Heir of a Great Tradition

Peter Breuer: Lone Survivor from the Fastly Disappearing Race of Ballet Story-Tellers

He belongs to the line originated by Noverre, Angiolini and Viganò, continued via Bournonville, Coralli/Perrot, Saint-Léon and Petipa, through Fokine, Massine and Ashton up to Petit, Cranko and MacMillan as the great story-tellers of ballet-history: Peter Breuer, artistic director the ballet company at Salzburg's Landestheater since 1991/92.
A man of all seasons, he seems at home as well under the blazing sun of Othello's Cyprus as of Tchaikovsky's snow-covered streets of St. Petersburg, in the springlike climate of Norway's Peer Gynt as in the decadent autumnal glow of the global Lulu.
He was the only German dancer who was present at the London gala last summer at the occasion of Dame Beryl Grey's appointment as President of the English National Ballet. It was an invitation which he had received as former Principal Dancer of the then London Festival Ballet at the time of Beryl Grey's artistic directorship. This places Breuer among the very few German dancers who have made it to the top of an international company, started with Peter van Dyk as Étoile at the Paris Opéra and continued later with Heinz Bosl (Breuer's exact contemporary, born in 1946) as partner of Margot Fonteyn. There has been no successor since – with Friedemann Vogel of Stuttgart as the most likely next candidate for an international career.
Breuer, a dyed in the wool Bavarian, who names Peter Roleff, Gustav Blank, Leonid Gonta and Victor Gsovsky as important teachers – not forgetting to mention his father, a pianist, as the most formative personality, inflicting on him an insatiable musicality since his childhood days – started his career as a dancer in 1961 at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, where he danced one of his last performances as Onegin on the side of Makarova in 1988. At that time he was considered one of the technically most brilliant, experienced, elegant and always intrinsically musical principal dancers of the German scene – a regular with the companies of the Deutsche Oper am Rhein (Düsseldorf-Duisburg) and the Deutsche Oper Berlin (West Berlin's Municipal Opera House) – plus numerous guest-appearances in Germany and abroad, in great demand by ballerinas all over the world.
In Salzburg he has a hard job. Outside of Vienna all ballet work in Austria is considered provincial (and by not few people inside Vienna too) – even in the regional capitals of Salzburg, Graz, Linz and Innsbruck. Salzburg faces the additional difficulty to have to compete with the occasional guest invitation of foreign companies during the big ballyhoo of the Salzburg Festival. But this is the general problem, faced by the Landestheater, run as an opera, operetta/musical, drama and ballet company, performing for ten months of the year to subscription audiences – always being compared to and measured against the glitzy events during the July/August festival season. It's a situation which might be compared to Edinburgh – but Scotland was wise enough to base its opera and ballet company in Glasgow.
Anyway, the Salzburg ballet lists just twelve dancers plus three eleves. As Breuer is skilled enough to integrate a couple of supernumeraries into his productions, there seem to be at times up to about thirty people on stage, looking quite enormous on that not very big scene. Visiting occasionally performances by the company – mostly on my way to or from Vienna - I have always admired their solid and highly professional standard as well as the technical efficiency of the dancers (mostly from Eastern countries). If there is one technical speciality through which Salzburg dwarfs most of the companies here about, it is the capacity of the dancers executing what looks like endless pirouettes, always stopping with exclamation sign accuracy, exactly timed with the music. Breuer says that he has inherited it from his classes with Blank and instilled it in his dancers with the demon-like force of a Coppélius manipulating Coppélia.
On my last visit to Salzburg I had been very impressed by Breuer's production of Pink Floyd's "The Wall", for which the company had left its cozy Landestheater residence and shifted to a cinema for about 30 consecutive performances. As a rock score it has become an immensely popular ballet in Germany, choreographed by Mario Schröder, first in Würzburg and then revived for Kiel, Berlin and Essen. But Schröder's version never matched Breuer's theatrical force, let alone his musicality or the turbo speed generated by the Salzburg dancers. Wow!
Since then Breuer has choreographed full-length versions of "Carmen" and "Othello", which I haven't seen but been told rather complimentary opinions about. His most recent production is "Tchaikovsky", labelled "Dance Theater in two parts", lasting two hours and forty minutes. Premiered on October 16, I attended the performance on November 24 – one of an announced run of 22 (definitely more than of most of the companies of this size working here are able to sell). If not sold out, the house was full and the subscription enjoyed it thoroughly – as did I.
This is obviously the Tchaikovsky season over here in Europe – without any calendary reason. In Berlin Malakhov has just produced a new "Sleeping Beauty", while Zurich offered Spoerli's new "Swan Lake" and Dortmund announces a new "Nutcracker" for December by Xin Peng Wang. Eisenach has already Kajdanski's "Tchaikovsky" for several weeks on the repertory – and so has Gelsenkirchen Schindowski's "Last Symphony", based , of course, on a selection from scores of the eponymous composer. Vienna started the new era under the directorship of Harangozó with the creation of "Tchaikovsky Impressions" by the Stuttgart based Ivan Cavallari. And the Berlin State Opera announced the import of Eifman's "Tchaikovsky" from St. Petersburg for come March.
