‘As this is my most varied and exciting score,’ declared Sir Arthur Bliss, ‘I am disappointed that it has fallen into oblivion.’ The celebrated British composer and former Master of the Queen’s Music expressed regret within the pages of his autobiography at the disappearance of Adam Zero from the permanent repertoire of The Sadler’s Wells Ballet. However, had Bliss been alive today, he would have revelled in the discovery that his finest ballet composition had served as the inspiration for a contemporary restaging by Sergei Vanaev at the Stadt Theater Bremerhaven, almost seven decades since the production’s 1946 premiere. As the curtain closes on the final performance of Adam Zero in Germany in June, it seems fitting to reflect on the creative lineage of this heritage work and – more significantly – Vanaev’s choreographic achievement in enlivening Bliss’s neglected score.

After collaborating with librettist Michael Benthall and choreographer Robert Helpmann in 1944 to produce the gritty dance-drama Miracle in the Gorbals, Arthur Bliss rejoined creative forces to compose the majestic soundscape of Adam Zero the first original ballet to grace the Royal Opera House stage following the end of WWII. The narrative unfolded as a muddled Shakespearean allegory about the ‘seven ages of man’, relying on the metaphor of a dance company making a new work to convey the cyclical nature of life. According to original cast member Henry Danton, the ballet was not a critical success, functioning chiefly as a vehicle to showcase the acting talents of Helpmann in the title role. When a performance-related injury forced the eponymous hero to withdraw from the production, Adam Zero seemed fated never to return to the stage as an integrated work, existing only in reference books and dance annuals as the ballet that preceded Frederick Ashton’s acclaimed Symphonic Variations.

Despite the lack of choreographic cohesion above the orchestra pit, Bliss’s score was never burdened with the same degree of aesthetic criticism, and continued to exist independently as a concert suite (evidenced in subsequent recordings by the English Northern Philharmonia, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and London Symphony Orchestra). The British press lauded the composer’s flair for writing ‘vital and picturesque music for the theatre,’ and for having skillfully ‘made the most of his opportunities’ within a ballet flawed by excessive symbolism and elaborate staging. In 1946, the Times newspaper insisted that Helpmann’s production of Adam Zero could not have been realized ‘without music as expressive, concise, and in the best sense, theatrical’ as Bliss’s composition. Decades later, it was this irrepressible theatricality that would motivate Bolshoi-trained Sergei Vanaev to embark on a neoclassical reconceptualisation of this overlooked ballet.

Vanaev chose to simplify Benthall’s original narrative by centering the action exclusively on the creation of the world, framing the ballet as a form of ‘metaphysical construction site’, an artistic laboratory in which God could institute his ideals for the universe and mankind. Unlike the shifting scenery designed by Roger Furse in the 1940s, Kimie Nakano and Matt Dely furnished this updated ‘reworking’ with a striking metal assemblage that allowed for a simplistic yet highly effective division of space: grey scaffolding, configured like a stack of industrial bamboo, occupied the centre of the stage, whilst silver orbs were lowered to symbolize the arrival of the planets. The ballet opened with an imperious Constructor (Shang-Jen Yuan) seated atop a suspended platform, which slowly descended to allow the omnipotent architect an opportunity to survey the work of his angels (Jessica De Fanti Teoli, Maria Hoshi, Lidia Melnikova and Louisa Poletti) below. These four assistants – costumed in abstracted nurses outfits – hurried about in preparation for the creation of Adam (Volodymyr Fomenko), who soon emerged, somewhat bewildered, from a translucent egg-shaped incubator. Such visual metaphors might have resonated with the pretentions found in certain spheres of contemporary performance art; however, the dramatic unity of Vanaev’s choreography and Bliss’s evocative score ensured that the narrative maintained a suspense-filled intensity.

Just as Adam began the tentative explorations of his new surrounds, the Deconstructor (Oleksandr Shyryayev) appeared through a trapdoor, creeping through the lattices of scaffolding with Mephistophelian zeal. The ballet suffered a momentary lull before regaining momentum with the creation of Eve (Cristina Commisso) and a revised ‘prototype’ in the form of Adam II (Joshua Limmer). The Deconstructor continued to roam the stage, intervening with gestural taunts and temptations (in the form of an apple suspended on a single cable) to reflect the timeless tensions between good and evil. During a moment of stillness, the cunning provocateur revealed a laptop, appearing to upload a virus as if to corrupt the ‘system’ of his saintly opponent. Frustrated by the failings of his human experiments, the Constructor – nested once again in the scaffolding – proceeded to litter the stage with discarded pages as evidence that his utopian ambitions had failed. The lights dimmed, and it was apparent that the art of creation, no matter how well intended or systematized, was ultimately undermined by the corruptibility of Man.

