A Midnight Modern Conversation - The POB Internal Promotion Concours 2006
The author of these lines is into the Unexpected.
When people veer off the beaten track, this, for me, is the equivalent of a Good Hair Day, had I any hair left worth the speaking of.
And did anything original, exhilarating happen at the Internal Promotion Concours on Wednesday 20th December ? Anything at all?
The Unexpected arrived in the form of M. Simon Valastro, sujet (soloist), a gentleman from Milan who has been dancing here for seven or eight years, and who presented the First Variation (Man in Brown) from Robbins' Dances at a Gathering.
Way out there into the ports de bras, way out there in space, right down the spine, diving deep into fourth, quite unrestrained by so-called "fashionable taste", Valastro went where one's colleagues would normally strongly advise one NOT to. Here was the true Valastro, inhabited by the entire passion that first took him into the profession, regardless of whether or not he might get a Bad Mark.
When will we finally put up repertory where chaps like Valastro can do what they have trained their entire life to do, rather than grope about the stage in bathing costume?
Which may go some way to explain why, on this December 20th, for the gentlemen's Concours, the Palais Garnier was empty - odd, considering the stakes, and also, that the Paris Opera Ballet is one of the state's great cultural institutions, its only serious rival being the Louvre Museum a few steps away.
The event, I must stress, is NOT public. But even the "Happy Few" invitees are now scarce upon the ground, while only about fifty or so dancers, out of 160, contested at all.
If we are going to carry on holding the Concours at all, it must be public. Once the hundred or so grace-and-favour tickets have been given away to people's parents and so forth, the rest should be flogged off to the general public at a few euros: Frenchmen have a right to see, and judge, to the best of their knowledge, who will be holding sway over their cultural life for the next twenty years.
Like the Institution it serves, the Concours is more than a little cut off from the reality of France.
Very good dancers, mainly from very good upper-middle class families, all whiter than white, all with the same habits, behaviour and outlook, present a smooth, untroubled and - dare one say it - not terribly exciting face to the world.
Twenty percent of the French population is Arab, African or of so-called "mixed race". They are FRENCH, certainly Frencher than the writer of these lines, and so, I ask, where are they?
From an artistic standpoint, why should one care?
Well, we have got it wrong. Classical dance was not "invented" by Louis XIV, because so far as I know, that ill-advised spendthrift and warmonger was not born circa 2500 BC.
Had it been invented by Louis XIV, classical dancing would be a snobbish, suffocating thing, of concern to about 000.001% of the human race. A drinks party, where one patters on about the latest Favourite at Court. Before the party turns into Hogarth's Midnight Modern Conversation.
An art form worth its salt should be the tuning fork of the world - it's there to lift society out of stale, boring cliquism, and point the way forward.
Believe me Babykins, had we kids from the so-called "banlieues" (the French Bantustans) flocking to the School and company, it would be "All Change at Moorgate" - France now being well and truly peopled by the Moors, and a good thing too, I say. Tension, excitement, a different approach. We should stop being Bored amongst People Like Us.
Only in a colonial society with a slave-trading past, do millions of the dark-skinned become so brainwashed by the mass-media, as to believe that the cool thing for a guy to be is a boxer, a footballer player or a drug dealer.
I say, Let us put that past well behind us.
And so, on to the rest of the Concours.
Can there be anything, in the entire world, more vulgar than the imposed variation from Neumeier's Dame aux Camélias, except, perhaps, another variation from the same ballet?
In any event, only Valastro and Duquenne actually READ that blasted letter, before erupting into the statutory Rage over a Lost Penny. I mean, if one hasn't read the letter, why bother?
Although Julian Meyzindi was in too much of a rush to have any truck with letters, perfumed or otherwise, I enjoyed his somewhat off-the-wall interpretations, but then, one always does. He is a square-headed man in a round-headed world, and from a technical standpoint, in the imposed variation very clean.
It is Christophe Duquenne who has been promoted to premier danseur. He is now thirty-five, and has been dancing to the same, invariably high level for fifteen years, and should have been promoted ten years ago.
Perhaps it has taken all those years to dawn upon our very modern Management that without classical dancers, one cannot put up the ballets upon which the international reputation of this Theatre depends.
Be that as it may, less Duquenne and two or three others of his generation, the standard of classical dancing in the corps de ballet would have collapsed over the past decade.
Why? As a Leipzig sculptor has said in conversation, of Schiller's "Erhabene" "When people have once turned thirty, and still insist upon doing what they committed themselves to do in early youth, it is because they truly believe in it". These people are the heart and soul of the profession. Duquenne may not be the world's most unconventional or charismatic figure, but he is always impeccably prepared, at the service of whatever style the ballet calls for, technically clean, and without the slightest tic or mannerism. And he has a dry sense of humour, which, over the past few years, must have come in right handy.