Why this sudden Tsunami of Tchaikovsky ballets? I have no idea! Not having seen any of them – with the exception of Spoerli in Zurich -, I am sceptical that any of these productions can hold a candle to Breuer's Salzburg "Tchaikovsky". I found it stunning – the most convincing and theatrically valid full-length action ballet for many a season. Actually I can compare it as a biographical ballet only with Neumeier's "Nijinsky" – and I find it even better, i.e. more densely constructed and even richer in its choreographic content. I even dare to maintain that in the whole history of ballet there has been no other work - at least no other one I know – so tightly packed with action and so clearly narrated than this. And it is danced throughout its more than two hours duration always as if catapulted by the music chosen from Tchaikovsky's oeuvre (plus some surprise excursions).
develops as prologue and epilogue, framing nine scenes – with one interval. It starts and ends with a boisterous Christopher Street Parade, with a Freddie Mercury rocking the crowds with his "I want to be free". Between the scenes of a St. Petersburg professional court condemning Tchaikovsky to suicide by drinking from a poisoned glass, the ballet proper enfolds in filmic flashbacks, showing scenes from his life.
It is astonishing how much Breuer has been able to conjure up in these scenes, always centering around the person of Tchaikovsky: his caring mother, the almost incestuous relationship with his brother Modest, his eternal yearning for the boy of his dreams, the pianist Rubinstein (condemning his second piano concerto), Madame von Meck, writing her famous letters (with quotations from them), the arrangement of his marriage with Antonia by her highly ambitious mother, the unhappy results with Antonia becoming an easy prey for the lechers of St. Petersburg and her final delivery into a lunatic asylum. Other events include a class at the Maryinsky Theatre, conducted by Petipa, a visit to a performance of Bizet's "Carmen" as well as excerpts from "Swan Lake", "Sleeping Beauty" and "Nutcracker" – with the acting persons appearing in the roles of some of his stage works, like Frau von Meck becoming Tatyana in the famous letter scene from "Eugen Onegin", or the duel of the rivaling Frau von Meck and Antonia, taking place to the music of the Onegin-Lensky duet – and the constant interventions of a person called Fatum (impersonating the roles of Rotbart, Don José, Carabosse and the Countess from "Pique Dame"), and even the appearance of Tsar Alexander III. (this is the weakest scene of them all).
And if this seems mindboggling, and it has to be admitted that not all members of the audience might be able to appreciate all the details of the action – while those who have a rough knowledge of the events in Tchaikovsky's life certainly do – Breuer manages to tell all these stories with great clarity, profiling individual characters and linking them closely to the music from a vast choice of pieces of Tchaikovsky's output plus the Habanera from "Carmen" and even an excerpt from Rimsky-Korsakov's "Sheherazade" (for the scene of Antonia with her suitors). He says that he has arranged the musical selections all by himself, and if am not exactly happy that all are blasted from loud-speakers, I found them appropriately handled, seamlessly connected and unfailingly conjuring up the exact dramatic atmosphere (with Breuer collaborating with Michael Alexander Sauter on the dramaturgy).
The choreography, always extremely musical, is based upon the extended vocabulary of the classic tradition plus all the elements offered from contemporary sources, be they en caractère, modern, ballroom, folklore, South American and African traditions through the rock and roll and disco gyrations in the nightclubs – not to forget the import of male swans à la Matthew Bourne. Breuer certainly knows the rich palette offered to contemporary choreographers between the academic classicism taught in classes through the free forms improvised on the dance floors and on the streets all over the globe. He is helped enormously by the spare but atmosphere evoking sets and costumes of Dorin Gal.
And he is able to create roles, which his well trained dancers seem to truly devour. At the center is the Tchaikovsky of the tall and accomplished Dorian Salkin, who looked and acted his constant frustrations to perfection – unfortunately I found him a rather dull dancer. Anyway he was clearly outclassed by the smaller, wonderfully alacrious and dashing Marian Meszaros, called just Knabe (boy), a perfect aim for T's longings and rather sexy at that (his further roles include the Princes in the ballets and the Nutcracker). Fatum, a sort of Son of the Hell, is Alexander Pereda, the incarnation of evil, intervening constantly at the most inappropriate moments. Alexander Korobko, elegant and more worldly than the distant T., makes Modest, the brother, a very winning figure, while Nadja Rethey-Prikkel is the very caring and warm-hearted Mother. As Nadeshda von Meck, the versatile Cristina Uta acts and dances dashingly the elegant and wealthy widow with a nobility all of her own – in addition to change convincingly into the very contrasting roles of Carmen, Odette, Tatyana and La Dame de Pique. Her rival is Anna Yanchuk as the lyrically fluent Antonia, the pitiable poor spouse of T. and the victim of her over-ambitious Mother, the stern and rather tight-lipped Maria Gruber. They all contribute substantially to one of my, if not THE most thrilling theatrically alive-performances of many months. Wish the artistic directors of the companies of Vienna, Munich, Leipzig, Dresden and even Stuttgart had been present, to witness a performance I am convinced their local audiences would adore!

Horst Koegler
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