Scottish Ballet at 2011 Edinburgh International Festival
Ashley Page and Jorma Elo on the EIF programme
This article is from 2011.
Ashley Page maintains that, when putting together Scottish Ballet’s new double bill for the Edinburgh International Festival, pairing the legendary Scottish choreographer Kenneth MacMillan’s neo-classical 1965 piece Song of the Earth with a completely new work, created on Scottish Ballet’s dancers by the Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo, he was thinking practically, not thematically.
‘It’s been at the back of my mind for years that I’d like to do something of Kenneth MacMillan’s at some point, and I’d considered a number of works, but the situation needs to be quite right. And then Jonathan Mills invited us to do the Festival this year. He mentioned that there would be an Asian theme, and I think originally had wanted us to collaborate in some way with the National Ballet of China.’
For various reasons that exciting-sounding pairing didn’t come about, but the idea of China had been foregrounded in Page’s mind, leading him to Song of the Earth: Gustave Mahler’s song cycle of the same name was based on poems from the ancient Chinese T’ang dynasty, translated into German.
‘It seemed a very neat way to tie in with the Festival’s theme and still get a great ballet into our repertoire. But I wanted to set something contemporary against it, and I’d been looking at a way to work with Jorma for a while. It’s just a way of giving variation and showcasing the company’s range: there’s no absolute connection between the two works.’
Visually pared-back to focus on the intensity of Mahler’s music, Song of the Earth is considered to be one of MacMillan’s masterpieces. Although abstract in form, there’s an idea of narrative running through it: two lovers, part of a group of young people blissfully unaware of their own mortality, are visited by a Messenger of Death. In MacMillan’s hands, the Messenger isn’t necessarily a sinister figure (indeed, the role is often deliberately given to a smaller, slighter male dancer), more a benign memento mori, aiding the lovers towards acceptance of the regeneration that comes through death. It’s a celebration of the cycles of living that has enormous resonance both throughout the ballet world — Darcy Bussell chose Song of the Earth for her final performance before retirement — and for this company, at this stage of their development. Despite the Chinese and German roots, MacMillan’s Scottish heritage forges a particular connection to the company; it also may be significant that Page, who performed in the work as a young dancer at the Royal Ballet, has chosen to revisit it now towards the end of his tenure with Scottish Ballet. Certainly, the arrival of Donald MacLeary, who danced the male lover in the Royal Ballet’s 1966 production and who has been involved with versions of the production ever since, to the Scottish Ballet rehearsal room seems like a lovely act of balance and symbolism.
‘It’s great to have someone who has this sort of history with the piece, this depth of understanding, rehearsing with us,’ says Page. The company will also be joined onstage by mezzo soprano Katarina Karnéus and tenor Peter Wedd, singing the pieces in the original German; although this shouldn’t necessarily present problems in understanding the work.
‘I would say MacMillan has responded more to that surge of power and beauty in the music than the words,’ says Page. ‘The music has such a dark, sombre beauty to it. There are lighter passages, but there’s a sense of something ominous hanging over the piece.’
On the surface, Jorma Elo’s new, non-narrative piece — still being created when I speak to him, less than a fortnight before its premiere — seems if not at odds, then just very, very different from MacMillan’s masterwork. As a primary source, Elo has used Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 1, created when the composer was only nineteen, and an exuberant, high-spirited piece.
‘The Mozart suggested colour. I felt I wanted to make something very colourful: I’ve done a lot of dark things recently,’ Elo says, talking about the planned sparkling, jewel-bright costumes the work will feature and the tone generally. ‘At this point in the creation it’s taking its own road in a way. I don’t where we’re going, but I love to work with the dancers in the studio. I try to give them a lot of freedom in the moment — that’s the most fun. We’re making this work from an open playground.’
However, the contrast with Song of the Earth is not so sharp as it might seem. Just as MacMillan’s young, carefree dancers are given time to drink, carouse and celebrate within a sombre work, so Elo has undercut his romantic, playful work around Mozart with a final quarter set to Steve Reich’s Double Sextet, which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize. ‘These two pieces of music are so different — polar opposites — that I thought it would make a very interesting contrast to pair them up,’ Elo explains. The Reich piece is a minimalist work, focused on tonal rhythm: it leads the dancers into jerked, spiky movement, a self-aware reminder of the bare bones of the dance.
Elo has responded to these two music stimuli with just as much intensity as Page describes in MacMillan’s work, too.
‘I usually start with the music, and I listen to it so much that it becomes an almost primitive thing: I go to a new plane, swim in it for a couple of months, and so it begins to be the environment I’m in, it’s a breathing element connected to my skin.
‘For me, Song of the Earth is a masterpiece: it’s a privilege to be creating a work to be shown on the same evening. My work exists on its own, and although I’m working with the same dancers I haven’t been involved in any of the rehearsals for it. At the back of my head while creating, though, I’ve been aware that these two pieces will be visible together. There might be subliminal connections between the works. I hope so!’
Edinburgh Playhouse, 473 2000, Fri 26–Sun 28 Aug, 7.30pm, £12–£44.