Local Arts

Charlotte Ballet opens the season with a royal love story called ‘Leonce and Lena’

European ballet and opera fans know choreographer-director Christian Spuck best for his interpretations of “Lulu” (suicide followed by murder), “Woyzeck” (murder followed by suicide), “The Sandman” (attempted murder and suicide) and “Romeo and Juliet” (multiple murders and double suicide).

So when Aalto Ballett Theater in Essen, Germany, asked him to adapt Georg Büchner’s “Leonce and Lena” as lighter entertainment, they knew audiences wouldn’t just chuckle.

“In every good joke there is truth,” said Spuck, artistic director of Ballet Zurich. “Büchner was a master of that. You laugh, and the laughter dies in your throat, because it’s not funny anymore.

“Büchner was so deep, so full of knowledge about how a society can destroy an individual. When I read something like (“Leonce”) that says something about us today, I get excited.”

Charlotte Ballet artistic director Hope Muir shared that excitement and programmed the U.S. premiere of “Leonce and Lena” as this season’s opening show, running Oct. 24-26 at Knight Theater. She met Spuck in 2006, when she was performing at Hubbard Street Dance in Chicago, and he became resident choreographer for Hubbard’s second company for a year.

Her company markets “Leonce” as a family friendly ballet, and the story qualifies: Prince Leonce of Popo and princess Lena of Pipi have been told they must marry, sight unseen. They flee their kingdoms, end up in Italy and fall in love of their own accord. Meanwhile, Leonce’s father plans to save face by “marrying” two robots in the absence of the real couple.

Leonce und Lena B Cast_Photo by Judith Schlosser (17) Courtesty of Ballet Zurich.jpg
Christian Spuck, artistic director at Ballet Zurich, describes “Leonce and Lena” as a “critique of absolutism.” JUDITH SCHLOSSER Courtesy of Ballet Zurich

Yet Büchner also satirized the idea of a government run by a self-deluding tyrant surrounded by servile ministers anxious to cover up his mistakes. Even the baby-talk names of the kingdoms indicate the playwright’s contempt: “Popo” is a slang term for buttocks, Pipi for urine.

A musical mashup

He wrote the play two decades after the Congress of Vienna, where European powers carved up territory after the fall of Napoleon. Germany got chopped into multiple small dukedoms, each ruled by an autocrat. But Büchner, caught up in the Romantic-Era fervor that reached its height after he died in 1837, favored representative government.

“Leonce” is “this huge critique of absolutism,” Spuck explained. “All the ministers talk nonsense, and they’re completely disconnected from average people. I think that’s still happening everywhere around the world.” (Hesse, a state in the Federal Republic of Germany, gives an annual “Leonce and Lena” literary prize in Büchner’s honor.)

To summon up his comic-fantastic-satiric vision, Spuck did two things.

First, he based the score mostly on waltzes by the younger Johann Strauss, where sweetness can be tempered with a hint of sadness. (He said he listened to all of Strauss’ important music over four days.) Then he mashed it up with 20th-century composers Alfred Schnittke and Bernd Alois Zimmermann, electronic music by Martin Donner and even pop tunes played on a boombox.

“All the characters suffer from melancholy, from being bored, having nothing to do,” Spuck said. “We needed music that would not make the audience bored. If it were only Strauss, that would be boring, too.”

Leonce und Lena_Photo by Judith Schlosser_Pressefotos (11) Courtesty of Ballet Zurich.jpg
Christian Spuck, artistic director for Ballet Zurich, brings to life the 19th-century satirical romantic comedy of “Leonce and Lena,” the tale of a betrothed prince and princess. JUDITH SCHLOSSER Courtesy of Ballet Zurich

Second, he enlisted set and costume designer Emma Ryott, a frequent collaborator. She created a revolving set for the 2008 premiere but adapted it for companies that perform on stages without that equipment. She also introduced exaggerated costumes from the Biedermeier period of 19th-century Germany, during the rise of the ambitious middle class.

The newer set uses “an abstract design of curved wall and digital prints, to make it more contemporary,” she explained “(The ministers’ costumes) emphasize the fact that the characters are slightly absurd, and it is a satire. All the protagonists have pale makeup and (heightened) lips and eyes, to denote the puppet-like qualities of the people.

“Christian was keen to emphasize the travel aspects of this piece, as Leonce and Lena run away from their kingdoms. In the original production, this was achieved with the revolve; the dancers looked like they were traveling, while scenery moved behind them. The new version … (has) an S-shaped wall that turns on a pivot. It can be pushed by the dancers, making it seem as if they are traveling (while) the wall is doing the work.”

Ryott said she and Spuck “have a close dialogue when Christian is creating in the rehearsal room. Until the creation process starts in earnest, many things can change from day to day.” The choreographer was even tweaking “Leonce” on his August visit to Charlotte, as he got to know the company’s dancers. His longtime assistant, Lisa Davies, later came over to set the piece, followed by a last visit from Spuck.

“Some choreographers insist, ‘I want it this way!’ I’m more interested when dancers communicate with me, (and) I adjust it for them,” he said.

“It’s awful for me to watch my old stuff (on film). I watch every performance thinking, ‘What could I change? How do I give it a twist?’ A ballet is never really finished; it’s always changing.”

“Leonce and Lena”

When: Oct. 24-26 at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Knight Theater, 430 S. Tryon St.

Tickets: $25-$96 ($15 children).

Details: 704-372-1000 or charlotteballet.org.

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

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