Royal Danish Ballet
The Queen of Spades
Copenhagen, Royal Theatre
14 April 2018
It’s Liam Scarlett’s week this week as his new Swan Lake for The Royal Ballet gets premiered. But last month was also important with the premiere of his full length Queen of Spades for Royal Danish Ballet (RDB) in Copenhagen. In many respects it was the bigger deal, because it was all down to him rather than Swan Lake where his degrees of creative freedom are rather less.
One of the side effects of running a late review is that you invariably hear the broad views out there for a work. And the Danish writers, from what I can make out, are largely very happy, giving above average stars for Scarlett’s latest work – often 5 out of 6 stars, I hear. Friends who saw it also seemed to think it a good step forward. My candid view I wrote to a UK friend the morning after the premiere:
“3 stars and it’s better than Frankenstein, but he’s not cracked it yet. The locals might give it 4 stars (out of 5) and there was another standing ovation – they happen more easily here than in London. It’s Liam channelling MacMillan big time but he can’t really deliver on the pdd (pas de deux), despite great music and design. And while I dearly love the MacMillan blockbusters, creating new work in that image feels old now. Cathy Marston, Crystal Pite are way fresher at dramatic work, if not comparing like with like, I know. Liam’s best choreography is for the whole corps in a ballroom scene which has the feel of Ashton’s La Valse. The dancers act their socks off and I found myself sitting next to Kizzy Matiakis’s parents – justifiably proud, because she owned the stage.”
And time has not really changed that thumbnail sketch for me, if perhaps I’m more appreciative of the non-choreographic ingredients than that quick view might indicate. First up The Queen of Spades as a plot is full-on melodrama and the brief RDB synopsis says all you really need: “The Queen of Spades is based on the great Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin’s short story of the same name. It is a thrilling horror story about what happens, when an erotic obsession and passion for gambling are mixed together in an ill-fated cocktail: The poor officer Hermann meets the older countess, known as the Queen of Spades, who knows her way around a card table. He falls in love with her young lady’s maid, Liza, and through Liza, he tries to get the Countess to reveal some of the secrets to her success at the card table. But nothing goes according to his plans.”
There is rich character meat here and the RDB dancers rise to the occasion and make it bold and vivid. For 36-year-old Kizzy Matiakis (ex London’s Central School of Ballet) it’s probably the role of her career – so dramatically vital and fully bringing the character’s mature charms to life. Also good to see Matiakis used as the promotional image, an image also often seen on stage at huge size, hanging over events. The gambling Countess dominates the ballet’s imagery, but the biggest role on stage is actually Herman – a twisted, infatuated, lover, user and looser – London readers will be thinking “my goodness that’s an Edward Watson role” and that would be spot on. In Copenhagen it was danced brilliantly by Andreas Kaas. He actually reminded me very much of Johan Kobborg, dominating the action with quiet movement and small details – a masterclass in subtlety. Completing the trio of major roles is Ida Praetorius as the doe-eyed Liza, granddaughter to the Countess and hopelessly in love with Herman and shamefully used by him. Yet more dramatic accolades are due for Praetorius’s portrayal of touching innocence and crushed love.
The costumes are sumptuous and stunning as well, and the set is nicely pared back – very Danish, but all the work of London-based Jon Morrell. I’m not totally sure about the tricksy tilting of walls to become ceilings – but overall this is a terrific light and open set. The Tchaikovsky music, arranged to suit by Martin Yates, is a particular highlight, delivering swirling emotional highs and lows. The problem is that the pas de deux choreography doesn’t match its power and deliver you the full punch. Perhaps we are so spoilt in London with so many Kenneth Macmillan blockbusters, that you naturally compare similar works to them. But Scarlett does deliver a strong ballroom scene, full of swirling, inventive action – really scrummy. And other group numbers, notably for the officers, are thoughtfully strong – not mere infill. Act 2 also contains two parallel pdd with lovers with the ‘wrong’ partners and they are constantly looking across. Neatly done, neatly sold: you feel their plight.
As time has gone by the thing that perhaps has weighed most heavily with me is channelling the MacMillan blockbuster approach. I love the MacMillan blockbusters: they are still wonderful to see, but should we really be looking for *new* work in this vein 40 or more years on? Crystal Pite, Cathy Marston, Rosie Kay, Arthur Pita and Mark Bruce, to name a few, are moving the narrative game on, each in their own fresh and different way.
Ian Palmer, many years ago and in reviewing a new David Nixon work for Northern Ballet, talked about the pas de deux feeling similar to others and having lots of “whoop and swoosh.” And I had that feeling at Queen of Spades – they are not bad duets and looked ballet pretty but not that deep and not full of clever movement portraying character and intent. As we have just seen in the MacMillan BBC documentary, the man himself spent ages creating his pas de deux and wasn’t afraid to junk a week’s work and start again. MacMillan was enormously talented, but he also spent lots and lots of time honing things. I’m not the only one to note that Scarlett accepts a lot of commissions and indeed as if to make the point perfectly, next week his Firebird has it’s Queensland Ballet premiere in Brisbane. Some say he works quickly, but while he slowly improves I’ve still yet to see him land a really impressive dramatic work. “Less is more “really should be his watchword, one feels.
The good news is that Queen of Spades is a good-looking crowd pleaser and the RDB dancers look fantastic in it – I can’t emphasise that enough. Also good that it’s a step up from his last commission, Frankenstein – thank goodness, really. I also note that his Sweet Violets (for the Royal Ballet, 2012) contained some gorgeous character-driven pas de deux – he has the ingredients, but threading them all together into an unequivocal hit currently remains illusive for the busy Scarlett.