Auguste Vestris


Concours interne de promotion 2005

December 22nd and 23rd 2005

Anyone who thinks that the gentlemen of the ballet might be limp-wristed aesthetes who wear plum-coloured velvet to work, should attend the Paris Opera Concours. This writer is a tough old bird, with nearly fifty years in the trade, and every time, one crawls out on hands and knees. It is an in-your-face demonstration of what it means to engage in a vocation so demanding, that out of six billion individuals on this earth, only about a thousand at any one time, come anywhere even remotely near this level of dance.

That is the overall context.

The Devil, however, is in the details.

First and foremost, I question the wisdom of this particular system of promotion, for a number of strong reasons, not to be restated today. Essentially, because classical dance is a theatrical art form, and artists should be promoted on the basis of what they do in actual performance, not at an exam. Because the Concours, is just a glorified examination.

For the time being though, we are stuck with it. At least this year, the artists, who have been on stage every night till midnight for the past month, contest at 10 o'clock in the morning, rather than 8. But, thank heaven for small mercies.

My next question concerns the peculiar arrangements for selecting the set variations for each class.

The lowest rank in the Paris Opera are the quadrilles, infantry, in military terms. In the main, these are lads fresh out of school, many still teenagers.

But the set variation for the gentlemen quadrilles this year was Basilio's, from Act III of Nureyev's version of Don Quixote, an ugly, messy variation, devoid of all coherency. Its mechanical difficulty is such, that it almost stymied a couple of international stars here last year, containing as it does jolly little events such as quadruple pirouette followed by double or triple tour plané en attitude followed by a double rond de jambe if I recall aright; or, again, double tour to the right land en arabesque followed by double tour to the left land en arabesque. Altogether, in a variation lasting a couple of minutes, there must be half a dozen expressions of tour de force, that call for landing on one leg !

As it happens, people prepare the Concours for two to three months or more, depending on when the set variation is announced. This means that at the height of the theatrical season, you will have lads of 18 or 19, practising, in their non-existent "free time", tour de force dozens of times a day, with landings on one leg. The generic name for these movements is the giveaway: tour de force. That means, in old French, "an expression or outlet for strength".

But these lads have not the strength ! They are not grown men. Just because, in theory, a lad can do the step, does not mean he have the strength in the torso, in the back, in the body, to hold the position as though he were a mono-bloc projectile moving through the air, so as to be in control as the tip of the toe reaches towards the ground. In theory, one should hear no landing - no sound at all, save a slight swish.

So, to conclude, if we ask immature youths to study such variations to pass the Concours, do not be surprised if six months from now, some shin-bone stress fractures show up, or hair-line fractures in the foot.

In a way, one builds up the body over years just as one builds a class, saving the really heavy stuff, that deploys the larger muscle groups, until the end. And one saves tour de force for the adult artist. It would make more sense to put the quadrilles to speed, lightness, ballon, batterie, and also, adagio work.

So this variation was a disaster, so much so, that several lads became spatially disorientated.

Accordingly, the Concours for the gentlemen quadrilles had essentially to be judged almost entirely on the free variation, a rather unbalanced situation, although I seem to recall, from the blur of nervous tension, that Messrs. Heymann and Chokroun survived the Nureyev with less broken crockery than most.

To be frank, this writer was hoping that M. Axel Ibot might be promoted, as his dancing in the corps de ballet has been to a very high standard. But he put in a confused Concours, and at the venerable age of 19, can afford to wait. In the free variation, Neumeier's Spring and Fall, Adrien Bodet did not contest. He danced. I am not a fan of Neumeier's choreography, but M. Bodet made a poem of it, all the more to his credit that he is neither tall nor "pretty" - we were held spellbound by the lad's own qualities as an artist: imagination, intelligence, and great musicality. M. Bodet forgot about the Concours, and threw himself into the dance, carrying everyone along with him.

The class of coryphées struck one as a little under the weather, save for Pascal Aubin, a polished and experienced artist, whose performance in Béjart's Arepo was about as close to perfection as we are likely to see. The gentleman who was promoted, M. Yong-Geol Kim, is a showy, somewhat metallic artist, his dance having a percussive quality that is perhaps felt to be a profitable antidote to a certain softness or languour in the French style.

Finally, the class of sujet. The duties bearing down upon this rank are unknown in any other major theatre. Elsewhere, most, though not all, would be at principal rank. The sujets are soloists who are on stage every night, and are thus acquainted inside-out with every position in the corps de ballet, but may also be called upon at any moment to stand in for an indisposed étoile or premier danseur. A taxing position, and not for the faint-hearted.

