Concert, DVD, Film & Theatre Reviews 21

Lady Macbeth hits Covent Garden

Slava, the Sorbonne and a Symphony for four hands


African Dance: Sand, Drum and Shostakovich

Lady Macbeth hits Covent Garden

If Shostakovich’s symphonies and string quartets are sometimes described as his public and private sides, Richard Jones tried to bring them together in his production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk for the Royal Opera House. Leskov’s 1865 story described events ‘a few years ago’ but producers needn’t feel bound to set it then, and it has often been moved forward to the Stalinist 1930s or some other more contemporary time. This production was set in the 1950s but the earlier parts looked to me like a Soviet film from the 1970s, e.g. The Bonus (1975) or I Want to Speak (1976). Only the orange lampshades were missing.

The problem is finding the right tone, not only for the work as a whole but from moment to moment as tragedy, grim humour and horror are inextricably interwoven and changing moods tumble one after the other. Similarly the actors need to be on the verge of being larger than life, as big as possible without slipping (too much) into caricature. John Tomlinson as Boris excels here, more than simply a dirty old man intent on exercising his droit de seigneur. When he begins to feel Katerina up, as horrible as it is, we see a victim of his own sexual frustration longing to beg, but too proud and ultimately taking it all out on her. Antonio Pappano highlights a couple of detumescenses in the Ochsian Viennese waltz – Zinovy may not be the only impotent man in the house. Perhaps Boris’ ubiquitous gun is compensation?

Sex and money are on everyone’s minds but up to this point the sex hasn’t gone anywhere else, so Aksinya’s rape is its first manifestation. Pig-masked men queue up to remove her clothing one item at a time while others look on, turning the scene from a frenzied affair into a more calculated, even orchestrated degradation.

The climax comes as she is sprayed with a crudely symbolic fire extinguisher, raising one of those questions of tone; is this, despite its subject matter, supposed to be one of those discomfortingly comic moments? And if so, are we in league with the men who laugh throughout the scene?

Comedy is certainly part of Sergei and Katerina’s first sex scene. It begins in slow motion, counterpointing the frantic music, but they soon decide to leave the bed and do it against the back of a wardrobe that stands in the centre of the room. With every enthusiastic thrust it marches another step down stage and as Sergei finishes and falls away the hinge loses its tension and the door swings open leaving us staring at a gaping maw.

In trying to reconcile the opera’s different accents, it’s not surprising that some productions are wildly uneven and this one isn’t immune. The biggest mistake – the onstage antics for the great passacaglia following Boris’ death, when we can reflect on how fate is tightening around Katerina and Sergei, dragging them down. What we see is a virtuoso scene change, with a collection of stagehands literally redecorating the entire set with garish huge-pattered pink wallpaper, a vast chandelier and new furniture including, of course the much-improved bed on which ‘all their problems will be solved’. Very impressive but it simply distracts from some of Shostakovich’s most powerful music and the second time round I closed my eyes to concentrate on Pappano’s superb control. However, the scene that follows is one of the best in the show. Sergei is, as Pappano says, ‘a piece of work’; for their first nocturnal encounter, rather than opportunistically visiting Katerina and risking the trip across from the servants’ quarters, he hid in a box in the next room waiting until the household was asleep. Now, in the eye-watering nouveau riche décor of their new home, Sergei ignores Katerina to watch wrestling on the widescreen TV, summing up how he has used their wrestling bout and the subsequent sex to get what he really wanted: money. That’s enough for him but it leaves her unsatisfied, perhaps looking forward to another unfulfilling relationship. We laugh at the same time as being appalled by him while sympathising with her. So is it a comment on the futility of the consumerist (= merchant class) life that the acts and some scenes are separated by a curtain with a painting of a
landfill full of dumped fridges and cookers?

Sergei goes to sleep leaving the television on, allowing the ghost of Boris to appear onscreen to interrupt the wrestling and curse Katerina on screen. Another cleverly comic touch but does it hint that he isn’t really there? The mad famously talk to their televisions. Has she lost the plot already? The murder of Zinovy too captures the strange surreal tension between the horrific and the comic. Though it happens discreetly behind the bed and he seems dead enough, Katerina, driven to distraction, decides to make sure by decapitating him with an axe. A weirdly funny moment and the head, leaking into a plastic supermarket bag, then makes regular comic appearances until the couple’s arrest.