In the class of coryphées, M. Sébastien Bertaud paid the rather heavy price that one does, nowadays, for being a demi-caractère dancer.
No matter how well one dance it, Nureyev's slow variation for Siegfried looks bad enough on someone who is six foot four and bone-thin like José Martinez - imagine how AWFUL it will look on anyone five foot nine and strongly built. The nerve-wracking manège en-dedans was executed by M. Bertaud in absolute, still silence, without the slightest sound of a landing anywhere, without the slightest repentir to fiddle a position. Musically, Bertaud was as close to perfect as a shorter person can be in an adagio section (read what Kenneth Laws in 'Physics of Dance' has to say on this - there are reasons in physics, why a demi-caractère dancer may seem to flounder in temps d'adage), and M. Bertaud found within himself a contained, but present and powerful emotion.
Nureyev or not - please, NOT! - I have to say ol'Bertaud got my attention there.
(If someone can recall a single decent variation or even enchaînement composed by Nureyev, please make radio contact.)
However, to my dismay but not surprise - sorry about that, folks - the tall and hyper-lax Audric Bézard was promoted instead. The lad has the worst posture in the theatre, shoulders up around the ears, head projecting forward, and he is our very worst offender, in terms of slouching about the stage nonchalantly at critical moments in the drama, as though he'd wandered in from a dîner en ville. Zero stagecraft. As for the loathsome free variation the lad chose, from Mats Ek's 'Appartement' - I just do not get this. However one look at it, he needs help.
Also promoted was the nineteen year old Matthias Heymann, who has created quite a stir here. Again, not for one moment would one run down this talented youth, who has a most excellent technique - in the leg - but there are one or two caveats. He is still dancing from the leg only, and not in the body. The bosom is held in a vise, the arm movements being used decoratively only, not as function. The facial expressions are still very "emprunté". Secondly, this is a teenager. Yes, Ivan Vassiliev is seventeen and dancing Basilio in the Bolshoi, but for how long will that lad, already hyper-trophied, be dancing? For how long will a teenager's undeveloped spine bear out, under the overhead lifts?
So before we all Run Wild and promote M. Heymann to the rank of étoile tomorrow or next week, let us see what he will do over the next three or four years in the corps de ballet. As étoile, promoted at age 19 three years ago, Matthew Ganio has not panned out -still the pleasant, hard-working and very pretty dancer one saw in 2003, sans plus. So let us all keep our head firmly screwed on, at least for the time being.
One person who did not have his head quite screwed on, the morning of the Concours, was M. J.P. Dury, who came out prepared (he knew the steps!) but all over the place. Now, in the interval of certain ballets, this writer is in the habit of knocking back a couple of stiff whiskies. No ice. What M. Dury needed on the Wednesday, was ice, and plenty of it.
In the class of quadrilles, the lack of stagecraft is pretty desperate, and proof that restricting the study of mime technique to kiddies aged under thirteen (the School's Fifth and Sixth Division) and character dance to a total of three months when one is fourteen, is nowhere near enough.
But, since one first saw M. Axel Ibot at the school four years ago, dancing J.G. Bart's 'Pêchés de Jeunesse' with épaulement in every step, this writer has kept an eye wide open for the lad's every appearance. Unforced placement, plastique held even in tour de force, firm eye-focus. M. Ibot is sufficiently on top of what he is doing, to bury the rehearsal tape droning on in the mind, and act on the moment's musical reality. Above all, what I enjoy in the lad's dancing is its "innig" quality - that same quality one finds in Ould Braham, and that compels silence and concentration.
The lad was promoted, as was M. Daniel Stokes, who surprised us all with his excellent "Romeo". Surprised, because out here in Siberie-sur-Seine, to see our gang test their mettle in classical works has become a rare treat, and the main reason one fights to get into the Concours.
Other commitments kept this writer away from the ladies' Concours the following day, although, knowing that Eleonor Guérineau (18) would be contesting, I must confess to staying glued to the computer screen awaiting the outcome. Two years ago, the tiny Guérineau knocked our socks off with her maestria, and a very personal touch astounding in one so young (and remember those incredible pirouettes sautillées?) at the School performance. And her voluptuous little figure is - dare I say it without someone suing this Website? - a plus with the gentlemen. The wildly-talented, also teenaged Aubane Philbert has a weakness in the back, producing a most unattractive, and dangerous, stiffness in the neck and shoulders. One hopes that since neither of the aforesaid teenagers were promoted this year, Mlle. Philbert's advisors will be pleased to fly to her assistance.