In Nutcracker season, it is refreshing to see more than sugar plum fairies on stage. Still, what promised to be a strongly liberating programme, featuring talents such as Alexander Ekman and Sharon Eyal, turned out to be only partially so. A notoriously busy month, this December is even busier for the Staatsballet Berlin with the premiere of three productions (two world premieres in this programme and one company premiere next week). It might have been a bit much, but let’s not split hairs: it was an entertaining evening that flooded the opera with Berlin's young-and-hip art scene.

Polina Semionova, Ksenia Ovsyanick, Elisa Carrillo Cabrera, Johnny McMillan in <i>Lib</i> © Jubal Battisti
Polina Semionova, Ksenia Ovsyanick, Elisa Carrillo Cabrera, Johnny McMillan in Lib
© Jubal Battisti

A casually strolling man in a black suit and a bearskin made of wigs lures people into the auditorium for Ekman’s LIB (is this a faint critique of the spectacle of the art world?). The diffuse start continues as the auditorium is lit and, one by one, female soloists in skin-coloured leotards and pointes execute a mix of warm-up exercises, grimaces and bourrés, hands occasionally fluttering as hunted by the swans of past productions. The modern pas de quatre bourrés while switching poses until a hairy mass rolls in kicking them out. Two of them regain the stage and, in a ring of light, challenge one another in a fight/clapping game while in the background ‘no’, ‘never’, ‘maybe’, ‘ok’ are projected interchangeably. As the screen lifts, revealing the stage full length, more half-shaved, half-hairy beings crawl, swing, bounce and wave their manes on the Talking Head’s Take Me to the River. The fur coats have individual shapes – with long arms, with hairs on the side only or as a V-shape in the centre – and colours – ash blond, blond, light brown, brown and ginger. They then reappeared in full hair-catsuits and wigs exploring the whole range of micro and macro motions. The piece ends with the dancers coming forward, wigs off, sitting on the stage edge with the light coming up on the auditorium. Known for his ironic twists, in LIB Ekman seems to be answering the question "What if?" Uncle Itt or Chewbacca studied ballet. It is as if the Chinese lion dance had met ballet had met the dances of the carwash rotating brushes. Really watchable, one feels like touching the costumes (and Elisa Carrillo Cabrera’s unbelievable arches), it lacked Ekman’s usual meta-reflection. It was like Glögg without the crunchiness of the almonds, solidly good but...

Ksenia Ovsyanick in <i>Lib</i> © Jubal Battisti
Ksenia Ovsyanick in Lib
© Jubal Battisti

Ekman’s swinging fluffiness is contrasted by Eyal’s darkly sleek Strong, a dance on ecstasy, the soul and life energy. The dance starts with chattering on stage that slowly morphs into techno music while light coming from the side and opening slowly, illuminates the head of the dancers clustered in one corner. The dancers, clad in dark transparent stocking material and black briefs and bras, move slowly in unison, to break away one at the time from the group. To a pounding techno beat, we see the formation moving and changing, cluttering to flock in small groups, lines dissolving into a V-formation and into diagonals. Eyal’s language is there, with mechanical repetitions of small gestures, radical breaking away and distorted silhouettes – extra-long lean legs and short torso so that even a male’s body looks feminine – in near darkness.

<i>Strong</i> © Jubal Battisti
Strong
© Jubal Battisti

Half of the performance is on demi-pointe with dark Wilis hovering on stage, or in a rock-solid second position. Somehow less involving than her previous piece for the Staatsballett – the music is pounding too much, the movements have already been seen, the positions are not so clean, and the formations remind of revues and dance choruses in rock concerts – but it still contains Eyal's signature elements, playing with timing and levels, movement twitches and the lonely figure against the group. It is a well-made piece but it is heterogeneous: your attention is soaked in only at intervals as when you sip tea that is too hot. The dance ends with the fading image of a lonely dancer running on the spot on its own on the covered orchestra pit contrasted by a group of ‘Giselles’ slowly rotating on the spot, their shoulder blades constantly twitching and moving on the morphing and fading music of cellos (Ori Lichtik).

<i>Strong</i> © Jubal Battisti
Strong
© Jubal Battisti

It is not a strong hold that the two dances have, even with Charlie Le Mindu’s Haute Coiffure extraordinaire for Ekman’s costumes. But even without the ‘mix, rake, twist, sweep’… they are still worth it. Even if they are not very deep, or are too subtle or too cryptic, there is craftsmanship and great engagement behind each of these ventures. The Staatsballett’s new programme really allows the audience to experience different choreographic signatures and different choreographic approaches to the dancers. If you want to have fun adding a dash of art criticism in this bananas-art-ripe days, Ekman’s prelude is worth it.

****1