In the police station the officers bemoan their fate, endlessly trying to get a decent signal on the TV, ganging up on a fly that strays into the room and dragging the ‘anarchist’ out of a cupboard only to beat him up and push him back in. It’s well staged (at the end of the scene, along with the music, everyone resumes their original positions) but Roderick Earle’s inspector lacks the pompous swagger and vain and empty rhetoric that can go with this role. The police are concerned with money but sex is never far away. The shabby peasant arrives with the head. He had momentarily forgotten his search for vodka when it seemed like there was a chance of getting his leg over but, finding the plastic bag, forgot everything else, smelling a profit. The police hasten to the Izamilovs’ but the deliberately banal moment (‘Hello’ says the inspector) isn’t bathetic or incongruous enough to raise a laugh.

The first three acts take place in a cramped box divided into two unequal parts though much of the action takes place on the extreme left leaving many on that side of the house unsighted for what seems like large parts of the evening. Up to this point the two parts have had every public and private permutation; from individuals alone in the large space to crowds crammed into the small room. So it’s ironic that for act four, on the way to prison, the stage opens up; although the claustrophobia isn’t relieved as it is filled with two huge lorries, their doors open to allow the prisoners some air (though no light) and to give the guards a chance to stretch their legs.

Sonyetka and Katerina confront each other. The drowning is a hard moment to bring off convincingly. If it isn’t to be a Tosca-like leap from the back of the stage we have to have a sense of the river and probably to have felt its presence throughout the act. Here, Sonyetka, after taunting Katerina, suddenly if innocently, willingly walks downstage with her. This change is puzzling – has Katerina’s strength of personality forced Sonyetka into submission? And their last moments are strangely understated as they simply disappear through a trap door, leaving the prisoners to be engulfed by the lorries’ closing doors.

Odd to report that John Tomlinson’s Boris is the most memorable character in the production. Katarina Dalayman, while well up to the vocal demands of her near namesake and equally good at suffering, didn’t really get most of the comedy and Christopher Ventris’ Sergei lacked the animal quality that would make him catmint to women.

But the other roles are well sketched, particularly Peter Bronder’s bottle-bottom-bespectacled shabby peasant. The last act brings a slinky Sonyetka from Christine Rice and an old convict full of weary resignation from Gwynne Howell.

London is fortunate in (theoretically) having two productions of Lady Macbeth, though I wonder whether ENO’s has now been retired, leaving the stage clear for Covent Garden. Despite Pappano’s keenness, we may not see a Royal Opera House Khovanshchina as long as it’s in the repertoire ‘down the road’ – perhaps they are collaborating to avoid a Shostakovichian clash.

To think perversely for a moment, it may have been nice to see the now rarer Katerina Izmailova, allowing Londoners to compare the two versions… But for all sorts of reasons this is now seen as ‘inferior’ and few managements would risk putting on a ‘compromised’work when a rival house has ‘the genuine article’. In any case, Pappano was only interested in the original – there was no question of staging the revision.

In conclusion, sadly, apart from a few moments, Jones misses the comedy here, although in compensation we do have Pappano’s superb rendition of the music. It’s for that reason alone that the production should come back.

John Riley

Slava, the Sorbonne and a Symphony for four hands

2nd June 2004 saw the latest in the concert-based activities of the Paris-based Association International D. Chostakovitch: no less enterprising than many of its predecessors, the concert boasted four world premiere performances.

The sole exception to this rule was nonetheless a rarity, inexplicably so in view of its performing accessibility and genre. Shostakovich wrote his Suite for Two Pianos, op. 6, in March 1922 at the age of 15, dedicating it to his father Dmitri Boleslavovich who had died only weeks before the work’s completion. The suite, which the composer often played with his sister Maria, should not be confused with the much later Concertino opus 94, written for father and son, Maxim.

The Suite for Two Pianos is a remarkably expansive and complex work given its youthful context, with four full-bodied movements all of which are linked through a theme reminiscent of the pealing of church-bells and which constitutes the work’s strident opening. Shades also of Rachmaninov’s own two piano suite op. 5, which itself uses sequences from bell incantations from the Russian Orthodox Church. Probably most noteworthy for today’s listener is the use Shostakovich made of the op. 6 theme in his very final work, the Viola Sonata, some 53 years later, in 1975.

As I mentioned, this is not a small-scale work of youth – far from it, and as such the piece poses a number of considerable difficulties both for the individual solo lines and also for ensemble work. In general the Russian-born pianists Ludmila Berlinskaya and Alexander Rudin gave a splendid account of this multi-faceted piece, especially in the opening statements, its Rachmaninovinspired Nocturne movement and in the fabulous climactic pages to the Finale.

Huge shifts in pianistic technique and interpretation were necessary attributes in the second piece of the evening, an astonishing transcription of Arthur Honegger’s Third Symphony, subtitled the Liturgical undertaken by Shostakovich in 1947-8. This arrangement lay forgotten for many years in the family archive until recently, when the DSCH publishing house prepared the arrangement for its first printed edition. Irina Shostakovich recounts how, during a visit to Poland, Shostakovich asked to borrow the score of the symphony overnight, long enough for him to make handwritten copy to take it back to Russia with him. All of the symphony’s identifying attributes – in particular the work’s title, Liturgical and its movements’subtitles: Dies irae, De profondis clamavi and Dona nobis pacem were carefully omitted by Shostakovich.

Here only one movement was played – the growling third movement, Dona nobis pacem (the symphony is very much a child of the war years, in the mould of Shostakovich’s own Seventh and Eighth Symphonies). The arrangement maintained the latent power and orchestral grit fabulously well, excellently conveyed at the Sorbonne by soloists Berlinskaya and Rudin.

Next, in a world premiere performance (although the movement has been recorded) came The Chase, an extract from the score to the film The Adventures of Korzinkina from 1940. The score in fact relates to a crazed chase sequence that takes place on and around the stage of a variety theatre. Unashamedly comic strip in their own interpretation, the Sorbonne pianists leapt and crashed to the delight of the audience.

The final work in the first part of the concert had the two pianists taking a well-earned rest, in favour of soprano Natalia Bobrova, violinist Alexandra Beliakova and cellist Sergei Antonov (27, 22 and 21 years of age, respectively), all products of the Russian system of musical training. Another premiere, but of a quite different genre, was of a small selection of Shostakovich’s arrangements of 27 songs and romances by various composers which were intended for the wartime ‘Concerts at the Front’ series in Leningrad in 1941. The five
pieces presented in Paris were:

Pastorale (Vekerlen)
Gypsy Song (Vertovsky)
Parassiya’s Aria – an extract from
Sorochinsky Fair (Musorgsky)
Little Sarafan (Gurilyov)
Anyouta’s Song (Dunayevsky)

The programme notes stated:

‘At the start of the Second World War, groups of musicians from the Leningrad Conservatoire organised themselves with a view of performing for the troops at the Front. As for Shostakovich, he arranged several pieces to this end, using a rather unusual ensemble – solo vocalist, violinist and cellist. This of course greatly facilitated the organisation of the concerts given the somewhat d i fficult logistics of a battleground… The musicians often performed in fact on top of a truck, this having been transformed into a concert platform for the event.

‘Shostakovich chose several Western pieces such as Trinklied by Beethoven, Habanera from Bizet’s Carmen, Song of the Alpine Shepherd from Rossini’s William Tell and Vekerlen’s Pastorale from Maman, Dites-moi. As far as Russian music went, he chose pieces by Vertovsky, Gourylov, Dargomyzhsky, Musorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Ippolitov-Ivanov.’

The complete collection, numbering some 27 transcriptions over 130 pages of manuscript, was completed remarkably quickly, over only three days in July 1941.

These peacetime Paris performances were nigh on perfect, an alliance of folksy simplicity with deeply moving prose, presented in Shostakovich’s unmistakable chamber style. It’s to be hoped that all 27 pieces will be performed and recorded in the near future.

Although those in the hall familiar with Shostakovich and Weinberg’s recording of the 4-hands arrangement of the Tenth Symphony might have had a rough idea of just how the two-piano version of the composer’s ultimate symphony might encapsulate the work’s stunningly episodic, eclectic conception combined with its expressively sparse orchestrated episodes, I for one was unsure of even the wisdom of this, the first public performance of the reduction.

