When love comes with full strengh to the shore of life, everything else seems to disappear. Even if the person that falls in love isn’t young any more, an overwhelming new craving can change everything. Sometimes this is very complicated and can end in death. This kind of love strikes the master of choreography Gustav von Achenbach in John Neumeier’s ballet „Death in Venice“ (Tod in Venedig). The ballet was made after the famous novel by Thomas Mann. But indeed the dance piece has more aspects in it than Mann could know in 1911. It is the story of a man who comes to discover his true self at a time when it is almost too late to live with love. Lloyd Riggins created this enigmatic main role in 2003.
But when Mister Riggins danced this piece at the 41st Hamburger Ballett-Tage last night, his relationship to the other dancers was so intense, his performance so fluent and brillant that it felt like a premiere. Especially the last Pas de deux which was among to the very best I have ever seen (and believe me, I have seen a lot).
But beforehand, Riggins’ Achenbach had to show all the pain that comes with this new aspect of life called love. Suddenly this man feels like only half a man without the beloved one. So when Achenbach meets Tadzio, a beautiful and powerfull boy with legs full of poetry, danced by the handsome Alexandr Trusch, he has to acknowledge that his sexual feelings have altered. He wasn’t gay before, but now he has to admit that his heart only beats for this young man. It is the late coming out of an older artist who is in an artistic crisis anyway.
Riggins’ Achenbach is shocked by this. He tries over and over to suppress these new feelings of love in all of his solos. We see Achenbach longing for Tadzio and hating himself for it at the same time. We see him suffer tremendously , but also cherish his hopes. We see all the conflicts of ambivalence that bisexual or gay people can have when they discover their true erotic fate.
But there is no way out: Wherever Achenbach looks, he sees Tadzio. At least in his fantasy, Tadzio gives him his hand , pulls him, holds him, lifts him up and gives him power . In Achenbach’s fantasy, they are not a simple couple. But there is a chance for these complicated feelings that come straight from the heart. Of course, never before has Achenbach loved so unconditionally but also has never been so vulnerable. Lloyd Riggins shows this with enormous intensity.
In Achenbach’s reality there are loud and trendy parties as well as sporty beach dances. Sasha Riva and Hayley Page are a highly intense couple celebrating sex-appeal and glamour but also suspense and randiness. Otto Bubeníček and Carsten Jung dance the „Wanderer“ who always appear at the same time with strength and decadence. At times they dance mischievously and at others with a noble, even poofy clown face. But when they change into rock stars at a party wearing masks reminiscent of the band „Kiss“: They are definitely wild at heart.
However, the beach boys (with the excellent Aleix Martínez) also make us forget that there is a world full of conflicts, or any world other than sun, water and fun. They jump with such freshness and happiness that the ball they play with seems to come directly from the Lido.
Achenbach’ s dance creations are important to him. He is an artist that works with a calm authority towards his muses who all dance with a fine enamel: Hélène Bouchet, Ivan Urban, Silvia Azzoni and Alexandre Riabko are elegant, playful, comely, lovely. The baroque world of Bach and the romantic world of Prussia stand against Achenbach’s reality in venice that has lost all it’s charm to him.
Nothing can help when love is so strong.
In former years, Lloyd Riggins as Achenbach seemed to sometimes forget his inner troubles. His face was without pain then. Now his interpretation of the piece has become more and more consequent. More authentic. Most believable. He reduces everything to the substantial. There is only love and it’s merciless desire. There is so much longing in Mister Riggins’ lines and arabesques that you understand his dance without even knowing a thing about the plot.
In the midst of his emotional confusion Achenbach remembers his childhood. His dear and maidenly mother is danced by Anna Laudere with open long blond hair – and a lot of sensitivity. In Achenbach’s dreams, she still takes care of him. And when he cries his troubled soul out of his trained body she is the right one to dry his tears. It is very touching when she wipes away his tears, looking at the adult man as if he was a little boy.
In another scene Achenbach is standing there, helpless again like a child. He beats his hands on his head. Undoubtedly, he has a presentiment of death.
The music is so important here. John Neumeier chose pieces of Johann Sebastian Bach and some sublime versions of Richard Wagner passages. Elizabeth Cooper, the most important contemporary dance musician, is on stage playing the grand piano. Placed on the left side, her instrument is an element of fantasy in the stage set (that was designed by Peter Schmidt with great reliability of taste). Miss Cooper is an artist who not only plays the music but also acts on stage with refined style in every gesture. Her red hair is in sharp contrast with her black evening dress. She makes the audience appreciate the inner and outer action of the piece. And when she plays the piano, the melodies of Richard Wagner seem more tender to the ear than ever.
There are sweet melodies from Wagner’s songs for Mathilde Wesendonck. She was an opera singer the master of late romantic opulence (Wagner) had fallen in love with. Elizabeth Cooper who is also a conductor and composer made her own transcription of these songs. The sound is deep and intimate, homely like Robert Schumann, but clear like Johann Sebastian Bach.
You can enjoy every note as well as every step. The pas de deux s for example – especially for the male couples – are very fine and polished jewels. It takes great expression to show how irritated the mind of an older artist with a lot of experience can be.
John Neumeier, the founder and the boss of the Hamburg Ballet, has this power of expression in his hands, in his body, in his creative thinking. At rehearsals he is totally into it, and when creating „Death in Venice“ he must have given a lot of lifeblood. His brain must be like a computer that contains all the joyful and negative experiences people can have. Nevertheless the poetry of Neumeier’s work will give hope to anyone who opens his mind to the art of ballet such as in the last scene where Lloyd Riggins as Achenbach comes closer to death, step by step, dancing with Tadzio in his fantasy. At the beginning of this dying scene there is so much joy! Achenbach dreams of meeting his darling, they run in circles, hand in hand, and when they finaly embrace, it is the highlight of the whole ballet.
But Achenbach gets weak. He cannot stand the discrepancy between his dream world and reality any more. His resistance subsides. His life is torture and extreme joy at the same time.
All because of love. Now this comes to an end.
The couple performs one last dance synchronically, very close to one another. Together they form binoculars with their fingers. But Achenbach breaks them in a mime gesture.
He can’t stand it any longer, can’t stand to dance any more, he must give up. He caves in, he goes to the ground. But still he is near to Tadzio, leaning his head on Tadzios leg. The young man doesn’t notice what is going on at all. He just looks with mime binoculars into the audience, representing the sea and also the future. Achenbach dies. He dies of love. It is a sad and tragic death, but also a beautiful one. It has an aspect of deliverance. And only in looking back, the subtitle of the ballet makes sense: „a dance of death“.
This evening was a triumph of body, music and soul – and of dance, of course.
This piece won’t be played in the next season.
But you can buy the DVD „Death in Venice“ / „Tod in Venedig“ (Arthaus Musik) – also with Lloyd Riggins in the main role and with Edvin Revazov as Tadzio.
You find a portrait of Elizabeth Cooper the pianist in German and another article in German here: