Stuttgart Ballet is a company dedicated to new creation as well as preserving the legacy of John Cranko works. Each season they bring multiple world premieres, and this “Wayfarers” program consists of two creations, No Men’s Land choreographed by Edward Clug and Aftermath by resident choreographer Demis Volpi. The two new works sandwiched Maurice Bejart’s Songs of a Wayfarer, which was created in 1971 and premiered in Stuttgart in 1976. 

Both premieres were set to commissioned music, played live by the orchestra. Both scores were very effective, innovative and edgy. Milko Lazar composed Ballet Suite for Cello and Orchestra in 5 Movements for No Men’s Land, with a jazzy approach using powerful brass rhythm, while a lyrical cello solo creates moments of serenity.

Contrary to the title, No Men’s Land is consisted of 21 male dancers, bare chested and dressed in dark blue pants and knee socks, all lined up like soldiers on the dark stage, hazy with smoke effects. 20 military coats hung from the ceiling and the dancers clung to and embraced them, while one dancer covered his head in a bag and – wearing pointe shoes – crawled in an awkward way. The war motif seemed to be emphasized through brutal situations, like in the last sequence in which 10 pairs each start a fierce duel with individual movements reflecting their inner turmoil. Brent Parolin’s solo in the 2nd movement left a lasting impression with jerky but beautiful movements, and Louis Stein's in the 3rd movement was a memorable exposure of vulnerability and intensity.

Volpi’s Aftermath worked as a counterpart to Clug’s work, featuring an all-female cast of 25 dancers. Michael Gordon’s music was a cacophony of percussion, adding significant impact to this innovative piece. But the most captivating instrument of the night was the noise of pointe shoes hammering on the stage floor. Then suddenly the noise ceased, leaving the stunning effect of dead silence.

Aftermath is a work dedicated to artists and their freedom, the necessity of their existence to society. The artist, interpreted by Elisa Badenes with strength and eloquence, executed an eye-popping solo, making use of her fluid limbs, shoulders and neck. She had a symbolic effect equal to the Chosen One from The Rite of Spring. Five dancers with their face and hair painted white, eyes black and in grey dresses surrounded her threateningly. The number of grey clones without facial expressions multiplied, as they moved in circles and acted as a swarm. They were actually modern day Wilis from Giselle, trying to eliminate the voice of the artist, her freedom of expression. The group movements of the swarm – those geometric patterns – are unique, and in the end the artist was swallowed by the crowd and disappeared, leaving only the sound of pointe shoes tapping on the empty stage. Here we can believe Volpi’s incredible creative talent, his ability to make completely new movement vocabulary, and responding to the avant-garde music.

Created for Paolo Bortoluzzi and Rudolf Nureyev, Song of a Wayfarer is a classic. Although the simplicity of the costuming makes it look old-fashioned, it is one of Bejart’s masterpieces that has stood the test of time. The lyrics written by Gustav Mahler reflect his life experience, the loss of love and its pain “as if he had a knife plunged into his chest”, and the young wayfarer leaving his master to depart into a new world.

This performance was a special occasion, as it was the last performance of Evan McKie as a principal of Stuttgart Ballet. McKie played the Wayfarer's mentor, showing him the world and life. Gradually he presented his young apprentice (brilliantly executed by Jason Reilly) the idea of death, making the youth struggle with fear and agony. When it gets real for the protégée, the mentor offered support to him and finally took him on to his future destiny. The youthful and virtuous Reilly is a perfect interpreter of the role, first filled with expectations and joy, then tormented with love and fear. And McKie, with his crystalline lines, intelligence and grace in every movement, showed piercing presence and charisma as destiny himself, leading his pupil to an unknown realm. Both dancers had such inner depth to portray the spirit of both Mahler and Béjart in the 21st century. The State Orchestra under James Tuggle’s baton and the baritone Julian Orlishausen created a profound touching atmosphere.

It was a beautiful finale to McKie’s 13 year career at Stuttgart Ballet. Although this was the 2nd ballet presented in a triple bill, Songs of a Wayfarer, with lyrics ("I had to leave my most beloved place”) indicating the suffering, pain and hope of a departure, matched perfectly the closing of one chapter in his life. Flowers poured on stage, the audience gave endless standing ovations, and tears flowed freely. Artistic director Reid Anderson and Tadeusz Matacz, director of John Cranko School, greeted McKie on stage wishing him well in his future at the National Ballet of Canada. He will be sorely missed in Stuttgart.