Fears unfounded! Aside the apparent impossibility (or undesirability?) of a clear depiction of the prominent role the percussion group plays in this work, the symphony’s multi-layered structure and orchestration translated remarkably well in this instrumental rendition of what remains a singularly enigmatic work. Quotations emerged superbly well, established in clearly worked pianistic lines, as did the taxing cello solo that dominates the opening of the second movement. Some of the elongated passages within the central part of the symphony did drag a little, but not to excess. Indeed, the audience appeared transfixed by the occasion, leading me to believe that the majority of them were already well acquainted with the symphony in its ‘normal’ guise.

Technical aspects of the performance were marvellously executed by Berlinskaya and Rudin, to whom a huge vote of thanks should be accorded – without their dedication to the works of Shostakovich it’s unlikely that op. 141 would be performed in this version. Added to which, they exemplified the complete musician, allowing the ‘simple’ keyboard to extend its voices way beyond its instrument’s normal expressive range and textures.

It is worth noting that the concert will be repeated on 24th September 2004, in the Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.

Earlier, Rostropovich, who was instrumental in preparing the wartime pieces in time for the concert, along with wife Vishnevskaya, spoke of the importance of the concert, featuring arrangements which, in his lifetime, allowed Shostakovich to show new works to friends and colleagues when often the likelihood of a public performance seemed distantly improbable.

Alan Mercer


A Soviet composer sardonically welcomes us to his own funeral. A familiar start for anyone who has seen Tony Palmer’s Testimony (1987). But this is not Shostakovich. And it is not Testimony. But there is one thing in common: the presence of Solomon Volkov. Perhaps we are entering the age of the consultant as auteur?

Of the famous Soviet composers, Khachaturian comes in third after (however you order them) Shostakovich and Prokofiev, so his life and art have been less investigated that the other two. We still await Khachaturian’s equivalent of Elizabeth Wilson or David Nice, and we have missed the opportunity of a Khentova. In lieu of that genre of book, this film sets out to give a basic biography, inevitably setting it against the political events and using the composer’s own writings to paint a portrait of a man deeply affected by the state’s criticisms and struggling to find his own way to meet them.

Unsurprisingly the film is full of Soviet artists, some perhaps more familiar as names than faces: the composer Arno Babadzhanyan, choreographer Yuri Grigorovich (‘loyal to the Soviet ideal’) and Ivan Kozlovsky, the greatest tenor of his generation, although he was never heard in the West. The tone is set by the preludial funeral: when Khrennikov steps forward to give the eulogy, Eric Bogosian (who provides the composer’s voice) points to the irony that this was a man who thirty years previously had stabbed him in the back. This is a cue to remember some of the others who suffered under the regime.

The film proper starts with an event for the musical elite (or rather several events stitched together in the editing suite). Among the guests are David Oistrakh, Shostakovich and Irina, Kabalevsky, Rostropovich (which is presumably how Britten got in) and of course “my betrayer” Khrennikov, “who in those days was one of us.”

Khachaturian thinks about the early days of the Soviet Union when it was the beacon of world socialism and of how he himself became a proud o fficial. Why was he favoured by Stalin? Was it that he came from common stock rather than the intelligentsia? Or that, like Stalin, he was from the Caucasus, the home of many different ethnicities and thus a microcosm of the USSR? If Khachaturian did ever think this he would have been quickly disabused even in the 1920s, as regional policies, though inconsistently applied over both time and space, were at best ambivalent about the republics. A scene from Spartacus is intercut with people dancing in the street, demonstrating Khachaturian’s norodnost’ as he talks about the importance of folk music, a theme that will return through the film. Over scenes of Tbilisi we hear how his parents initially tried to discourage him from the slightly unrespectable career of music but that his mind was made up by a visit to the opera. Apart from being entranced by the music and spectacle, the young Aram was struck by the presence of the composer. Sadly we don’t learn who the composer was, though it obviously wasn’t his Georgian predecessor Zakharia Paliashvili whose first and most famous opera Abesalom and Eteri only appeared after the Revolution.

