Barbican Britten: Phaedra

It’s quite the task to choreograph dance that commemorates one of the greatest musical figures of the twentieth century, but it takes a much finer degree of balance to do this while creating a work that stands up by itself. That’s what can be learnt through the four dances that make up Richard Alston’s programme, as he leads his company through Benjamin Britten’s Lachrymae, Hölderlin Fragments, Phaedra and Illuminations in this talent-rich and emotionally-limited night.

The choreography teeters proficiently and politely on the border between classical and contemporary dance. But if mere proficiency is not your goal, you’d be wise to turn the bulk of your focus not to the motions of Alston’s dancers, but to Britten Sinfonia, the chamber orchestra located, in various configurations, in prime position on stage through the night. Multifaceted enough to eliminate the need for any figurative interpretation, our music first comes from a feisty string assemble, before tenor Robin Tritschler and his piano accompanist Christopher Glynn add energy and sensual cohesion to fragmentary scenes. Later, the operatic cries of a mezzo-soprano backed by a string orchestra enrich an ancient story, before the string ensemble returns to embrace the final song cycle of the night. The musicians’ positioning on the stage is key here. Elevated from the shadows of the orchestra pit, our instrumentalists bear just as much visual clout as the dancers. Responding to this location, the strings expressively charge through their manuscripts. Their presence is dynamic, and by keeping them on stage Alston unwittingly undermines his own interpretation, reminding us that there is not just one way to be moved by Britten’s music.

That’s not to say the dancers don’t bring their own visual quality. In Lachrymae, to the tune of a string ensemble led by the captivatingly talented Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, the performers are elegantly lit to their full, photogenic brilliance. Illuminated by Peter Mumford’s original lighting, every second of Alston’s first piece could be captured for the company programme. In tan clothes and under magnificent, constant beams, the dancers melt and sexlessly intertwine as the melody ebbs. Taken as snap-shops, this is visually engaging stuff, but it certainly doesn’t hold much narrative power. Alston praises the mood of the song as “subdued” and “melancholy”, but in his choreography this translates as an awkward, non-committal mime. Indeed, the choreography reflects the tone of the music, but it is far too obedient – and such mimicry is a contrived and malnourished accompaniment.

A more resonant dialogue between dance and music is to found in the second piece, Hölderlin Fragments, where the choreography is less bound by a musical trajectory, empowering the dancers to find their feet. Here, the rises and falls of the dancers are less tied to crescendos and diminuendos, and there’s a departure from the previous movement, which translated sound to visuals in the choreographed equivalent of stereo lights. Meaning is more abundant here, with certain dancers symbolically embodying a particular characteristic of the music. Oihana Vesga Bujan and Liam Riddick become ‘Home’; ‘Youth’ is a playful Nathan Goodman, who pivots his hips cheekily, until he is caught by another on stage and rapidly makes an embarrassed escape. There’s humour here, and there’s sensuality. While the first piece lacked true substance, Hölderlin Fragments treats us to some charged interactions, and an elegant aggression. Here, Alston’s choreography teases us with false expectation. Movements are echoed and patterns are suggested, but the repetitions breaks off, subtly communicating more challenging relationships. These fragments are focused, moody and violent, though the piece falters at the end as the dancers group to look towards a bold ray of light. It’s a cliched interpretation of hope and, even in this strikingly more evocative piece, in battling with the emotional complexity of Britten’s work, the company ends up reductive.

In Phaedra, the partnership between music and movement is more creatively fashioned, as mezzo-soprano Allison Cook enters centre stage to belt out Britten’s short opera, inspired by Jean Racine’s 1677 play. The subtle flashes of red that blaze through Cook’s long, metallic gown echo the colours of the dancers, as they drift around her in crimson shift dresses.  Our lavishly dressed opera singer and simply-clad dancers originate in different cultural worlds, but they gel together to fuel Phaedra’s situation. Surrounding the lead character with an asphyxiating intensity, Alston’s company forms a emotionally charged chorus, taunting the central figure, and encouraging her demise. Phaedra declares “I want to die”, and her spirit accompaniments crash to the floor; when she clasps a red bottle of poison, they crawl towards her, their demonic, liquid force mapping the flow of the venom. But while Phaedra negotiates boundaries between dance and opera through its literal and demonic worlds, it does little to communicate the true psychological horror of the mythical character’s situation. Cook’s operatic voice is laced with taut bitterness, but the company skips over the evocative potential of Phaedra’s forbidden lust for her stepson. An idea of tension is loosely administered, and the thrill and horror of taboo isn’t quite alive.

Does Alston’s programme inspire an engagement with Britten? Certainly. But other than this doorway into a classical Spotify playlist, Barbican Britten: Phaedra offers little inspiration. The traditional view of music as a facilitator of movement and interpretation is shattered, and the power-play between the two disciplines is subtly shifted as dance attempts to guide our enjoyment of music. In a touching speech before the opening performance, Alston expresses his devotion to the composer by declaring, “If you don’t like it, it’s not Britten’s fault. It’s mine”. It would be unfair to burden Alston with too much blame;  this programme parrots the tone of its inspiration well, and in such imitation the Artistic Director’s respect for Britten is clear to see. That said, the choreography offers little in the way of new insights, and in humbly articulating Alston’s admiration for Britten, the dance manages to mute itself.

Published on Exeunt: http://exeuntmagazine.com/reviews/barbican-britten-phaedra/

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