9 Sep 2013

Stuttgarter Ballett (im Park): Krabat

I accidentally deleted this post while working on the site, so this is a re-loaded version. The original one dates 14 Jul 2013.

I've been enthusing about this on twitter for so long that I thought I might as well write a proper blog entry about the ballet I saw last weekend. I'm not usually a ballet person since for some reason words tend to do more for me than sounds or pictures. But Krabat is based on a much-loved children's book by one of my childhood heroes, Otfried Preußler, who gave us so many unforgettable characters like Räuber Hotzenplotz, Die kleine Hexe, Der kleine Wassermann, and Krabat, which is closer to YA than children's literature, so I thought, why not give it a try?
Based on a Sorbian fairy tale and set in 16th-century Saxony, Krabat is an orphan who travels the area with a group of other beggar boys, when he finds himself mysteriously drawn to a mill in a valley, where he begins an apprenticeship. He soon notices that milling isn't the only craft he is going to learn at this particular mill and he joins the other journeymen and apprentices at night, practising Black Magic under the miller's guidance. The twelve turn themselves into ravens for these sessions. 
Krabat finds a friend and surrogate brother in Tonda, the senior journeyman, who shows him the ropes in the mill. On New Year's Eve of Krabat's first year as an apprentice, however, Tonda dies in an accident, but the other journeymen stay astonishingly calm about this. The same happens on New Year's Eve the following year, when another senior apprentice dies. Krabat realizes that the Master either has to sacrifice one of his apprentices at the end of the year or his pact with the devil ends and he has to die himself. The Master usually picks the best of his pupils, before they become strong enough to challenge him.
Planning revenge for his friends' deaths, Krabat wants to become the best pupil of them all. Juri, the apparent idiot cook in the mill, warns Krabat and reveals to him that he will only manage to stay alive by acting dumb like he himself does. The two of them secretly train together to challenge the Master at the end of the year, and Juri discovers that Krabat's love for a girl from the village, Kantorka (meaning "little chorister" in Sorbian), increases his resistance to magic.
Kantorka agrees to ask for Krabat's release on New Year's Eve, in the full knowledge that if she fails the Master's test they both are going to die. Before they can execute this plan, however, the Master offers Krabat the inheritance of the mill and of the pact with the devil. Yet Krabat turns down this offer, as he doesn't want to be responsible for other people's deaths in order to keep his magical powers.
When Kantorka - whose real name we never get to know - appears on the night of the challenge, the Master turns all the boys once again into ravens, blindfolds Kantorka and challenges her to identify her lover among the birds. Since the apprentices are all fearing for their own life, while Krabat is the only one fearing for the life of his love, she is able to tell him apart, the journeymen are all free to leave - albeit without their magical powers - , and the Master is left to die in his burning mill.
The fairytale elements of the story already evoke fairly strong visuals, as any 10-year old who's read the book will tell you. What turns this production into a complete success is the combination of the strong design of set and costumes by Katharina Schlipf with Demis Volpi's choreography that really manages to communicate character and emotion. 
The mill consists entirely of high walls of flour sacks and catches the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Master's realm. They seriously limit the dancers' space and particularly in the big scenes with all apprentices present there is hardly enough room for them all to move, let alone jump, which sometimes feels a shame. What fascinated me most, though, were the raven costumes. Elongating the dancers' arms to twice their normal length and fitted with five different kinds of real feathers as well as synthetic ones, the wings worked incredibly well in the choreography. 

A second lucky idea was the Master's long, black coat. (Yes, Sherlock fans will see what I mean.) Apart from being absolutely awesome, this coat was also used to signify the Master's power and position in the mill. When he offers Krabat to succeed him as miller, he hands over his coat, and Krabat literally picks up the mantle, tries it on and - in a long solo dance scene - fights the coat that attempts to take possession of him. 
It is exactly the economy behind decisions like these that makes the production so powerful. There are no special effects necessary to evoke the dark magical world of the mill; music, light, costumes, and choreography lead the audience through the story of the Sorbian orphan turned wizard.
One thing I should add is that I was able to see Krabat for free and open air - the performance was broadcast live from the Opernhaus to the park in front of it, where the audience could follow the music and action on a massive LED screen, while tending to their picknicks and sipping chilled wine. The close-ups of the dancers added considerably to the experience - one which you can never have up in the gods. So, thank you, Stuttgarter Ballett im Park - more like this, anytime!
P.S.: There's one point of critique - the depiction of the choir girls... well, that could have been less stereotypical. If the Master is eventually defeated by strong women (there's a lengthy magical battle between him and another Master, who's a proper kick-ass young woman; plus the devil is female), why stage the choir girls all the time en point and going through Ballet routines whereas the rest of the cast is allowed to have a bit of fun?
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