With the Revolution, he moved to Moscow and here the film introduces a new element. Up to now it has used archive footage but now we have interviews with the composer’s son and nephew, sharing the name Karen, discussing the importance of this time to the composer. His teacher Myaskovsky comes out as something of a hero, ‘a decent, honest man’, his classes like ‘a religious rite’ in which reminiscences brought his students closer to Rimsky-Korsakov and others. But the revolutionary spirit called and Khachaturian joined a propaganda train (ironically to Georgia).

Like some other composers, his first success came with his first symphony, which nephew Karen describes as “reaching all the way down to his roots.” But Volkov claims that the composer’s Armenian-ness made people uncomfortable and though Tigran Mansourian doesn’t mention this, he does discuss the music’s Armenian nature and improvisatoriness, while Rostropovich enthuses about the Cello Rhapsody and we see a clip of him playing it under the baton of the composer.

Lenin’s death brings not only the memorial ode but, in the commentary, an expression of enthusiasm for the leader and his glorious plans which were twisted by Stalin. At that time Khachaturian worked enthusiastically for the state and thought that artists who stumbled would merely be ‘reeducated’ and returned to work. Thus, though it didn’t touch him directly, Pravda’s review of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was a huge shock. Interestingly the film says only that it was inspired by Stalin, whereas Volkov’s new book (Shostakovich and Stalin, Knopf, 2004) which post-dates the film, goes further, implying a much both claim that Stalin micromanaged cultural policy. Volkov claims Khachaturian found the term Socialist Realism incomprehensible and irritating and shows its idiocy by saying that at different times the composer was described as a leading Formalist and a leading Socialist Realist. But this is not necessarily illogical. At different times in his career, depending on his own developing style and what Socialist Realism meant politically, Khachaturian could logically have been described in both ways. If the a rgument is that ‘Socialist Realism’ and ‘Formalist’ are simply politicised aesthetic terms, synonyms for ‘ acceptable’ and ‘not acceptable’ then, just as composers and works can go in and out of fashion for aesthetic reasons, so they can be recategorised as Formalist or Socialist Realist. More telling (though not mentioned in the film) is the fact that Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was described as a Socialist Realist work before its condemnation, showing that in relation to a particular work the term had changed its meaning for political-artistic reasons.

Khachaturian immersed himself in work and his recent happy marriage to Nina Makarova; he was inspired to write his Piano Concerto, a piece that was an international breakthrough for him. Constantine Orbelian speculates that it benefited from friendly USUSSR relations although its infectious melodiousness was surely just as important. When it is counterpointed with images of soldiers marching in time to the music a strange feeling of over-politicisation overtakes the film. During the war composers wrote music that “declared Soviet Victory even in the jaws of defeat” and Khachaturian’s contribution was the ballet Gayaneh. But just before the premiere it was realised that one last number was needed. “Khachaturian”’s irritated fingers tap out rhythms. Mansourian talks about the balance between rhythm, and melody: composers tend to be of one type of the other. He talks about second, spiritual homes: Prokofiev’s was France, while Shostakovich continued the line of Austro-German music, particularly Mahler. Unlike many composers Khachaturian managed to find a balance between melody and rhythm that is characteristic of the music of America, and in particular of jazz. As evidence he cites the saxophone countermelody in the Sabre Dance, which is of course the ‘one piece’ that Khachaturian wrote just before the ballet’s premiere.

As for the post-war disappearances and repressions, Karen thinks that his father felt they were justified by the larger purpose, whereas the narration is more circumspect, perhaps using later texts. And then: 1948. The story of Kabalevsky getting himself off the condemned list at the expense of Popov is repeated. Khachaturian may have thought this, and may at some point have privately written it, but it is now known to be untrue – difficult then to justify its presence here without an authorial voice to point out that this old myth is now discredited. Khrennikov is interviewed and, as he has before, a rgues that he had no choice but to go along with what he was told to do and that reading the declaration was the greatest tragedy of his life. But for the film “it all came from Stalin”, and this enabled Khrennikov to build his career. However, if Stalin was the obsessive micromanager, what was Khrennikov to do? Was his career built not deliberately but as an accidental byproduct of simple self-defence? Still, his argument that the 1948 decree was a reaction to the Iron Curtain (and therefore of the West?) is a tortuous piece of logic, proposing ‘Formalist’ composers as pro-West at the same time as their being propaganda weapons for the Soviet Union. There certainly was an ironic disjunction between their treatment on the two sides of the Curtain, but it’s not clear what Khrennikov thinks the USSR hoped to gain in the West by punishing composers at home.