As these gentlemen are deemed - and generally are - very accomplished technicians, the set variation tends to lend more weight to interpretation, than to the mechanics of the trade.

This class, of about a dozen men, was comprised half of danseurs nobles, and half of dancers in the demi-caractère emploi.

This year, the set variation was Des Grieux' from Manon, Act I, a variation for danseur noble, where the demi-caractère dancer will not be seen to especial advantage. For the danseur noble, though, this is an extremely gratifying variation, as the score, and the quality of movement MacMillan has composed to it, suit the French manner of dancing like a glove: well-placed with no mechnical element, no "seams shewing", refined without weakness, and emotion always veiled by reserve.

Messrs. Phavorin and Duquenne were both so very admirable, that one realised that one was in the presence of something unique.

Certainly Phavorin, our new premier danseur, has restituted the ethos and atmosphere of the 18th Century in an almost-eerie way.

Nonetheless, one cannot but look upon the situation of Messrs. Phavorin and Duquenne, who are now 34 years old, with some bitterness. They should both have been promoted seven or eight years ago, if not earlier. It has not been helpful to the art form that over the last decade at Paris, we have tended to push ahead ladies and gentlemen who, though pleasant dancers, are known more for the beauties of their person, rather than for theatrical insight and mastery of all aspects of technique.

In any event, Stéphane Phavorin, for those who do not know him, is an extremely elegant danseur noble, of ideal harmonic proportions, who, I believe, originally trained as a pianist, and can read an orchestral score. Wearing as he does a faint air of madness, he is capable of utter "Verwandlung" into evil, as we have seen this past summer with his Tybalt.

One's impression was that M. Magnenet did not wish to be promoted this year, not feeling ready, at 23, for the international responsibilities of a premier danseur, and that he almost "deliberately" under-danced. Similarly, M. Meyzindi, who, although technically almost flamboyant, has not yet developed a sense of theatrical "time and place", enough to vanish into a role. He has been quite problematic this month in the Act III Spanish Dance of "Swan Lake", riding rough-shod over the style, casting the eye-light down the middle of the body into the floor rather than sweeping along the diagonal, and using a Balanchine-type pelvic thrust and not the myriad Spanish écarté forms - although Duquenne has been down there most nights to shew us how it's done.

The contest exposed rather harshly the immaturity, even technical immaturity, of M. Hoffalt, who though quite a character, with an odd and imposing stage presence, is in fact almost too immature for the class of sujet. There is something not quite right about his plié, and one saw that on stage in the Czardas as well - is it knee-pain  ? does he have a very short Achilles tendon  ? As for M. Valastro, who had been moving along promisingly two or three years back, his contest was somewhat disconcerting. The problem may be the lack of repertory for this type of very graceful, demi-caractère dancer, who would be well-suited to the pastoral and allegorical genre, had we a broad enough repertory. His strength should normally be speed, lightness, ballon, batterie and grace, while the type of work we have at Paris now, seems to be pushing him down into the ground, and perhaps even developing the wrong muscle groups for his style.

The Ladies

Owing to obligations, this writer was late for the quadrilles.

One was surprised nonetheless to discover that the quadrille Sofia Parcen was neither promoted nor ranked in this year's Concours.

Arriving in time for the coryphées, one found a set variation, the so-called "pizzicati" variation from Nureyev's Raymonda, that can best be described as a pointe-work exercise, an obstacle course, and not much fun to dance. Moreover, the lack of acuity, precise aesthetic sense, and just plain JOY in strict classicism, that has become so apparent in our dancing here in recent years, was exposed to the stern light of day. The only flash of beauty one saw was from Sarah Kora Dayanova, who unfortunately, was not completely on top of things technically. Mlle. Renavand, a very forceful and dynamic artist, and Mlle. Laura Hecquet, though beyond excellent in the steps as such, both danced the variation with little delicacy or shading, while the ports de bras were, in the main, tossed to the wolves. With the exception of Mlle. Renavand, who dances firmly in her body, over the leg, for the other ladies the weakness in the upper body and neck was here painfully in evidence: either the head drops forward, or else it is retained by a system of ropes and pulleys, the cords and tendons straining. Wouldn't it be easier, gang, to reintroduce dancing from the torso, with épaulement  ?

Laura Hecquet, promoted to sujet and first ranked, has the stage presence and technical certainty of a woman of thirty, but she is 21. She seems to be in the same fach as Wendy Whelan of NYCB, as her ability to create abstract geometrical forms through the entire body, is most uncanny. Her eyes, too, remind one of Wendy Whelan, the intelligence, the shadowy depths lighted by strange fires. Although personally, I may not be partial to this slightly angular style, Mlle. Hecquet is already a significant artistic personality.

