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Flash Review 1, 12-11: The Eighth
Paris Opera's Homage to Kochno Fails Balanchine
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider
PARIS -- We all know the story: In
1933, visiting London, an incipient American patron of the arts named Lincoln
Kirstein met a young choreographer named George Balanchine and invited him to
come to the United States, where the two would almost singularly establish ballet
in America. But what was Balanchine doing in London? He was there for the London
season of Les Ballets 1933, which had made its debut earlier that summer at the
Theatre des Champs-Elysees. Balanchine had co-founded the company with Boris Kochno,
poet, librettist, and former right-hand man to Diaghilev. Kochno, whose artistic
career began at age 18 when he wrote the book (after Pushkin) for Igor Stravinsky's
opera-bouffe "Mavra," would go on to collaborate with Roland Petit and others
in a career which spanned almost 70 years (albeit with some fallow periods), and
which was the subject of Homage to Boris Kochno, performed last night at the Garnier
by the dancers and musicians of the Paris Opera.
The good news is that this program,
and its context in a current Paris Opera Ballet season that also offers reprises
from the Ballets Russes era and re-visitations of its most famous works by contemporary
artists (Blanca Li, Douglas Dunn, and Pina Bausch among them) reveals a clarity
of vision singularly lacking today at the company Kirstein and Balanchine founded,
New York City Ballet. The bad news is that, at least as evidenced last night in
the 1929 "Prodigal Son" -- the most famous Kochno/Balanchine collaboration --
the POB does not come near to matching the clarity of execution and fidelity with
which the NYCB and Dance Theatre of Harlem present and preserve this work.
Paris has a way of honoring seminal
artistic figures who we in the States are only aware of insofar as they figure
into the most familiar parts of our cultural landscape. The major modern art exhibit
currently on display at the Pompidou Center here is a monumental, cross-genre,
400-piece show devoted to Jean Dubuffet, a multi-medium visual artist who seems
to have resisted all the trends swirling about Paris for 60 years and followed
only his own path.
While not quite so prolific as Dubuffet,
Kochno's role as a librettist during the final years of the Ballet Russes, working
with Balanchine, Leonide Massine, Stravinsky, Serge Lifar, Bronislava Nijinska,
and others, and his indispensability to Diaghilev -- with Lifar and Misia Sert,
he was summoned to the impresario's deathbed in August 1929 -- make him the literary
focal point of that era, a key production collaborator, a longtime repository
of the period's history (he passed away in 1999) and thus a worthy and fascinating
subject for an homage.
The Paris Opera homage, which comprises
"Mavra," "Prodigal Son," and an oddity of a ballet with song, "The Seven Deadly
Sins," (book by Bertolt Brecht based on an idea from Kochno, music by Kurt Weill)
originally choreographed for that Ballets 1933 season by Balanchine but receiving
a new production here choreographed by Laura Scozzi.
This curio received more titters
than are common at the ballet last night at the Garnier, and I suppose it's possible
that audients fluent in either the language of the singing (German) or the super-titles
(French) would be able to grasp some threads of the Rube Goldberg plot better
than this viewer. But I think even those fluent in both languages would have trouble
finding a threat of plot amidst the chaos of Chantal Thomas's mammoth and contradictory
scenery and Scozzi's way way out-of-date pokes at the U.S.
The seven vignettes take place in
several U.S. cities, where Anna 2 has been sent by Anna 1 to prostitute herself
to raise money for their family, also played doubly by identically-garbed (frumpy
house-dress for the wife, floppy animal slippers and backwards baseball cap for
one of the boys...) singers and dancers. Thomas's sets veer from broad humour
whose point eludes me -- a giant pair of nyloned legs descend on the stage early,
with a "No exit" sign on the ass above, then split to hover above the stage for
the rest of the piece -- to elements with self-contained contradictions; huge
slabs of meat are advertised as on sale with prices given in Euros.
And what's up with those Village
People reject costumes, in which mostly bare-torsoed men in football helmets and
pads, boxing shorts and gloves, construction helmets, etcetera, strut about in
a very bad imitation of the VP, occasionally fondling and making love to the two
Unfortunately, Thomas's costume scheme
matches the scenario. Whether it can be laid to choreographer Scozzi or director
Laurent Pelly, it's not just that the digs at the US consist of the worse stereotypes,
but that presenting this as out-there humour ignores how much further modern dance
and dance theater and Pilobolus-strain dance theater have taken dance satire in
the last fifty years. We're talking big breasted showgirls, a smarmy host who
fuses the most tired take-offs of Saturday Night Fever and game show hosts, "Los
Angeles" showgirls in tight hot pants and halters with flames where their breasts
and groins are, and more along these lines.
I suppose the irreplaceable role
this piece plays in a Kochno Homage is that it is a ballet with song. I would
just ask, if the piece is inscrutable, does it really add to an understanding
of the work of the subject, Kochno? And if the best Scozzi and crew can do by
way of recreation is a cavalcade of the most tired cliches, is this really a TRIBUTE,
or does it just embarrass Kochno's memory? Balanchine re-mounted this ballet on
NYCB in 1958, but it hasn't been in the rep. recently. Perhaps there's a reason.
