It appears that the Vanemuine ballet troupe enjoys performing variations on the theme of Don Juan on stage. Five years ago, David Sonnenbluck’s production of Casanova premiered in Tartu, which was, in terms of form, striking and dynamic, pulsating with dance phrases that alternated in the blink of an eye. Yet that production was full of colourful individual numbers – a new mise-en-scene, a new musical style, new costumes, a new relationship form – but this production is a whole. From beginning to end. All of the possibilities the theatre has to offer have been summoned into service in an imaginative way.
Giorgio Madia’s Don Juan – extremely clever, with a sophisticated sense of style and intricate dramaturgical dance treatment – is undoubtedly a worthy master class in theatre. Theatre precisely – not ballet – for this production weaves everything that is considered a good trait when it comes to classical drama, tragedy or comedy. The production fits in well with the world of 21st-century theatre, as it is just as tempestuous as the current era: flashing out information, iridescent like an aurora, it is crazy for visuals and thirsty for novelty.
The Estonian version is more exciting. Madia, who has previously staged the opera Carmen and the dance production La dolce vita (inspired by the works of Fellini) in Tartu, this time adapts a piece that premiered in the Berlin Staatsballett for the Vanemuine troupe with the result being 1-0 in Estonia’s favour. It appears our main characters – Jack Traylen’s plastically androgynous Don Juan and Brandon Alexander’s puma-like Diavolo – are more exciting masters of the game than their German colleagues.
Traylen’s aristocratic bearing and arrogant emotional iciness allow him to fully enjoy the beauty of the game, drawing the audience’s gaze. Alexander’s soft dance image serves him well on this occasion. Diavolo is satanically sensual and alluring, just like a big cat. He is likewise Don Juan’s shadowy alter ago who, once he gains a foothold, end up fully controlling him.
Ultimately, Alexander’s sensual black Diavolo force leads the arrogant Don Juan, who would ostensibly have free will, to hell. He incites the man’s appetite as he struts and dances, always observing on the stage, a violin player beside him. Diavolo is like an elegant and stress-free wild animal who stalks his quarry until the right moment comes to pounce. The costumes fashioned in an S&M style, a horn-like penis protector over the genitals, with striking curved horns as a final touch – as such he is merciless and dogged. Don Juan is like a chess piece who is played, along with other Satanic spawn, into the underworld.
Dramaturgically, Madia has specifically underscored physical passion in all of the forms it takes. He leads one’s thoughts, as well as the spotlight, to the body: exalting it, valuing it, presenting it and serving it. The magnet that makes Don Juan move is sexuality as thirst, joy, enjoyment and adventure. As a slave to impulse, he obeys the body, its every quiver, demand and call. His body is the coachman of his mind and intelligence. Adrenaline and passion are his food and drink.
The id calls the shots. The production touches on all of the themes familiar from Don Juan: the slew of deceived women he seduces and abandons, the famous commander, and the servant who is vexed by his master but depends on him for his livelihood. The main difference from conventional interpretations is Diavolo, who controls Don Juan, embodying his Freudian id, whose mood is the primary process and who, like a spoiled child, stamps his feet demanding enjoyment.
Don Juan’s adventures with women proceed along precise mises-en-scene, while interludes in a commedia dell’arte style serve as a pause to allow the overheated characters to catch their breath. The characters are male and female servants – the common people who innocently present their relationship drama. The choreography is humorous, light and simple, as is appropriate for that class. There are no double standards. What you see is what is danced and enjoyed, abuzz with excitement, wearing costumes that, with grotesque crooked noses, emphasize the breasts and genitals. The forms merge the sublime and the ignoble. The ignoble parts are, as a contrast, more honest and sincere than Don Juan’s cunning.
The music, by Christoph Willibald Gluck, exerts a disciplining effect: it is strict, with exacting aural language and a volcanically saturated dance vocabulary standing as opposites that complement each other. It is as if fantastic kinetic plants were sprouting from a harsh soil; it is as if the world of sound contracts into a level plane so that the story’s impulsive sexuality can manifest itself on the stage and become physical. Corporality, the focus on the body, carnal delights, revelling in the movement of the body – these are directed into a relationship with Gluck’s musical world, with its understated and disciplined language of form.
