SONG OF THE DARK FOREST by Scapino Ballet, Opera2Day & Doelen Ensemble

In battle there are heroic deeds, but true heroism is found in patience, love and prayer

Great art essentially is of its time. It reflects what is going on around it and opens up new paths for the future. This brand new piece by Scapino, in collaboration with Opera2Day and the Doelen Ensemble, could not have premiered at a more apposite time and is arguably one of their most ambitious projects. Essentially a requiem, but also an attempt to define heroism, Song of a Dark Forest began its development as a consequence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and, in addition to being a protest against war in general, it laments the lost glory that was once Russian.

“Never again,” was the cry after the First World War, (the war to end all wars) and little good that did, indeed, since the attack on Ukraine affairs have taken a much more ominous turn in the Middle East. Perhaps the cry should be “Always again”. Conflict, sadly, is as much a part of human nature as eating and breathing.

Director Serge van Veggel of Opera2Day has brilliantly and seamlessly brought together work by a dozen or so Russian composers, the dancers of Scapino, four choreographers, an opera singer and the Doelen Ensemble to create an epic piece of theatre. Epic but sombre.

Song of a Dark Forest opens on what is a very dark stage in what is unmistakably a . . . err . . . forest. People, refugees, slowly, silently troop across in their drab clothes, their meagre possessions held tightly or laboriously pulled behind them to Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2. Sitting watching them pass is a man in a dirty white shirt and army trousers. He is the singer, the glue that binds the piece together like a Shakespearian chorus, and he is on stage at all times. Beautifully and powerfully sung by Ukrainian baritone Andril Ganchuk, the first song by Rachmaninoff with words by Anton Chekov indicates the direction in which the piece is heading. At times it is not clear if we are watching an opera with dance or dance with singer. But that doesn’t really matter. What it is, above all, is theatre and that is what I like about Scapino, their work is always dramatic, there is always a distinct and coherent story portrayed in a precise linear form.

The piece is episodic with different dance sequences, each by a different choreographer, punctuated by songs, but it is all done brilliantly with none of the joins showing. We follow a young soldier, hovering between life and death longing for his home and family but whose memories are tarnished by horrific images of war. Most of the dance is strong ensemble work but there are a couple of excellent duets and a pleasing sequence with six female dancers.

It was good to see a dance performance with a live orchestra in the pit. The Doelen Ensemble performed beautifully and the songs were arranged especially for this performance by the orchestra’s Henk de Vlieger. The choreographers were YoY Performing Arts (Roberto Doveri), Miller de Nobili (Alexander Miller and Chiara Maria d’ Nobili) and Diego Sinniger de Salas. The lighting, décor and costumes all contributed to an outstanding production which will be touring well into 2024. Indeed, the list of contributors is so long it was difficult, at the premiere, to see anyone in the audience who wasn’t involved.

Song of a Dark Forest ends in much the same way as it began, with people trooping across the stage but the darkness has gone and the trees have disappeared. But is our future any brighter, is there cause for optimism? The closing piece is Prayer for Peace, composed last year by Sergei Akhunov, which embodies the entire performance.

The hope of salvation was portrayed in the piece by a young girl carrying a balloon on a string – well, good luck with that. As Soviet dissidents used to toast at the end of their meetings, “Cheers to our hopeless mission!”  Michael Hasted  28th October 2023

Photo by Bas Czerwinski