Advanced Forms of Life
amongst the Pterodactyls
Paris Opera Ballet
Review of performances from May 20th to May 31st 2004
On Sunday May 23rd at the Opéra Bastille, M. Emmanuel Thibault made his long-awaited début in a principal role as Basilio in Nureyev's Don Quichotte, alongside Mlle. Dorothée Gilbert as Kitri.
Following the performance, colleagues who attempted to get through the crush report that the queue at the stage-door waiting to talk to the man stretched for ninety minutes. It wound through the building, up the stairs, and out onto the street.
In an age more sensitive and more artistically inclined, this student of the great Noella Pontois would already wear the laurel wreath, threaded with wire of gold.
And so the matinée on this past Sunday, May 23rd, was a milestone for the Theatre.
To dance alongside the West Wind is, for any ballerina, rather more than a signal honour. It is a challenge. But M. Thibault's Kitri, Mlle. Dorothée Gilbert, a girl of twenty, adroit and astounding in self-assurance, is endowed with a many-sided technical facility, and a remarkably scientific approach to the dance. These are early days, and her dancing is still largely focused - as one would expect in France - on the legs and feet. But stay tuned for developments in years to come ! This too, is her first major role, and although the lass has not yet quite the stamina for three very taxing Acts, the pair ripped through it together like a house on fire. In so extreme a profession, stage partnerships are, in their intensity, likely to be more central to an artist's life than any personal concern, and this partnership looks set to go far indeed.
As our conductor, carried away by events, hit the FAST FORWARD button at the very end of Act III, the final fouettés and grandes pirouettes dissolved into a state of joyous chaos, with the principals and most of the cast ending the ballet laughing, and virtually on hands and knees. Not your common-garden experience in the dour prison of the Bastille !
While some may jump higher, some few have more ballon, some few beat faster, and to be sure, countless men be taller and more photogenic, M. Thibault's technique is already a legend amongst his peers, while, more importantly perhaps, rivers of ink have been spilt over his impeccable musicianship, this being one of the few dancers in our time, who plays on instruments, and reads an orchestral score.
Over the last few days, we have had occasion here at Paris, to see Messrs. Ganio, Acosta, Bolle and Thibault in the title role of the selfsame ballet. They are all good dancers, and they can all get through Nureyev's shockingly-difficult variations. Purportedly, however, this is an art form, and the question posed is, Where is beauty in all this ?
In Nureyev's choreography, as such, there is little or no beauty. It is halt, convulsed, even brutal. Where the steps fail us, beauty must be sought in some region in the mind, where there lives the relation between the steps, and the music. The difference between M. Thibault's approach, and that of the other three stars of the stage, is that he uses all of the music, as shewn by study of the small connecting steps. The other three gentlemen - as do most dancers - use the connecting steps simply to get to the next Big One. To M. Thibault, there are no "unimportant" notes in the score, and therefore, no "unimportant" steps. All steps are dancing steps, each properly accented. It is a form of speech, to which there sounds music at all times.
Accordingly, the plastique, taken here in its Russian acceptance, i.e. the process by which geometrical forms of ideal beauty are generated in the dance, is, in this gentleman's work, ever an unbroken continuum. It arises from the tension between the music, and the dance, and this artist's indomitable will to convey clearly and intelligibly to the public, the ideas called up by his knowledge of the musical score.
As for the conductor in the pit - lucky that fellow, to have got a new instrument in his orchestra ! The delight on that musician's face is worth a month of Sundays !
Leaving aside for the moment how very droll the mime passages were throughout, let us recall here one scene that points up this artist's mastery of the actor's side of his craft.
Far upstage and dimly-lit, infants attired as Kitri, Basilio, Lorenzo and Camacho play a dumb-show on a miniature trestle-bridge, as Basilio looks on. M. Thibault's every mime gesture, a scimitar-like ability to focus the audience's attention on the action, and the way the artist casts his eye, literally "lights up" the trestle-bridge and "carries" it, along with its tiny occupants, well downstage !
Only a few days later, the same dancer, in the same ballet, took on the foul-mouthed, vile and slovenly Gypsy Prince, following a lighter, more "painterly" approach by M. Alessio Carbone in this role. Gone, vanished, the playful, the amiable Basilio. Here, every detail of movement, the character's beady gaze and even bodily weight has been altered, to become that strutting gypsy ego-state.
One can only hope that by some great stroke of luck - does anyone out there have the ear of Pierre Lacotte ? - we shall find M. Thibault on the Paris stage dancing James in La Sylphide this coming July.