Murdmaa’s Don Juan’s Game Estonian ballet history knows a work by the same name featuring original choreography: in 1992, Mai Murdmaa’s ballet Don Juan’s Game debuted at the Estonia Theatre. Murdmaa also used Gluck’s music, but the electronic idiom of Karlheinz Stockhausen as well. Madia’s emphasis is on passion, the body and the joy of dance without niggling morality; Murdmaa was more interested in the philosophical side of this heart-breaker’s adventures. The choreographer emphasised the idea that life is a string of compromises and that Don Juan’s failure to compromise has a high price.
Don Juan’s longing for an ideal led him from woman to woman and ultimately to the perfect woman – a vampire, who sucked him dry. Similarly to Madia, Murdmaa’s ballet played extensively with form: in the second act, black wilis enchanted the ladies’ man, and the story itself was a game within a game: the production started with two modern men dressing themselves as Don Juan and servant.
The Don Juan theme invites experiments with the central motif and the form of the story and is under no circumstance an admonishment with black-and-white morals.
Physical passion subjugates morality. Physical passion is the star of Madia’s ballet. He consecrates all of the stratagems and twists of human relationships. He simply sets them down by his side and directs them. The masterfulness of the game as the golden key. In the domain of lust, morality has no place; the game in the name of hedonism is masterful and brilliant. The adrenaline shot rewards execution. Hence pure lust is what directs Don Juan to wander among women, hunting for new carnal delight from one pleasure to the next.
Traylen is exacting in his approach, a seducer with a sophisticated sense who does not acknowledge the word ‘shameless’. Carefree in dance technique, he is a self-confident player into whose net all victims fall of their own accord. He is sure that he will yet again triumph, and this attracts women. Donna Anna, Donna Isabella, Donna Elvira from the convent and Elisa all fall into the sweet trap of passion. In the end they surrender aware that they are doing so, joyfully, but later take no responsibility. They were seduced. Such was the morality in the era in which Don Juan operated: two-faced; hypocritical.
Madia is not interested in the moral of the tale, which has been placed on a pedestal in more than 3,000 artistic interpretations over the centuries. He is captivated by how passion blazes its own path, like lava. Before it cools and hardens, it is beautiful to watch the molten streams. But we know in advance that fire destroys and singes. Souls and hearts. But in spite of this, the image is visually striking.
Choreographers seek works that best allow the movement of the body to be used to tell them, and this Italian has found extremely suitable material: using the body to speak in body language of the body’s desires and impulses. The sexual act and physical embrace are one and the same both in the world of humans and translated into the lexicon of the choreographer. True, in order to convey it one can use witty poses, lifts and interpersonal couplings and decouplings that are sensual and sometimes cross boundaries and provoke. Yet we live in the 21st century, and we are used to all of this. Rather, a refined artistic touch gives the naturalistic mating ritual new colour and meaning.
Supporting visuals. Costumes and decorations are key parts of this production: the hall with its many doors, designed by Cordelia Matthese with verisimilitude to the period; the gimmickry in the beginning with the gigantic mirror that reflects the image of the players climbing ‘up’ the outside of a house laid out on the floor; the intimidatingly large black dress from which Diavolo spawns and sends forth demons from hell.
The occasionally graphic and sometimes painterly black-pink-white tones, the dresses with feathers and stockings and transparent skirt hoops and the men’s provocative S&M costumes are skilled touches provided by Bruno Schwengli.
It is heartening to see how, in this Don Juan story, dance itself gets a worthy opportunity to shine, live and become excited; how the Vanemuine ballet troupe is presented on stage within an internationally high calibre of art, framed by a magical set, sophisticated costumes and ingenious choreography. With its esprit, playfulness, humour and terpsichorean mastery, Madia’s Italianate spirit could well have even more to teach the Estonian body and mind. Principally it could teach them that the game of life is beautiful and filled with pleasure.