Myriam Kamionka, one of the two dancers
playing Anna 2, stood out for her ability to conquer the spastic choreography,
and move us with her spirit despite it, even casting some light on the tragedy
lurking somewhere in this plot. Bodily, she threw herself into it without reserve;
spiritually, she also didn't hold back. Elizabeth Maurin was passable in the acting,
but at this stage of her career is just too stiff for the difficult calisthenics,
so much so that until one caught on that there were two different dancers playing
this character, it boggled that her physical ability (particularly in jumps and
leg-flipping splits) varied so widely.
The stunner in this piece was Ursula
Hesse, as the singing Anne 1. Were I not a dance critic and with no mandate to
consider that aspect, and able to just listen to and look at her, I would have
been riveted to Hesse.
"Prodigal Son," of course, is even
today a staple of the repertoire of NYCB and other companies. But it's also --
in the best sense of this phrase -- a museum piece. Meaning, if edges are blurred,
if meanings are missed, and if characters are not fully sketched, I don't think
it can be said to accurately represent the work of art. Such was the case with
last night's performance.
You know the story: Boy leaves pa
and sisters at home to go on an adventure with his pals. They meet up with a bunch
of weird crazy bald-headed guys who are also lackeys of a courtesan-siren. She
seduces the boy, only long enough to get him drunk, have her lackeys beat him,
and snap the bright shiny jewel from his chest. He crawls home to sisters and
dad, who welcomes him with open cloak.
Key to the Prodigal's downfall has
to be the sexual pull of the Siren. She is also a predator. Balanchine gave the
character movements to describe both these attributes.
In last night's representation, unfortunately,
the physically stunning Agnes Letestu --lovely of face and with a pretty pristine,
silky technique -- gave what can only be called a half-dimensional performance.
The Siren isn't just mean -- she's venal. Her intention is to rob this guy blind,
but to get there, she has to seduce him first before fully revealing herself as
a praying mantis. Letestu, though, simply played her as mean. Even with that famous
velvet train, she treated it as an adversary which for some reason had perturbed
her, instead of an accessory in her seductive scheme. The potentially most chilling
moment -- the Siren, her back to us as she straddles the Prodigal, raises her
arm behind and above her head and splays the fingers, a trap preparing to close
-- was thrown away by Letestu, her hand bent, the fingers opened perfunctorily,
with no menace at all projected, the position not held.
Perhaps, then, it's not Nicholas
Le Riche's fault that his fascination with Letestu's Siren was more scientific
than sexual. I adjusted myself to his interpretation of the Prodigal: He didn't
catch the beautiful, almost biblical friezes as do NYCB's Damien Woetzel and Peter
Boal, or Dance Theatre of Harlem's Duncan Cooper, but his more wrangly reading
of the role was a valid one -- the Prodigal Son as raging wild bull. Still, though
-- and notwithstanding an energetic performance by the cast of bald-headed guys
-- by the end, when he crawls home to dad and dad enfolds him, usually tear-jerked
me was left cold.
The program says Patricia Neary staged
'Prodigal,' representing the Balanchine Trust. It also carries the usual note
that performances of this Balanchine work conform with the norms of execution
of the Balanchine style and technique as established by the trust. Based on what
I've seen elsewhere, I've got to believe those standards are higher than were
reached last night at the Garnier.
Oddly, the tightest work on the program
-- both in spirit and, um, choreography -- was the opera-ette! Based on a story
by Pushkin, with Stravinsky music that is it's own homage to Glinka and Tchaikovsky,
this is your basic Russian country-house drawing room comedy. Bored country lass
yearns for excitement; local soldier is ready to provide it; they devise a scheme
to present him to her mother as the new cook, but the scheme is foiled when mom
discovers him shaving, and the girl is left alone.
As the heroine Parasha, Olga Gouriakova
was all light -- not just in her singing, but her easy movement too, on a set
that moved during the action. Yevgeny Akimov may not be a dancer, but you wouldn't
know it by his fleet darting about, in and out of windows and doors, and the gusto
with which he assumed the role of the female cook.
This opera, not just as created by
Kochno and Stravinsky but in its performance, WAS a true homage to Pushkin, faithful
to both his comic spirit and tragic sense. For the rest, though, while I'm thankful
that I now know more about an essential player in our dance history, Kochno, regarding
the curio of "Seven Deadly Sins" I have to ask, Why fetch it out of the attic
at all if you're not going to give the original an original re-telling? And as
to "Prodigal Son," if it wasn't quite a desecration, we can hardly call a tribute
a representation that loses the meaning, intent, and effect of the original masterpiece.
Accompanying last night's performance,
with real brio and clarity, was the Orchestra de l'Opera National de Paris, under
the direction of Alexandre Polianichko.
The Paris Opera Ballet's Homage to
Boris Kochno closes tonight at the Garnier Opera House. The program includes Pierre
Philippe's brief but informative and chocked with photos film, "A Portrait of
Boris Kochno." A lavish program book -- from which I culled most of the history
cited here -- is available and a good starting point if you want to know more
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