While the Japanese sculptural choreographer Saburo Teshigawara was serving up his one-hour distillation of Tristan and Isolde at the Hong Kong Arts Festival this week, the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia “Evgeny Svetlanov” was cramming Swan Lake into an hour-long ‘dramatic symphony’ at another Festival venue. The latter, an invention of hip guest conductor Kristjan Järvi, was highly caffeinated. One could imagine the swans tearing across the stage at breakneck speed, and every living thing perishing in the final tsunami, hounded into the stormy lake by the percussion.

© Ahikito Abe
© Ahikito Abe

Teshigawara’s miniature, on the other hand, is set to excerpts from a somewhat scratchy recording of the opera, in what seems like a deliberate decision to constrain the music’s epic scale. With only himself and partner Rihoko Sato on stage, both clad in black and parsimoniously lit against voluminous folds of black fabric that cascade claustrophobically from the flies, the legendary characters of Tristan and Isolde often seem to be slipping into shadows – fugitives from the theatrical work that bears their names.

You don’t need to know the story to grasp that these two lovers are in some awful predicament which prevents their physical union. He dies; she dies. But Isolde’s formidable spirit lives on. This does not appear to be the spiritual journey painted in many productions, for this transfigured Isolde seems no different from the Isolde we first encountered: ardent, headstrong, graceful, resilient. Rather, she appears to be the survivor of some unspecified cataclysm in which her lover and those around her have perished.

© Akihito Abe
© Akihito Abe
It’s a relief not to have to revisit the hoary trope of lovers choosing to unite in death. Indeed, Teshigawara seems at once to be aiming for the emotional heart of this drama and ducking it altogether. He has splintered one of the most influential pieces of Western music and delivered it in acoustic conditions akin to listening to a radio in the next room. The music suffers little: it is hard to rob Wagner’s Prelude, his duets for Tristan and Isolde, and "Liebestod" of their power.

Meanwhile Teshigawara and Sato have embodied, with great economy, not just the two lead characters but the supporting cast as well – mainly through feats of stage lighting. Is that Isolde’s loyal but scheming handmaid Brangäne? And is that King Marke, shattered at his beloved nephew Tristan’s betrayal? The dancers’ dispassionate expressions offer few narrative clues; it is all down to the vivid movement and to Teshigawara’s extraordinary lighting design.

The great swirling movement that the choreographer has devised for himself and Sato exemplifies the maelstrom of despair that engulfs the adulterous couple. (Though, in this production and others – like Heiner Müller‘s stripped-down 1995 Bayreuth staging – the doomed couple never actually get a shot at adultery.)

There is less sculptural complexity in this work than in Teshigawara’s choreography for larger ensembles, but some of the same qualities surface here. This is dance that conveys the extremes of abandon and control in the relentless wave-like movement that seems constantly tethered to the ground yet skims and floats and hops, giving the illusion of covering vast territory, never returning to the same place. Pliant torsos seem constantly buffeted by punishing winds. The powerful scooping of the hands and flinging of the arms sends bodies hurtling into patterns like that of spiral galaxies. This last image is intensified by the billowing of Teshigawara’s shapeless, oversized coat and Sato’s flowing surcoat gown, that partly masks the outlines of the dancers’ bodies but transmits the residue of their movement into the fluttering textiles.

© Mariko Miura
© Mariko Miura
Tristan’s coat plays a vital role in the final act, as Teshigawara sheds it in painstaking slow-motion before exiting the stage. He lays the coat down gently on the floor and smooths it, folding the sleeves over tenderly and respectfully, as if saying goodbye. (This evokes the poignant “Vecchia Zimarra” aria in La Bohème in which Colline bids an emotional farewell to his winter coat before pawning it to buy medicine for his dying friend Mimi. He thanks the coat for its service to philosophers and poets and for never bowing to the rich and powerful.) 

Now clad in nondescript black pyjamas, Teshigawara backs away – the actor exiting the role; the artist relinquishing his creation. 

Sato dashes in, spies the coat, and flings it over her head, crushing it to her. Shrouded in and practically suffocated by this immense garment, she tugs and stretches it, wrestles with it, dances with it, the sleeves of the coat seeming to embrace her. She is sorrow incarnate. As we await the musical resolution that Wagner has delayed for three acts and four hours (or in this case, a mere 60 minutes), Sato tosses the coat aside. She is moving on, having mourned the passing of a soulmate. And having grappled with the complicated legacy of Wagner, who had tremendous influence in Japan, and whose sordid personal affairs reportedly inspired the miraculous Tristan and Isolde.

“What’s real to me” asks the Hong Kong Arts Festival in its marketing tagline for this 46th season. In the ephemeral world of dance, Teshigawara’s Isolde emerges as an unyielding tower of strength in an otherwise fragile landscape.

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