featured photo

The Kitchen
Brought to you by
Body Wrappers; New York Flash Review Sponsor
the New York manufacturer of fine dance apparel for women and girls. Click here to see a sample of our products and a list of web sites for purchasing.
With Body Wrappers it's always
performance at its best.

Go back to Flash Reviews
Go Home

Flash Review 1, 12-11: The Eighth Deadly Sin
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 Annas?

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 about Kochno.

Go back to Flash Reviews
Go Home