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The Buzz, 1-2: Taglioni Time
Osta Romances; Le Vrai Concours

"She floats like a blush of light before our eyes: we cannot perceive the subtle means by which she contrives, as it were, to disdain the earth, and to deliberate her charming motions in the air."

-- The Monthly Chronicle, July-December 1838, describing Marie Taglioni*

"This pas includes a certain fall which will soon be as famous as the Niagara Falls. The audience wait for it in awed curiosity. At the moment when the vision is about to end, the Peri falls from the top of a cloud into her lover's arms. If it were only a tour de force, we should not mention it; but this perilous leap forms a group so full of grace and charm that it suggests a dove's feather drifting downwards, rather than a human being leaping from a platform."

-- Theophile Gautier, commenting on Carlotta Grisi in "La Peri," in "Histoire de l'Art Dramatique en France depuis Vingt-Cinq Ans."*

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- There's a moment in Pierre Lacotte's revival of the Mazilier/Petipa romantic ballet "Paquita," currently on view at the Garnier on the Paris Opera Ballet, in which Clairemarie Osta seems to literally float above Jean-Guillaume Bart. Seen December 23, it reminded me of a quality that seems all-but-forgotten in this age of vitesse: the value of lightness, that seeming to float which, after all, is where the magic of the ballerina began.

"Paquita" is indeed a romantic ballet, first choreographed by Joseph Mazilier (who originated James in "La Sylphide, opposite La Taglioni) on Carlotta Grisi and Lucien Petipa (the original "Giselle" duo) for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1846. The story, set in the early part of the 19th century during a French occupation of Spain, is simple: He's a French general's son who falls in love with her, a gypsy who turns out not to really be a gypsy but of 'noble' blood like him, meaning she's cool about getting together with him. She also helps to foil a palace plot.

Marius Petipa eventually got this hands on the ballet, re-staging and re-staging it until he finally made a revision with new choreography, premiering on the Russian Imperial Ballet January 8 1882. The Paris Opera Ballet performed Oleg Vinogradev's adaptation from 1980 until 2001, when Lacotte made his new production for the company. Among its claims to authenticity is that Lacotte studied with Lubov Egorova, who played Paquita before emigrating to Paris in 1918.

To tell you the truth, I usually approach a performance of a 19th-century story ballet with at least a little bit of dread. Seen in a post-Modern context, the stories can be hard to swallow, particularly the depictions of male-female relations and the rampant Orientalism and other Exoticism. What can make a performance relevant and engaging is when the performers use the ballet as a way to make a statement about the art.

In the "Paquita" performance I saw, Osta made this statement, in her airiness as well as her lack of airs. This doesn't always serve her well; her entrance as Paquita into the gypsy lair was unspectacular. One didn't get that "the ballerina has just entered the room" buzz. But the naturalism with which she approached the role made the story believable, from her first understated glances at Bart's Lucien to her clean and earnest pantomime in the following scene, where she communicates to Lucien that her gypsy cohort Inigo (Yann Saiz) intends to give him drugged wine and then murder him. Her earnestness also had the effect of elevating her partner, with Bart, often wooden in his acting, getting swept up in the intrigue.

Osta's own elevation made the dancing and the ballet. It was a throwback to the floating peris we only read about, and thus the money moment of the evening, a welcome reminder of why and how ballet is magical.

It was not the first time Osta has impressed. In more intimate ballets, she brings a rare vulnerability and humanity, utilized in performances I've seen in Angelin Preljocaj's "Annonciation" and Roland Petit's "Clavigo." And as one of three ballerinas in the vision scene in Rudolf Nureyev's staging of Petipa's "Don Quixote," she was a series of romantic paintings come to life.

In an age where surface beauty and physical alacrity is often mistaken for artistry, it was affirming when Osta's artistry was rewarded with her promotion to etoile following this past Sunday's matinee performance of "Paquita."

