This month, Dutch National Ballet brings back David Dawson’s Tristan and Isolde (which premiered in 2015 at the Semperoper Ballet), the classic story of forbidden love between Cornwall’s king Marke's favourite knight and cousin Tristan and the Irish Princess Isolde.  

Sasha Mukhamedov & James Stout © Hans Gerritsen
Sasha Mukhamedov & James Stout
© Hans Gerritsen

Szymon Brzóska’s score (orchestrated by Benjamin Pope) which starts ominously is brought to life by the Ballet Orkest (the Ballet Orchestra) under Matthew Rowe's masterful baton.

The set (Eno Henze) and lighting (Bert Dalhuysen) are sparse, simple yet very effective, and very pretty. The same can be said of Yumiko Takeshima’s costumes: stern, dark and futuristic for Marke’s invading army; romantic and flowing for the overpowered Isolde and her following. The Irish green is reserved for Isolde.

Dawson choreography is demanding, with overextended reaches, signature backwards turns, shoves and several long series of bold lifts that challenge the dancers and capture the mood of each part. Edo Wijnen and Suzanna Kaic stand out in their solo dancing at the beginning. Wijnen (Isolde’s uncle Morold) is typically quick and happy and he grabs the attention. His duel with Tristan is fast and unyielding until his demise. Kaic (Isolde’s best friend Brangäne) always holds her own with typical elegance and precision in the extensions.

Tonight’s lead couple James Stout and Sasha Mukhamedov are a pleasure to watch. Stout gives an absolutely wonderful performance as Tristan. Skilful in his solos, powerful yet vulnerable when carrying Isolde through an endless variation of lifts, he sets a high benchmark for the role. Where he is particularly convincing is in his acting. In the end, on the edge between life and death he transcends mere regret, meets death with open eyes and chooses where he puts his last steps. That this performance earned him a promotion to Principal tonight is well deserved. Mukhamedov’s strong long leg lines and lyrical movement combined with her acting talent make her a superb Isolde. Her ability to hold Dawson’s extensions with ease and for extended notes provides moments of calm in an otherwise relentless choreography. Partnered by Stout she confidently shows all her skills and incredible range of movement. Jozef Varga’s King Marke and Young Gyu Choi’s liegeman contribute much to proceedings. A couple's first wedding dance, no matter how well rehearsed, often sees the groom consistently stepping off-beat and straight onto the wedding gown (practice with the train I tell you!). But Varga and Mukhamedov rock the dancefloor in spectacular and envy inducing ways in front of an increasingly desperate Tristan. As a loyal vigilant Melot, Choi is increasingly menacing and shows his prowess through an impressive series of spectacular jumps.

Sasha Mukhamedov & James Stout © Hans Gerritsen
Sasha Mukhamedov & James Stout
© Hans Gerritsen
Valeska Stern’s dramaturgy leads us effortlessly through the fateful twists and emotions of the plot, from Isolde’s initial hesitation and confused desire for the murderer of her uncle, from Brangäne’s suicide- turned love potion misfiring, to Tristan’s jealousy at her getting married to Marke, from the king’s overjoyed marriage to his gentlemanly rejection of Isolde. And, ultimately, to the couple’s demise. Tristan knows he is done for and with his dying steps he indulges Isolde in their last shared moments of intense beauty lifting her as high as he can. He then audibly crashes to the floor where he pulls out a flower she first gave him, caresses it and dies. A lengthy pin-dropping silence with which the audience meets Isolde's collapse over Tristan’s lifeless body as the curtain descends confirms that the production has escaped any trappings of simple melodrama. Quite a feat.

Just like Crystal Pite’s, Dawson’s work is very photogenic, but tonight it is also more emotive. His choreographic vocabulary is highly varied in this piece where the many pas de deux of the main couple keep captivating the audience. Some scenes felt a little too long and at times I yearned for a quieter moment in dance and music. But just as the couple, we are swept onward by the events.

Dawson’s Tristan and Isolde, has great potential for lasting power.

*****