The same could be said of Mlle. Renavand, also promoted to sujet, who, like Fanny Fiat, has a most interesting technique. She places the torso, the body, with the head and neck well over it, and automatically, will be over her leg. No strain in the upper body. It may not be very mobile, it may not be the most expressive use of the upper body, but it is efficient, it takes the weight onto the great bones and prevents the foot from being ground into the floor. I call this "mono-bloc" dancing, and à défaut d'épaulement, it is the best we can aim for at the present time. Everyone was bowled over by Mlle. Renavand's interpretation of the Shadow variation from Mirages. Certainly, it was powerful, and persuasive, but I went away puzzled, unsure as to whether Lifar had wanted that much energy to be seen, and yet wonder whether the mysterious and melancholic interpretation by Séverine Westermann at the Concours two years ago, might not, in fact, be closer to his intention  ? Could someone who knew Lifar well enlighten us  ?

Up in the Gods

A couple of years ago at Garnier, I was standing up in the Gods, and just before the curtain went up, my attention was drawn as though by a magnet, to the countenance of a lady of about 23 standing in the next loge, so much so, that at the interval, we began to talk, and went on so for a couple of hours after the performance. As it happens, the lady was from Leipzig, a sculptor, and despite her youth, well-versed in the history of ideas. In reviewing the evening's ballet, she pointed to the question of the Erhabene, and said, "The test of the artist, is whether he continue after the age of thirty. Those who do, are idealists."

That, one would venture to say, is what Messrs. Phavorin and Duquenne, and Mlle. Fanny Fiat, are about.

Fanny Fiat

Allow me to say a few words here about the question of the sujet, Fanny Fiat.

That is not to suggest, in any way shape or form, that one be anything but overjoyed that Myriam Ould Braham have been appointed première danseuse - she is a very original and exciting figure, and of too delicate a complexion to tarry longer in the corps de ballet - but had I my d'ruthers, I should have promoted to the other premier danseur place available, not Dorothée Gilbert who, though delightful, and extraordinarily technically facile, is still a child, but Fanny Fiat.

First, she put in the strongest Concours of the class of sujets.

Nor is this the first time that Fanny Fiat have put in the strongest Concours. It has happened at least three times, if not more, but she has not been promoted.

It takes all kinds to make a world, and there are all kinds of emploi in the classical - I repeat classical - dance.

Fanny Fiat belongs to a genre that has almost ceased to exist, viz., "serious comedy" (Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, A Winter's Tale), one that calls for a great master of the classical variation. And Fiat is a great master of the classical variation. Ninette de Valois and Irina Baronova belonged to the same genre. She was born to dance roles like Coppelia or Lise, that unfortunately are not in the repertoire of this theatre.

Never have I seen her perform variations, including the most difficult bravura variations for the woman, with anything less than great brio, judicious ornament, and considerable feminine charm veiling all force.

In the grand pas de trois of Paquita, she is unsurpassable, in the "Jewels" pas de cinq of "Beauty", she is unsurpassable. In point of fact, we have nothing like this in the theatre today, and have not had anyone like her for quite some time.

She jumps and beats as freely and boldly as any of the men, but she is definitely not a man !

A test for this writer, is whether a dancer can make a piece of rubbishy choreography look like a serious and worthwhile work of art. Clavigo is a "ballet" that drives me round the bend, and Marie's variation is simply nonsense, to the most insipid score. Fanny Fiat, this afternoon, made it make sense. It was beautiful, poetic, moving - in fact, she outstripped every other performance I've seen in the past years of that variation, including that by the creator of the role.

Precisely one year ago, Mlle. Fiat's "Diamond" pas in "The Sleeping Beauty" elicited, inter alia, the following comments,

"Would that Enrico Cecchetti had been standing in the wings watching ! Mlle. Fiat's steps of elevation - sissonne, cabriole, and those tricky jeté en temps d'arrêt, emboîté and so on - form a vast and airy backdrop, against which the batterie flashes like facets in a gemstone. Never, since Alla Sizova, have I seen such magnificent pas de chat, the entire body soaring up into an ellipse high above the ground, her steely foot grazing the boards only to rebound. In the arabesque with fouetté in the torso only (as in the "Flower Festival"), the shift in the body is like holding a diamond up to the light to admire its fires. As the variation opens, how she rests the arm against the air to the sound of the triangle ! Her port de bras ! And no sign of the prodigious force that underlies the tracery of her dance !"

As Noverre would say "après cette digression dont mon coeur avait besoin", I would add that I for one look forward to the prospect of seeing Mlle. Fiat as Gamzatti in March. And we need more repertory, much more repertory, for people like this.