, November 2009
Artist Caravaggio (real name: Michelangelo Merisi, 1571–1610) is the subject of choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti’s new two-act ballet, but the subject in only a general, even metaphorical sense. If you open the booklet and look at the section titles—things like “Journey to Rome,” “The Tooth Extraction,” “Dispute and Duel”—you’ll expect this to be a story ballet recounting the volatile artist’s quick rise to celebrity, his various conflicts and disputes, and his sudden, early death, apparently from fever rather than violence. But then you’ll start watching the performance, and become completely lost. Nothing on stage corresponds to the section titles, and it seems that Bigonzetti is indulging in a bit of postmodern misdirection.
The central dancer does seem to correspond to Caravaggio. We first see him, Vladimir Malakhov, alone on stage: a muscular, thick-lipped, shaggy Slavic blond in his underwear, Malakhov looks more like a Spartacus than a Caravaggio. His movements are beautiful, controlled, masculine, driven by some inner flame or inner torture. At various times in the course of the ballet, Malakhov is partnered with two superb female dancers, Polina Semionova and Beatrice Knop, who seem to suggest the contrasts in Caravaggio’s work and life: light and dark, purity and carnality, the private mind (or soul) and the public body. Another important partner in the second act is the commanding, beautiful young Leonard Jakovina, who embodies both tenderness and violence, and brings to the proceedings a bisexual sensuality. The first act also involves other soloists and the corps de ballet in a series of athletic Roman street scenes.
So what are all these figures up to? And what is Bigonzetti up to, for that matter? He seems to be trying to translate the sheer physicality of Caravaggio’s paintings into dance, and he certainly succeeds at this, even if identifiable allusions to actual paintings are few and far between. The lighting design of Carlo Cerri is critical to all this; it defines space and adds texture to the bodies.
Bigonzetti’s choreography is dynamic, fusing some elements of classical ballet to what is essentially modern dance. The duets are arresting and innovative, yet not quite as unusual as some of the dancers seem to think. In the accompanying interview feature, one of the ballerinas exclaims that making a dancer stand on her seated partner’s swiveling knees has never been done before; well, she’s apparently never seen Pilobolus, or acrobats, for that matter. It would have been interesting to see how she managed to slide off those knees and rejoin the floor on pointe, but unfortunately video director Andreas Morell cuts away at that point. Morell is a bit of a problem here: especially in the lively group scenes in the first act, his quick cutting, emulating the dynamics of the movement, makes the action almost unintelligible. Otherwise, though, he seems more sensible, and his choice of medium shots and close-ups usually helps illuminate the dancers’ gestures, which are very important in this choreography. He also makes good occasional use of overhead shots.
Bruno Moretti assembled the score from various works by Caravaggio’s close contemporary, Claudio Monteverdi. Moretti’s treatment of the originals is initially light and Beechamesque, but gradually becomes darker and always varied in texture. It’s romanticized Monteverdi, but it fits the stage action perfectly.
The Blu-ray release delivers superb visual detail—you can tell who shaves which body parts and who does not—and two audio options: PCM stereo and DTS-HD 7.1 surround. The DVD’s audio formats are PCM stereo, DD 5.1, and DTS 5.1. The DVD apparently is a gateway to some online bonus material, but because it requires a Windows operating system and I’m a Mac user, I couldn’t investigate it; I suspect it’s essentially the same collection of still photos from rehearsal and production that are included on the Blu-ray.
Bigonzetti’s Caravaggio is a puzzling work, but it’s beautifully performed; for both reasons, it invites multiple viewings.