - R180. Tickets are available through Computicket or Artscape Dial-a-Seat on 021 421 7695. For more information, visit the Cape Town City Ballet website or the company's Facebook page.