Khachaturian took the conference’s criticism particularly badly because, until recently, he had been a member of the leadership. Yet his nephew the conductor Emin thinks he got off more lightly than some because of the obvious folk base of much of his music. All the same, where Shostakovich continued to compose, Khachaturian was at a loss as to what to do.

This was his lowest moment; in contrast to Shostakovich’s professionalism, or Myaskovsky’s simple refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of the criticisms, Khachaturian was cast adrift, uncertain as to how to proceed. He was sent to the Caucasus for re-education and although he was ‘at home’ was still unhappy.

He later returned to Moscow to write Spartacus, which would turn out to be his spiritual and artistic salvation. But initially he was repeatedly blocked, only getting permission to write it when he showed Khrennikov that Marx had been a great admirer of the Roman slave. Vladimir Vasiliev, who created the role of Spartacus, describes the hero as the composer’s alter-ego, reflecting his struggle to overcome his own shortcomings, at the same time being an Aesopian comment on the Soviet state with the work, and ultimately becoming the composer’s own requiem.

In contrast Khachaturian’s son sees it as a mirror of his life in that the hero ends up alone, and that the insistence on pain, tears and the anticipation of tragedy, inevitably culminating in a sad ending makes him a truly Russian composer. But despite these reflections on the late disappointments in the composer’s life, the film takes Vasiliev’s view that in Spartacus Khachaturian managed to overcome himself to create a true masterpiece that reflected both his own concerns and those of the wider community. So the film manages to finish on a redemptive tone, the composer saying that if he has spoken with the language of his ancestors, his music will live forever.

The film is full of fascinating archive material (can the footage of Stalin’s funeral really be in colour or merely colourised?) and avoids scenes too often seen, while the newly shot footage is evocative of the warm Caucasus. The interviews vary in technical quality implying that not all were shot for the film, but in terms of content, both politically and musically, the most interesting is Mansourian’s.

The script uses Khachaturian’s writings but we are not told in detail which ones or from when the various quotes date, and the tone veers from what sounds like official pronouncements to deeply disenchanted private diary entries, sometimes within a single section. Together these make it difficult to know to what extent we are seeing the composer’s public and private faces, and what weight to give the various statements. To those familiar with the background, the filmmakers’ agenda is clear but the same arguments can be levelled at this film as have been at Testimony, and the same defences made. To simplify massively: the politically inspired manipulation of evidence makes it hard to endorse fully the film, even though there may be corroborating evidence. But it is a popular rather than an ‘academic’ work and the larger truth justifies the possible editorialising of the material.

Khachaturian is one of those composers who have been cursed by the popularity of a few pieces: the Sabre Dance and the Adagio from Spartacus have become ubiquitous, distorting his profile. While Shostakovich certainly  has his ‘hits’, we have a broader knowledge of his work, enabling us to see these pieces in a wider context and thus to understand each individual work more deeply. Conversely Khachaturian is easier to ‘place’. His reputation as a composer of colourful, ‘ ethnically- tinged’ music which is not too agonised has played against him in a West which sometimes sees a direct relationship between a Soviet artist’s greatness and the degree of their suffering under the regime.

But for Khachaturian this may be changing; the complete ballets are being staged and recorded more in the West, and ASV’s series of recordings under Tjeknavorian (though uneven) held some revelations. These make up a large part of the soundtrack: symphonies and concertos, ballet suites, the Ode to Joy, the Ode in Memory of Lenin and the Dance Suite, film scores Pepo, Prisoner ( better translated and Girl or even Person) No. 217, Admiral Ushakov and Undying Flame, piano music and the Chanson-Poeme. There is also a generous selection of footage of the composer himself on the rostrum.

Hopefully this film will stir interest in the composer and help popularise these rarer works although, with an ironic sting in the tail, the credits run over the Adagio from Spartacus and in a postcredits sequence Khachaturian himself bashes out the Sabre Dance on the piano. His spiritual self-portrait, and the piece for which he is best known.

John Riley

African Dance: Sand, Drum and Shostakovich
A documentary by Ken Glazebrook and Alla Kovgan, 2002.