Vanaev’s production was a choreographic triumph, evidenced by the standing ovation that greeted the cast following the presentation of both Adam Zero and his second new ballet, Die Vier Jahreszeiten, that same evening. I had the privilege of attending the ballet’s premiere with Karen Sellick (Bliss’s daughter and a former member of The Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet), and Andrew Burn (Chairman of the Bliss Trust), and – despite the somewhat bleak philosophy depicted on stage – all of us were in agreement that we craved a repeat viewing of this deeply affecting, multi-faceted work. Admittedly, Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden remains an overtraded trope; however, it is Vanaev’s thematic subversion of such a familiar tale that proves breathtaking to behold. It is worth noting here that Robert Helpmann’s 1946 staging of Adam Zero was condemned for its ‘poverty of choreographic invention’ and for privileging drama above definitive steps. Such criticism, however, does not rest with Vanaev’s dynamic 40-minute offering. The angularity and animalistic richness of his movements echoed the stylistic traces of Mats Ek, while the patterning systems created on stage were layered with an erratic gestural vocabulary that seemed entirely unique.

The Ballet Bremerhaven cast – hailing from Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Japan, Russia, Ukraine and Canada – impressed with dizzying displays of dance that negotiated the tensions between technicality and theatricality with supreme skill. Fomenko invoked the perfect degree of anxiety as an ill-fated Adam, while Yuan and Shyryayev – in the respective roles of Constructor and Deconstructor – fuelled their combative performances with wit, vitality and athleticism. In fact, their feats of virtuosity were so impressive that it was a shock to discover that the dancers were not of Goliath-sized stature during the ballet’s opening night reception. Having had the privilege to view the Company in class earlier that day, I noticed Shyryayev remained motionless in the far corner of the studio, stretching his back gently against the wall to accommodate an injury (an ironic coincidence when reflecting on Helpmann’s involvement within the ballet during the 1940s). Later that evening, however, there was not a hint of restraint or temperance: the Ukranian dancer commanded attention from the first chord to the last, bending and contorting with apparent ease to meet the demands of Vanaev’s choreographic imagination.

Under the baton of Marc Niemann, the fifty-five-piece orchestra filled the Bremerhaven theatre with a musical crispness and vibrancy that is absent in some of the composer’s denser orchestrations. Whilst it is lamentable that such an evocative score has remained ‘inactive’ as a ballet for almost seventy-years, Vanaev’s choreography demonstrates the versatility of Bliss’s score in accommodating multiple interpretatons of Adam Zero(s). Furthermore, it is worth recognising that David Drew – a widely respected and long-serving member of The Royal Ballet – has championed the reworking of Adam Zero in England for a number of years, encouraging the prodigiously talented Andrew McNicol to choreograph scenes for the Helpmann Symposium in 2013. Although Vanaev and McNicol boast different movement vocabularies, there exists opportunities for both creators to present individual responses that remain unique, but still authentic to the theatrical fundamentals of the score.

It is apparent that the recent ‘reawakening’ of Adam Zero has been victorious in remedying the structural imbalances between movement and music that have haunted Helpmann and Benthall’s original production, thereby demonstrating how Bliss’s composition remains vital, relevant and rich with creative possibilities for future choreographers. As stated by Karen Sellick during the post-performance reception in Germany: ‘My father would have been delighted by what was displayed on stage this evening’. In my mind, there can be no higher praise for Sergei Vanaev, his creative team, and the accomplished dancers of Ballet Bremerhaven.

Michael Byrne

5th June 2015

Michael Byrne is a PhD student at St John’s College, Cambridge, investigating the role of the senior performer and creativity in dance, with a particular focus on the transmissions of knowledge in British narrative ballet. Having completed his undergraduate degree in South Africa, Michael furthered his work in performance studies at the Royal Academy of Music, King’s College London and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He continues to perform as an actor with the Royal Ballet.

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