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Ionarts-at-Large: Munich. Lucinda Childs / Kenneth MacMillan

I am trekking through my home town, Munich, to which I had not been for longer than was healthy. Perfect weather (even if the news bemoan the lack of rain) helps to show it from its best side - although I am not sure just which side that is. I do know that I am bound to love a town that is plastered with posters advertising such tantalizing things as: "6. Akademiekonzert: Henze - Mendelssohn - Riehm" or, simply, "Nono! Ligeti! Boulez!". Where there is a report on the Bavarian-wide evening news about the production of the Munich State Ballet, replete with interview of the dancers and footage from the dress rehearsal, filmed earlier that day. (The public classical station may not have many listeners anymore - the remaining ones seem to have drifted to the commercial alternative which successfully offers "Classical music so light, you won't even know you're listening!" - but otherwise culture still seems lovingly at the center of life in this provincial capital in the wild south of the Germanic lands.)

Lucinda Childs - Chamber Symphony - Bavarian State BalletAs it happened so, earlier that day just before noon I was strolling by the Nationaltheater which houses the Staatsoper and Staatsballett (no translations necessary, I assume) and saw people congregating at the house on that beautiful, sunny Friday, and disappearing in its bowels. Before I knew it - looking lost or longing, apparently - I was kindly given an extra ticket to what turned out that dress rehearsal. "Chamber Symphony/Das Lied von der Erde" the ticket said. It was to be my first cultural exposure in Munich in many years, back in the house that stores so many memories for me... that served as the center of my 'second cultural awakening' in 2001.

A double bill of modern ballet was presented. Lucinda Childs' "Chamber Symphony" set to John Adams' work of the same name and Kenneth MacMillan's "Das Lied von der Erde" based on Mahler's unnumbered Symphony set to the chinoiserie poems of Hans Betghe (1876-1946), themselves based on translations and adaptations in Marquis Hervey-Saint-Denys' Poésies de époque des Thangs and then altered by Mahler. If the text is Chinese only trice-removed, conductor Ryusuke Numajiri lovingly plucked the chinoiserie out of the score and let them shine in gentle sunlight. The Bavarian State Orchestra played the Mahler so well that, even lacking some final polishing, it sounded better than most Mahler I've heard in the last few years. In the second movement, Der Einsame im Herbst, it was almost eerie how the strings emerged so audibly as something that, if isolated, Philip Glass would have been proud to call one of his compositions. (An impression that was no doubt supported by the dance and the preceding near-minimalist score of John Adams.) Tenor Kevin Conners contributed more than ably and mezzo Daniela Sindram was marvelous to hear.

Lucinda Childs - Chamber Symphony - Bavarian State BalletMacMillan's 1965 work (premiered in Stuttgart and just now entering the State Ballet's repertoire) is a classic that has barely aged. A free flowing narrative of movement to Mahler's music and text it sets moods (rather than telling a story) subtly in front of the (later added) sets and costumes by Nicholas Georgiadis and John B. Read's lighting design. It features three primary figures: The Man (Roman Lazik), The Eternal - or "Messanger of Death" - (Tigran Mikayelyan) and The Woman (Lucia Lacarra) who alter and interact with different ensembles... all men in Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde and Der Trunkene im Frühling; larger ensembles led by the Ballerina in Der Einsame im Herbst and Abschied. The costumes are no longer blue, as they were in pre-Georgiadis set - but are black for The Eternal, who wears a mask à la Phantom of the Opera, light gray for The Woman, dark earth tones for The Man.

The stage is plain and black in fitting contrast to the Ronaldus Shamask set for Lucinda Childs' 1994 creation (written for the Bavarian State Ballet) which is largely set in white and off-white. Shamask, also responsible for the costumes, clad his dancers in the same off-white trousers and dresses with subtle patterns, giving larger scenes the impression of a Jean Paul Gautier designed slumber party. (Not this season, though - JPG is hardly using white for 2007.) The combination of Adams' score and Childs' choreography, had me think of it as "The Rite of the Chamber Spring" - a tame, strangely clinical bacchanal. Sweeping, engaging, infectious movement in "Roadrunner" (the 3rd movement). A small army of dancers marches in to the ominous sounds of the music before they are catapulted into frenzy and action. The first movement ("Mongrel Airs") especially contrasts the squeaking and rumbling music with utter sparseness. Here, as in "Aria with Walking Bass" (2nd movement), the busy minimalism of Childs is most obvious. All dancing seems to happen in sterile silence - not part of the music at all, but rather a commentary on it. If it all looked strangely familiar to me, the program (a luxurious 72-page book with essays, texts, illustrations and pictures) jogged my memory: I had rather unwittingly attended the 2001 premiere of Lucinda Childs' "Händel/Corelli" - also written for the Bavarian State Ballet - which was the first performance of modern ballet that I, a late starter in appreciation of this art, had attended. An auspicious beginning to what I hope will be a cultural odyssey through a few European cities while I am on this side of the Atlantic.