Bristol Old Vic

Baal

April 2019

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Bottoms up to Brecht ballet

Baal by Bertolt Brecht made its world premiere as a ballet at Bristol Old Vic for one special night only on Thursday, April 25.

‘Nothing is understood but some things are felt… if one understands a story then it’s just been badly told’

And fair enough to say, I didn’t follow much of the story and felt both agitated and curious. Impermanence - a Bristol-based dance company has taken three years to put together the first ever dance interpretation of Bertolt Brecht’s initial play.

It was written at the age of 20 in 1918, when the poet and playwright had stopped working as a medical orderly amongst the carnage of injured and dying soldiers in World War I. That profound experience transformed his views into a controversial and anti-fascist artist who fled Germany when the Nazis rose to power. When Baal was first performed in Leipzig it was immediately shut down.

On the Old Vic’s stage, four brilliant and acclaimed dancers, Joshua Ben-Tovin, Sonya Cullingford, Roseanna Anderson and Alessandro Marzotto Levy, merged their talents to portray a dissolute poet who seduces and manipulates - but has deep appeal to women. A woman drowns, a man is murdered as they drink and lust across the stage in a bravura multi-media performance that lasted just over an hour. I vaguely followed a story line, there was a lot going on, with sometimes four screens –  on one - another dancer floated through them. As did David Bowie, a fan of Brecht’s who put together an EP in praise of Baal and whose songs Ashes To Ashes and The Ballad Of The Drowned Girl were part of the performance.

The dancing was incredible and could be funny: one attractive man, down to his underpants turned his back to us and slapped his buttocks across the stage. I have no idea why. And there seemed to be a glittering nod to Cabaret’with stunning red outfits, and elaborate masks on the other dancers who strutted and danced to perfection.

Accompanying the performers, composer Robert Bentall, played a 700-year-old, 16-string Swedish keyed fiddle which was threaded through with an electronic soundtrack that took two years to create and was influenced by Taylor Deupree, Brian Eno and Monty Adkins. It was ethereal and I’d love to listen to more of his work.

Baal certainly was a unique production, conceived and developed with Tyrrell Jones (Knaїve Theatre) along with darkly luscious costumes and stunning set from Pam Tait whose worked in theatre and pop videos, including Moody Blues, Simply Red, Frankie goes to Hollywood plus television and film, (Sid And Nancy, Straight To Hell).

Bristol Old Vic producer Sian Weeding said: “The company are at the forefront of re-energising dance in the city, curating work, performing and developing projects in true collaboration. The fact this is the first time Brecht’s play has been adapted as a dance piece makes Bristol Old Vic the perfect venue.”

It was a vivid, energetic and beautifully put-together piece of 21st century dance theatre that brought to life a period piece and Brecht would have approved. I hope.

Review: Melanie Greenwood

Photography: Maurizio Martorana

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