Kinodance. VHS videocassette (NTSC only). 70 min.
Available from Documentary Educational Resources, 101 Morse Street, Watertown, MA02472, USA; 1-800-569-6621 or +1-617-926-0491.

This documentary presents eight modern African dance companies that participated in the 1999 Montreal Festival International de Nouvelle Danse. But for its intriguing title, it would have escaped the attention of the DSCH Journal. Indeed, given that any Shostakovich content is restricted to the eighth segment of the film, director Ken Glazebrook was asked why the composer’s name features so prominently in the title.

Sand and drum are obvious but Shostakovich adds an element of mystery maybe, the meaning of which only becomes apparent at the end. Some people have asked what Shostakovich has to do with it and I’ve said they will find out when they watch it.”

21_AfricanBefore the Shostakovich connection is revealed in the final dance, the viewer is treated to excerpts of seven widely divergent numbers that depart radically from traditional African dance. While one could argue that divorcing African dance from its social context and presenting it onstage is inauthentic, this criticism does not apply to the work of these avant-garde companies. As described in the accompanying interviews, their productions explore decidedly contemporary themes, such as feminism, the relationship between tradition and modernity, and alienation of the individual. The companies hail from Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Mali, Cape Verde, Congo, South Africa and Senegal, but they are permeable to global culture, and several of their dancers have trained and worked in Europe or North America. Nevertheless, their kinetic range and fluidity remain unmistakably African.

Shostakovich is not the only European to contribute to the dance production Le Coq Est Mort (The Cockerel is Dead). The dance is performed by Jant-Bi, a company that emerged from the International Centre for Traditional and Contemporary African Dances in Senegal. Jant-Bi’s Senegalese artistic director, Germaine Acogny, founded the Centre to protect the roots of African dance while providing a place for choreographic training and exchanges between Africa, its Diaspora and the wider world. Acogny invited German choreographer Susanne Linke to create a piece for Jant-Bi, and with the collaboration of Israeli choreographer and dancer Avi Kaiser, Le Coq Est Mort is the result.

Without the interpolated interviews, it would be impossible to interpret the nine and a half minutes excerpted from Le Coq Est Mort, a 70-minute-long production. According to Kaiser, the piece echoes the influence of nature on everyday life in Africa, recreating the heat and dust of Senegal with bright lights and sand. Linke adds that the cock in the title of this piece signifies both masculine energy and the Gallic cock of France. Its death symbolises Africa’s shaking off of colonialism.

Kaiser explains that music, particularly percussion, is part of daily activity in Africa, and as people who work in Europe, he and Linke thought that classical music could play a role in this piece, not for any intellectual meaning, but as sound to mate with the percussion.

“Maybe it sounds a little bit naïve, but we heard music of Shostakovich – a string quartet – and it fitted totally like Shostakovich somehow went quite naturally in the sand. And for the African people it was wonderful; they heard this music, they had no problem.”

And indeed, Shostakovich does not seem at all out of place here. In the first excerpt, eight men in dark Western business suits swagger across a stage covered in sand, accompanied by raucous metallic percussion. One dancer leaves to return with a tray of wine glasses; his entry is heralded by the first 19 bars of the Allegretto of Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet. A pregnant silence ensues, during which the men wordlessly toast each other, then the audience (evoking a wave of chuckles). In the next episode, the former waiter enacts a robotic dance in which he gleefully stacks suitcases, obviously laden with money. His jerky motions are mated to a frenetic soundtrack by ambient instrumental composer Etienne Schwarcz. After this, we see all eight men, now topless, alternately writhing in the sand and jumping, kicking up dust, to the bone-dry, dissonant opening strains of the Recitative of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 11. The menacing Allegro molto of String Quartet No. 8 crashes in as the men continue to dance violently. Percussion and human cries interject as the music plays. Shostakovich does not appear in the final scene, in which the dancers, now devolved into apes (apparently to imply that the macho businessman is not far removed from chest-beating simians), are cut down by machine gun fire.

Without question, this is one of the most unusual uses to which Shostakovich’s work has ever been adapted. Its appearance in the documentary is probably too brief to warrant acquiring the film if you do not also have a strong interest in modern dance or African culture. If you do, however, the documentary as a whole should be appealing, especially since the cinematography is of high quality.

W. Mark Roberts