And so, this has been an interesting week.
On the night of May 20th, in this same ballet, and only very shortly after the strapping six-footer Mlle. Marie-Agnès Gillot was appointed étoile, so too was the nineteen-year old Matthew Ganio appointed. Over the head of several Premiers Danseurs, notably the excellent - and proven - Pech and Carbone. As the curtain thudded down, cheering was heard backstage, and that was that.
Who is the boy, and what might lie behind this curious move ?
M. Ganio is a comely lad, tall, and well set up. He has a pleasant personality, and is a good dancer. Both his parents are prominent figures in the dance world.
Otherwise, we know nothing whatsoever of M. Ganio. Untried, untested, unproven, he has held no major roles save three performances as Basilio. In December 2003 at the Internal Promotion Concours, and despite six months' absence for injury, M. Ganio was promoted to sujet . Now, we find him ruling the roost for the next quarter-century, as appointments in this theatre are for life. One cannot but wonder, why ? Why now ?
Be that as it may, we all have our prejudices, and I must own to one in favour of Mlle. Ould-Braham, dancing on several nights as one of Kitri's two friends, and as Cupid. One can quite see why Markova wanted the young lady in the recent film on her life: not only does the actual shape and use of the girl's sinewy foot recall that ballerina, but Mlle. Ould-Braham is possessed, in embryo, of that same ineffable and very personal quality of motion. In a troupe that is, overall, a plastique-free zone, here is to be found the heart-stopping exception: the torso and arms placed in calm beauty, even in the very eye of the storm. In the gargouillades, each tiny circle graven in bronze; in the flying assemblées, a text-book definition of "brio" ; and the play with the fan, as to the manner born !
Now, if the girl could but keep those legs down ....
Not to mention Mélanie Hurel as Cupid would, however, be absurd ! Although her dance-quality is perhaps not quite so fluent, the lady's sparkling wit and intelligence more than makes it up. The moment Mlle. Hurel appears, she establishes eye-contact with her Dulcinea, her Queen of the Dryads, setting up, as they dance in trio, a counter-point between all their steps, her very arm-movements set delicately against theirs. Never dancing for herself alone, she is probably the only lady in the Opera who still marks the UP accent on piqué turns. One lovely example of her musical timing is the attitude devant on balance in Cupid's variation. Before unfolding the développé , she holds the attitude both times, for a mere second, as though tossing a kiss to the public, and then only, développé. Mlle. Ould-Braham, exquisite as she was, ignored that plainly-marked pause in the music.
Despite its 155 dancers, the Opera has fumbled in its attempts to put up suitable pairs as Kitri's friends, aside from the three or so ladies truly able to carry off those lightning-swift and very tricky steps (Mlle. Sofia Parcen, regrettably, was slightly injured and did not dance this). Might we suggest that groping about with Arnie in Splatts Egg, or whatever, may be doing as little for our technique as it does for our mental stability ?
So you'd rather have Jérôme Bel then ?
On to Don Quichottte itself.
At this moment in time, one hesitates to voice the faintest criticism of classical dance productions, as they have become a scarce commodity, and one can hear the chorus roaring, "So, you'd rather have Jérôme Bel then...?"
No, we wouldn't, but had we better choreography, and were it better instructed, classical dance would be a Mass Movement, and we would not have got ourselves into the pickle now salting all our bones.
A version severely revised by Nureyev after Marius Petipa, this Don Quichotte is certainly one of the weakest in the international repertory, on account both of its lamentable score - Minkus reworked by John Lanchberry - feeble intrigue, and bone-crunching choreography. The mime Prologue, Act I and the Gypsy Camp in Act II are almost entirely the work of Nureyev, and Act III has been extensively reworked by him as well. The Minkus-Lanchberry score is a muddle of catchy tunes to tinny orchestration, with neither musical coherency, nor development. There is some ugly, syrupy, slurpy stuff in there - one should not be surprised to find the orchestra having great difficulty in staying awake.
The ballet opens with a mime scene so wispy, so devoid of poetry and inner fire, that its every minute seems an hour. Don Quixote, who has precious little to do in this ballet that bears his name, jerks nervously about on a pallet, occasionally rising to swing a sword. A trio of maids appears, all tooth-grindingly off the music, followed by Sancho Panza who has, inscrutably, become a monk. Where is the gross, fat, lazy brute of a peasant ? And casting as Sancho Panza M. Simone Valastro, a youth of 23 who also happens to be a first-rate classical dancer ? Hard as the lad try - and he is a damn good mime - this is not a school lark with the girls at Saint Trinian's. Could no 60-year-old professor, suitably pot-bellied, be found to play this ? Otherwise, the mime scenes given Sancho Panza are nothing but pointless vulgarity, as are Gamache's final scenes in Act III, no matter how brilliantly both Messrs. Novis and Gaudion pulled off the sword-play. Within thirteen seconds of Gamache's arrival in Act I, we are given to know who and what he is. Nureyev, dear, don't rub it in.
