Royal Danish Ballet
Shaken Mirror (Rystet spejl)
Copenhagen, Royal Danish Playhouse
28 May 2016
Seeing the premiere of Kim Brandstrup’s Shaken Mirror in Copenhagen proved both an uplifting and a frustrating experience.
The frustration came from the fact that I’m not a Dane, don’t speak Danish and I think to really understand Shaken Mirror you needed to be able to read and understand the programme and the references that Brandstrup is drawing on. I’m a great believer in rocking up at a show and letting what happens on stage do the talking (that’s what most people do), but in this case that turned out to be a difficult place to be – I’ve never been at a show which used so much projected text to amplify the action, all of which goes over the head of non-Danish speakers. It’s so not a show where the steps alone do the talking. The piece itself was not always clear either, but I don’t think it’s intended to be – it’s a hazy world we are in. I’m not complaining as such – I’m the outsider in this. Although the programme had nothing in English about the show there were some short bits of blurb on the RDB website and in PR material circulated last year. But not much of it is clear factually as to the show’s 75 minutes. That’s art for you and why we go see stuff!
Despite the frustrations I came away rather impressed at what is probably a 4 star show if you can understand it all. Shaken Mirror is Brandstrup’s take on the poems of the well-known contemporary Danish poet, Soren Ulrik Thomsen. They have been friends since High School and, according to Wikipedia, Thomsen is interested in great existential human conditions such as death and loneliness, creation and destruction. Shaken Mirror is a collection of poems from 5 years ago and Brandstrup didn’t look to animate each one (there are 43 in the collection) so much as present his take on the thrust of them. The PR blurb talked of “three distinct stories” being told but I couldn’t discern that – it looked like more and being told in overlapping ways. What I did see were 18 dancers largely showing aspects of family relationships in a rather sombre way. It ends in a suicide. Besides its core of Royal Danish Ballet dancers it’s notable for having older children and pensionable character dancers involved and I like that serious and wider view. The ensemble brought a lot of characters to fleeting life.
The fantastic glue of the telling is the set, lighting and clever projections, the work of Bente Lykke Moller, Jean Kalman and Leo Warner respectively. They use an enormous stage-wide revolve and it’s fascinating to see the set change and grow and grow over the 75 minutes. The back of the revolve is in darkness and they must reconfigure what are the rooms of a house back there while the revolve is on the move – it’s totally seamless. It becomes almost a labyrinth and 2 stories high in parts. And when the set is fully seen at the front, still moving, text projections (of fragments of the poems presumably) seem to cleverly track the movement. Much is also made of a front cloth projecting a blizzard or the haziness of memories so you see only parts of what is happening behind. But viewpoints can open rapidly to frame some specific action. Over the last few years I’ve seen a number of shows that sought to use high technology to enhance the dance experience and I’ve generally thought ‘Meh’ at best, but here it came together and really supported dance drama at a new design level. All up, the seamless way this show moves along and the use of technology really picks up on Brandstrup’s well-known cinematic eye and takes it to a new level. It must take a lot of setting up, and touring would be difficult I’d imagine – even assuming the drama could be made more comprehensible to non-Danes.
The rooms in the set have windows in their internal walls and you can often see the action in several rooms at once, if one is to the fore. It’s rather like looking at an Edward Hopper painting brought to life – a buttoned-up, ambiguous reality in which nobody is really happy (or happy for long). Occasionally there is physical violence between partners. Just once I recall an overtly happy stage scene where all the females march off together as if going out to a fete or some picnic perhaps (damn, not knowing the poems). According to Anne Clare Bæhr (in translation): “Although most of the poems are about death and remembrance, where memory and present link, we are not talking about gloomy poems, but rather reflective poems, who insist on life.” And yet my overall feeling was of a sombre 75 minutes spent putting couples’ less-than-happy lives under the microscope. That takes its toll on you and I yearned at times for more dramatic texture – a big change of emotional or theatrical pace. The music of Hans Abrahamsen is also often dark, sparsely icy and foreboding. Brandstrup’s last UK work, the much admired Transfigured Night, for Rambert, was also dark but at 30 minutes long it had not only reached the end of its score but, just as importantly, probably exhausted our ability to process a continuous stream of doleful material.
If I had much admiration for the design and seamless telling, I was very ready for the end and not to see yet more projected text I couldn’t understand etc. But the end is very touching as Tobias Praetorius and Christina Michanek have a final duet with him floating around her (in a deathly hanging harness) and eventually is left silently swinging in the breeze as his soul departs. A deeply touching way to say goodbye and paradoxically it didn’t feel so dark as you might imagine. Many in the Playhouse’s capacity audience of 650 gave an ovation at the end – clearly deeply touched as well.