Speaking of promotions, Osta's was made by POB director general Hugues Gall and director of dance Brigitte Lefevre, as are all promotions from premiere dancer to the top level of etoile. Below that, though, promotions at the POB are determined by a process utterly unique and commendable among ballet companies, and which I got a chance to witness this past Monday at the Garnier Opera House. What follows is NOT a review but a news report on this unique institution.

It's called the Concours, and it's been around since 1860, when it was the brainchild of Bernard Sciot and -- Marie Taglioni. Any and all dancers who want to advance -- from quadrille to coryphee, from coryphee to sujet, and from sujet to premiere -- give an imposed variation (i.e. everyone in their class, divided by sex, gives the same) and one of their own choosing. It starts at 8 a.m. and goes until about 5 p.m., with men performing in the morning and women in the afternoon. So, the first unique facet of the Concours is that dancers who want to be promoted are not just dependent on being noticed by chance by the company director, but have a day where they can make their case. And they are doing so for at least one good reason; there are real positions available, and the promotions are posted by the end of the day.

The second unique factor of the Concours is that it takes the decision to promote out of the hands of just one or two directors of the company and turns it over to a committee made up of the directors, dancers, and even directors and administrators outside the company. The dancers are watched by a jury composed of a members of the direction of the Opera National de Paris, including the general director, the director of dance, and the ballet master and associate director; two jurists from the dance world at large, who cannot be permanent employees of the Opera; and, finally -- you'll love this! -- an equal number of dancers, who must be at least sujets or, if in the corps, have been with the company for a minimum six years, and who are elected to serve by their peers.

In other words, being noticed or being promoted is not the arbitrary decision of one or two officials. There is a system in place.

Also watching the Concours unfold at the Garnier, though not voting, is a private audience including, among others, dancers from all ranks in the company.

The decision to promote is made mostly on points and rankings awarded by the judges based on what they've seen that day, but points are also awarded for the dancers' diligence and professional conscience over the course of the year.

This year, the positions available for the women to move up to were three coryphee positions, three sujet, and two premiere dancer posts; for the men, five coryphee, four sujet, and two premiere.

The concours is not a public performance, so it would be unfair to critique this past Monday's event, but just to give you an example of how it played out: During the afternoon, 23 female quadrilles all presented the second variation from the pas de trois from Act I if "Swan Lake," as choreographed by Rudolf Nureyev after Petipa. That was the "variation imposee." For the free variation, choices included variations from "La Bayadere" and "Raymonda," both by Nureyev after Petipa, Jerome Robbins's "The Four Seasons," John Neumeier's "Vaslaw," Roland Petit's "Carmen" and "Notre-Dame de Paris," and Victor Gsovsky's "Grand pas Classique."

Watching all this was a jury composed, this year, of Gall, the jury's president; Lefevre; POB ballet master and associate director for dance Patrice Bart; Anna Razzi, director of the School of Dance of the Theatre San Carlo of Naples; and Helgi Tomasson, artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet. Elected by the dancers to serve were Nicolas Le Riche, Karin Averty, Nolwenn Daniel, Nathalie Rique, and Wilfried Romoli. Jury suppleants were ballet mistress Clotilde Vayer and dancer Nathalie Quernet.

The jury rings a little bell when it's time for the next dancer to give his/her variation.

When it was all over Monday, Stephanie Romberg, Melanie Hurel, Alessio Carbone, and Herve Moreau had been promoted to premiere dancer; Myriam Kamionka, Caroline Bance, Myriam Ould-Braham, Bruno Bouche, Stephane Bullion, Jean-Christophe Guerri, and Nicolas Paul had been promoted to sujet; and Eve Grinsztajn, Dorothee Gilbert, Severine Westermann, Mathieu Ganio, Alexis Renaud, Yong Geol Kim, and Simon Valastro had been elevated to coryphee.

*Quotations found in Cyril Beaumont's "A Miscellany for Dancers," Dance Horizons, 1981.


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