The Staatsballett Berlin’s (Berlin State Ballet) shows at the National Theater on Friday and Saturday night were greeted with rapturous applause, with at least five curtain calls each night and calls for encores. The company may have arrived in Taipei as an unknown entity, but audiences certainly liked what they saw and did not want the dancers to leave.
What they saw on both nights were bravura performances by the company’s principals and soloists, though overall the two programs were uneven.
The company performed Mauro Bigonzetti’s Caravaggio on Thursday and Friday, which, though beautifully danced, appeared to be a loose collection of dances, not a unified narrative. Like Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s own artworks, the ballet was dominated by extreme contrasts of light and darkness. Carlo Cerri’s lighting design featured inky darkness and harsh white lighting that made the dancers appear almost alabaster and defined every muscle, every sinew of their bodies, which were clearly on show given the rather skimpy costumes Kristoppher Millar and Lois Swandale designed for the principal dancers. The modified briefs they provided for artistic director and principal Vladimir Malakhov were the most unflattering of the lot.
The first half of the two-act ballet was hard to follow even if you looked at the program beforehand. Act II was easier to link with the paintings for which each of the five segments was named, such as The Calling of Saint Matthew and The Maryrdom of Saint Matthew.
Bigonzetti’s interpretation concentrates on the painter’s inner conflicts, with lots of tortuous emotion — which only served to make the ensemble pieces for the corps de ballet in Act I, which were light and lively, appear completely out of context with the rest of the ballet. They may have been aimed at representing the boisterous street life of the times, but they appeared to be there just to give the corps something to do.
The two female characters that dominate Caravaggio were danced by Nadja Saidakova, who was all sharp angles and icy coolness, and Elisa Carrillo Cabrera. What you leave the theater remembering are the solos and pas de deux, especially those in Act II, with lifts and combinations that showed the dancers’ incredible control and virtuosity: Beatrice Knop and Leonard Jakovina were terrific, as were Shoko Nakamura and Michael Banzhaf, while the pas de deux between Malakhov and Jakovina oozed sex and was the best of the best.
The pas de deux on Saturday’s program were also the most memorable, especially the flair Jakovina and Knop displayed in Ronald Savkovic’s Transparente and the chemistry of Saidakova and Malakhov in Angelin Preljocaj’s Le Parc. Iana Salenko and Dinu Tamazlacaru gave one of the crispest performances of the Don Quixote pas de deux this reviewer has seen.
Also terrific were the solos by Rainer Krenstetter in Renato Zanella’s Barocco and Marian Walter in Gyula Pandi’s Lacrimosa, which gave these two men the chance to show both their acting and their dancing range.
Saturday’s program opened with Act II of Swan Lake, with Nakamura as Odile, partnered by her husband, Wieslaw Dudek, who makes a great prince. However, it was strange to see the dancers on a bare stage, with just a blue-lit screen as a backdrop. The lack of the usual forest set gave the piece a curiously clinical air and left this reviewer feeling unusually detached from a favorite piece.
The program closed with Malakhov’s The Four Seasons, a classically inspired divertissement that, while competently danced, left the viewer underwhelmed and wondering what the costume designer was thinking of.