The way the character of Kitri is being instructed at Paris is another moot point. Judging by all the Kitris we have seen here, the view seems to be that this is a brassy chick, over-aware of the ways of the world. But this is Spain, in some indefinite, but long-past time - the early Nineteenth Century by the costumes, the Seventeenth, by the book ! Teenaged girls, even innkeeper's daughters, were not like that ! A saucy, daring little minx, to be sure - but an innocent one.
As for the so-called "Gypsy" dances, what gypsies ? Romanian ? Hungarian ? or Greek perhaps ? What are those dances ? How did Caucasian steps wend their way into a gypsy camp ? As we noted in reviewing Ivan the Terrible , the Paris Opera no longer has character specialists on tap; the corps de ballet lacks the skills peculiar to such rough-and-tumble work, and is hard put to do much more than avoid injury.
Reduced to stage props, this splendid corps de ballet, dotted about the stage in conventional groupings, is given little to do but wear costumes nicely. When they do get to dance, we are treated to an Amoklauf, wild pandemonium where everyone, and I do mean everyone, is off the music, despite heroic efforts to hold the corps de ballet together by Christophe Duquenne and Yann Saiz (the latter was extraordinary) in the role of Espada.
The beat comes down, loud and clear, and then one hears, equally clearly, and staggered like machine gun fire, everyone coming down off it, in a clatter of pointes or heeled-shoes.
If we cannot help people to pay heed to the music FIRST AND FOREMOST, there is no point in instructing them to stand on lines and orientate to points on the stage. The classical dance is a MUSICAL form, and if people stop their ears, they'll break alignment. Within the difficulty, it's that "simple".
Were we to start from the music, we should instruct everyone to close those articulations, get the legs down, stop dancing all the steps so humungously big. And cut out all attempts to turn nine turns. One cannot dance for the music, and dance to impress the eye as well. The two are incompatible.
Here, we find the street-dancer's variations, no matter who perform them, a hideous mess, precisely what Bruce Marks, former Artistic Director of the Boston Ballet, means when he speaks of "the over-energising of dance", the same point made very recently by the étoile Aurélie Dupont in an interview to Dance Europe.
And pity poor Kitri !
Now, can a ballet with a feeble intrigue, poor dramaturgy, and a weakish score, move the soul; ? Yes - strangely enough, it can ! Classical dancers are, in the main, very creative people. If left to their own devices, and not told to throw their limbs about like a rag-doll, they will pick up the paltriest of steps, and transform them into an unexplored domain of light and shadow. Before Plitseskaya got hold of the ladies' variations, they were dainty, piquant and coquettish ! What need have we of the spectacular, the gigantic - in short, the circus ? Where has the calm majesty of the Queen of the Dryads got to ? How can any instructor listen to the latter's weird step, a pterodactyl-like hybrid between an outsized glissade (proto-crustacean) crossed with a jeté à la seconde (proto-fowl), as it crashes into the ground with ear-splitting din ! And those développés with the ladies' undies on full display ! So undignified !
As an aside, and in terms of casting, of the Dryad Queens only Aurore Cordellier, despite her great size and rather odd ways, has - at least to my mind - sufficient poetic imagination to inhabit the role.
Speaking of undignified, if someone could explain to me what was That Thing M. Acosta, alone of all the Basilios, attempted at the start of his final Act III variation, I should be most grateful. Apparently the step's name is "catiole", and according to reports on www.dansomanie.net, Nureyev wrote it in, but it looks not only incredibly bad for the back, but rather like a rhinoceros in full flight. Or perhaps a motorised hippopotamus splooshing up from the Nile ?
So, Gang, overall, and speaking of the Nile, could we try to remember that this is NOT Riverdance ?
Then we ask with false naïveté why so many are out injured, including three of the men initially scheduled to dance Basilio, and a couple of Kitris as well.
Back to Bruce Marks. This past month, he was up in Denmark instructing Abdallah (1855). He told Amy Watson, dancing the role of the Gazelle of Basra : "Don't dance it. Mark it. On stage. Dance throughout as though you were marking it."
Mark that !