I didn’t expect the première of Johan Inger’s Peer Gynt ballet to be an exact transposition of Henrik Ibsen’s 1887 play into dance, and was prepared for a variance from the original, but warming up to this new production featuring exaggerated characters, contrived devices and creaky staging was something of a trial.

In the Ibsen tale, Peer Gynt travels the world to try and give meaning to his existence, finding it only as an old man when he returns to his homeland and to Solveig, the woman he once left behind. In this new production, that basic plot remains the same, but several twists make it bawdier: Peer Gynt and a friend’s virgin bride groan and throb over their sexual encounter inside a portable outhouse; a green-haired woman bears Gynt an unwanted baby, then once sits down hard on it in its carriage; a trio of lascivious dancers beguile Peer with their beefed-up bosoms. Any shake-up’s acceptable, but the cast’s running and fighting in slow motion – tortured grimaces on their faces – and the gibberish that Peer Gynt ranted in his endless desperation were tiresome and at times felt, simply, senseless.

There were, however, performances that had merit. The loveless bride (Annabelle Peintre) was lithe in her innocence, and convincingly delicate on her feet. As the lime green-haired single mother, the petite Andrea Tortosa Vidal superbly mastered the flurry of tiny steps and nervous energy demanded of her. Finally, auditioning for Gynt in his role as a casting director – which was a peculiar moment in itself – each one of the competitors (Alba Carbonell Castillo, Lydia Caruso, and Debora Maiques Marin) had entire command of her short dance. The Iberian showed her character was a powerhouse of seduction and deceit. The galumphing character in the pink tutu was terrifically amusing, and since moving so awkwardly is a high order for a professional, that dancer must be commended for hitting the mark spot on. So too, the third “competitor” danced the part of the sinuous vamp both humorously and with brilliant agility.

Solveig, the woman to whom Peer Gynt returns, had drifted through the theatre at the start, spoken to a bystander, and sat on stage with a small choir that was disguised as audience. In that role, Ye Eun Choi commendably sang her Grieg, and later, like an iconic Madonna, sat knitting inside the neon frame Peer had constructed as a house for them both. He joined her there before the curtain closed, humbly stirring his soup. Good friends as oldies, perhaps, but that hardly underscored the intimacy and power of love that was to pivot the whole production. 

As Peer Gynt, Frank Fannar Pedersen, gave a commendable performance. The tallest of the dancers, he met equally high demands, both of pacing and continuous figural changes. His choreography seemed, however, to be driven by a strange assumption that if a movement were do-able, then it ought to be done. Convoluted postures were often sustained, or intertwined with other bodies a tad too long. When his fellow dancers’ backsides jutted out towards the audience, the image was hardly offensive, but was certainly less than aesthetic. Further, choreographic sequences which initiated from a deep contraction of the core sometimes made for awkward beginnings. Perhaps that was the intention, but those aesthetics seemed contorted and confused, as if the choreography sought to make up in muscle what it lacked in fluidity.

Some elements of the work appear entirely disconnected from the narrative thread. In the opening sequence of the second act, a handful of male dancers had joined Peer Gynt in an athletic sequence in which each man alternated wearing a gold crown. Five spotlights hovered like drones at different distances above them, their lights crisscrossing in as many directions. While striking staging in itself, the purpose of that sequence was hard to define. Was the intention to have a group of guys filling up time, or was it simply an abstract dance interlude entirely unhindered by a narrative? Another oddity was the attendant role of the cripple − whom Armando Braswell nicely performed as an evocation of the title figure’s conscience. However, after Gynt inexplicitly hammered a moving man to death, Braswell’s character leveled a stage direction: “Nobody dies in the middle of Act 2”! At that, the “dead” man jumped up, brushed himself off, and gratefully walked away. Actor? Dancer? Citizen of Basel? Nobody knew, and in just the same way,  the ensuing total, momentary blackout seemed a device lacking in reason.

Like a beekeeper does racks of honey, Curt Allen Wilmer’s pull-out sets could be drawn out from left and right selectively. While housing various tableaux, they creaked almost every time they moved, challenging the suspension of disbelief to a degree. As for sweeter sounds, the fine Sinfonieorchester Basel under Thomas Herzog’s baton gave a compelling performance. Its musicians seamlessly moved through short passages and familiar highlights of Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt suites, Georges Bizet’s flamboyant Carmen and Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. The orchestra’s full-bodied, consistently modulated line − particularly the superb winds and tympanum – made a more integrated body of a somewhat deconstructed spectacle. With choreography so full of fits and starts, the narrative fell something by the wayside for me; and the awkward sequences of gags, rants and trumpery did little to make a lasting impression.