The Stravinsky double bill, a collaboration between Helios Collective and Constella Ballet, this week at the Bloomsbury Theatre, threw up several questions, starting with the nomenclature. Billed as A Soldier’s Tale. the first piece is, in its French original, given without an article (Histoire du Soldat), although it is commonly known as The Soldier’s Tale in English. Was the decision to bill it here as A Soldier’s Tale an attempt to change the emphasis? To make it more universal? That wasn’t clear.
More commonly heard as concert pieces, these works are rarely staged – I have never seen them – and it is to the credit of the companies and director Ella Marchment that they took them on and did so much with them. Not conceived as a double bill. there is nonetheless an obvious logic to coupling them: written a couple of years apart, both are conceived as recreations of a mythical pre-Petrine peasant performance tradition that probably never existed, involving staging by a group of rough-and-ready actors, dancers and musicians, and both owing a huge musical debt to Russian music of the 19th century. There are also things that make the pairing problematic: the pieces have disparate lengths (one hour versus 15 minutes), one is spoken, the other sung and – most importantly – one emerges as vital and exciting, the other as overlong and ponderous.
Written second but performed first, A Soldier’s Tale has a spoken Russian folk tale interspersed with dance and music episodes. With narration it lasted an hour; the music alone lasts about 25 minutes. And hereby lies the problem: while Stravinsky’s music is sparklingly brilliant – and brilliantly played by the ensemble – the text is leaden, didactic and forgettable. And for all the energy of the performances, notably Julia Davies as the Devil, and the inventiveness of Ella Marchment’s direction, I just wanted to hear more of the music and less of the words. In fact everything about the production should have made it a success – the design and lighting were excellent – but C.F. Ramuz’s textual material is just not at the level of Stravinsky’s music.
The second half was a different matter. Renard, whose full title is The Fable of the Fox, the Cock, the Cat and the Ram, is a quarter of the length, but packed three times the punch. Stravinsky’s score calls for four actor/dancers and four male singers, who are placed amongst the orchestra at the back of the stage. Here the director paired the singers on stage with the dancers, allowing for interplay between the levels of the drama. The story is incomprehensible, and probably meant to be, a melange of animal fables thrown together without too much concern for sense. But the integration here between the manic rushing-around on stage and the hard-edged, crystalline music is sublime, and completely unlike the mismatch of A Soldier’s Tale.
I should probably say a word about the dancing, although I am technically ill-equipped to do so. It was always beautiful, and the long sequence in between the Soldier and the Princess was genuinely affecting, it did feel as if the classical ballet language of the dance was out of kilter with the clinical Cubism of the music, and the rough-edged aesthetic of the direction and design.
But lastly a bravo to the companies involved for such an enterprising bit of programming, and the opportunity to see such rarities on the stage. The companies are made up of young performers in all disciplines who are clearly going to be the major figures of their generations, and in Ella Marchment I see a director and artistic leader of imagination, assurance and style. I will certainly be following her future work.
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