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The Scots Bring a Ravishing Ballet to Music Center

By Donna Perlmutter
Published: Tuesday, October 18, 2011, at 03:40PM
Music Center - Song of the Earth Andrew Ross

Sophie Martin and Erik Cavallari in MacMillan’s "Song of the Earth."



Who would have guessed it? Who would have thought that Antony Tudor’s 1948 failed effort to complete his ballet based on Mahler’s be-all-end-all “Das Lied von der Erde” would have another chance? That choreographer Kenneth MacMillan would pick up where Tudor’s “Shadow of the Wind” left off? That the Scottish Ballet – not known as one of the world’s great companies — would have the wherewithal to mount the MacMillan version, “Song of the Earth,” and fly us to heaven?

Well, rejoice we did this weekend at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. And not just because of the above facts on the ground — most in the audience were not even privy to them. Yet, justifiably, our assembled dance fans swooned over the ravishingly poetic vision onstage.

The late MacMillian — a Scotsman who, at a very young age, decamped to London and its nascent ballet scene — revered Tudor, his senior who had crossed the pond just before the war, answering a call to become a 1940 founder of American Ballet Theatre. The two were a generation apart, but both fell captive to Mahler’s 70-minute, six-part song cycle for orchestra, tenor and contralto – its Chinese poems by Li-Po freely translated into German.

Never having seen the original Tudor ballet, which stood unfinished at its premiere and had only three performances ever, I can’t imagine anything more compelling than this “Song of the Earth” — because it catches all the music’s inward lyricism, framed wondrously by side figures in repose or in counterpoint.

You can see the music and hear the dancing, an observation that Balanchine fans (this one, included) often invoke. And although the movement is abstract, it bends with the score’s sorrowful curve. Indeed, it’s the best of MacMillan, suggesting a narrative that further extends Mahler’s aching, withered tone of loss and resignation. It even has Tudor’s gestural touches, suggesting the poems’ allusions with original interplay.

Yes, the score abounds in lighter, dappled, bucolic moments and MacMillan picks up those delicate motifs of chinoiserie naturally.

What both choreographers understood is that Mahler wove a unique web of pathos around life, with a love few other composers could convey — his leave-taking of it, as in the finale here of “Der Abschied,” becomes a great, time-suspending farewell that lasts as long as the other five songs combined and gets carried out with repetitions of the word “ewig” (forever).

MacMillan keeps us in its midst as the two men, figures of death and life, stay in contact with the woman, enfolding her and each other, moving away from one and then toward the other, while peripheral figures form a semi-static Greek-chorus backdrop.

Sophie Martin, Erik Cavallari and Christopher Harrison, who danced these principal roles, were superb, no small thanks to the coaching of Grant Coyle and Donald MacLeary, repetiteurs from the Royal Ballet, the latter formerly in the first cast there. (Not surprisingly, the Royal originally pooh-poohed MacMillan’s offer to create the work – “Mahler’s music does not fit dance,” some director said — but he got the nod to stage it from John Cranko at Stuttgart Ballet. And so we were not denied.)

My only reservation came in the opening number, where MacMillan has his male corps flexing through unison maneuvers, too corporeal a sight to match the tenor’s bitter, heart-wrenching outburst. It got me thinking, uh-oh. Will this be another insensitive creation à la Gerald Arpino, whose “Round of Angels” to the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony showed us lots of upside-down splits, i.e. crotch dancing? Too often, there’s no accounting for taste… It wasn’t, of course.

And finally, arts budgets being what they are, the music was canned. But even as transmitted through a scratchy sound system, the power of Mahler’s score served the dancers in this marvelous staging.

Donna Perlmutter is an award-winning critic, journalist and author. Formerly the chief music/dance critic for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, she contributes to the Los Angeles Times and other publications.

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