La Petite Danseuse de Degas
Paris, April 27th 2003
Advice to Tourists: there's better choreography on at the Crazy Horse Saloon
Squinting darkly at my watch, as I stood against a wall on the fourth floor of the Palais Garnier waiting for the Release Bell to ring at 5 pm, my heart rose as a chorus of loud Boos ! greeted the POB's latest "creation", La Petite Danseuse de Degas.
Rarely does one see anything in the National Theatre so blatantly commercial as this particular widdle girl's wet dweam. Don't ask me to put that in plain English. It would be rude. From the nonsensical tourist-trap libretto onwards, this is a 100% commercial undertaking, lacking all inner artistic necessity.
Be polite, girl: yes, the sets and costumes are first-rate. And, save for the Act I scene in the ballet studio, which is cluttered, the stage has been quite masterfully blocked, the groupings using the full resources of the very large Garnier stage. And yes, the "externals" and the use of footlights do create the illusion of a time-warp. Until one hears the music, and people start to dance.
First, the music, by Denis Levaillant. Whether Patrice Bart, the choreographer, can read a score, we do not know, but had he scanned through this special commission, rather than waiting for the piano reduction - by which time it was too late - he would have realised that the score was a waste of time. It has no true rhythmic structure, so you don't know when to plié, when to push off, nor does it have anything even remotely resembling a melodic line, so that you could at least "soar over the line". As one of the players put it: musique d'ascenseur - Muzak to listen to in the lift.
Second, the choreography. M. Bart's recent and maniacal Coppelia should have been ample warning to Management that the gentleman cannot compose. But no warning, it seems, is ample enough these days. Within a single bar of music, he manages to cram in about five times as many steps as would be needful, elegant, or physiologically sound. Saint Vitus Dance, people scurrying about the stage as though they were flea-bitten.
Third, the style, or rather lack of it. The libretto tells us, as do the sets and costumes, that we are in the period of Degas. I seem to recall that at the time, there was épaulement in every step, and that accordingly, no-one picked up the leg. M. Bart has nevertheless choreographed his frenzied variations in such a way that, even were his dancers to attempt épaulement, there would be no time for it, and he has allowed the girls to pick up the leg. As for the pas de deux, all Gozeizovksi-style one-arm lifts, they fairly shriek ANACHRONISM !
When the Royal Theatre came down from Copenhagen six or so years ago, and danced Bournonville's Conservatoire so very dreadfully on this stage, they were laughed out of town, only Thomas Lund surviving the general debacle. The scene in the Studio with ballet master and violinist (they were one and the same in those days, but, passons), is probably intended to be a souped-up hot roadster "tribute" to the Conservatoire, from Those who Truly Know. But when taken out of context, danced without épaulement, and to the wrong music, the pas courus and other steps typical of the old French School become trite and inconsequent.
Time and again, I have asked: with such fatuous choreography around, why can't we bring down a few ballets from Denmark, and let the people to DANCE for heaven's sake ? But no, the Gods and Goddesses on Mount Olympos know ever-so much better.
As for the cast, it was all, down to a man, typecast: Unhappy Jean-Guillaume Bart (no relation to the choreographer), typecast as the Ballet Master, danced to death by the other Bart's steps. Agnès Letestu typecast as the Ballerina, though that lady's technique is falling apart (watch her pirouettes à la seconde to understand why). Patrice Bart's favourite dancer, Yann Saiz, typecast as the mad-dog nihilist abonné. Stephanie Romberg typecast as a music-hall moxie. Elisabeth Maurin typecast as the entremetteuse mamma, and Laetita Pujol typecast (though she was, I must say, absolutely wonderful) in the "perverse innocent's" title role.
Banal in the extreme, the choreography for the corps de ballet, the pits being the final tableau of washerwomen twirling amongst the sheets. I was laughing outright, and it was not a pleasant laugh.
The dancers do what they can to rescue the thing. These theatrical artists hold the equivalent of what, in the academic world, would be a PhD, and they have vigorously applied their science to the problem. To no avail. This ballet is one turkey ripe for the chopping block.
Taxpayer's money, by the way. Some might find this communistic, but I happen to be a perfervid believer in State subsidy to a worthwhile cause, and in my little book, the classical theatre is high up there, along with railways and roads, schools and hospitals, as a worthwhile cause. But if this sort of rubbish -like the recent Appartement, Casanova, and Schéhérézade - is allowed to invade the boards, expect an austerity-driven Government to lower the boom with no public outcry. I repeat: With no public outcry. Will anyone recognise Danger when it is staring one in the face ?