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Flash Journal, 5-9: In Frisco with the French
Babilee Nearly Steals the Show from Paris Opera Ballet

By Aimee Ts’ao
Copyright 2001 Aimee Ts’ao

SAN FRANCISCO -- This is not a Flash Review. I repeat, this is NOT a Flash Review. Included is a review, but it is also the story about what happened to me for interjecting "Le Mystere Babilee," a documentary on the French dancer Jean Babilee, between two performances of "La Bayadere" during the Paris Opera Ballet's San Francisco run.

I saw the Paris Opera Ballet (POB) in its second performance of Rudolf Nureyev's staging of Petipa's "La Bayadere" last Tuesday, then spent some time mulling it over that night and the next morning. I didn't feel qualified to comment much on the company in general since it was the first time I'd ever seen it perform live. I was planning mostly on comparing two casts since that required no more than the empirical evidence in front of me and not a historical perspective. However, as I waited in the dimly lit Kabuki theater, where "Le Mystere Babilee," an offering by the San Francisco International Film Festival, was about to begin, I scribbled the following notes as a lead in to what I wanted to write about the previous evening's POB performance.

"In the field of genetics the term hybrid vigor denotes the increase in growth, intelligence, yield, or other characteristics in hybrids over those of the parents. In the dance world this cross-fertilization has kept the art alive and thriving. But in the Darwinian way of the Universe, it has also allowed the forms which do not evolve to die and become mere fossils. (Please allow for some poetic license here as it is not my intention to be strictly scientific.) Yes, it is true that certain plants and animals are so successful that they have survived practically unchanged for millions of years. Sharks and cockroaches come to mind. And some dance companies (the Kirov/Maryinsky, the Bolshoi, Paris Opera, Royal Danish, etc.) have been around for centuries, evolving for a while, stagnating, then moving on again when pushed into new growth by new blood in either the choreographic or directorial realms. Any company which draws continually from the large international pool of excellently trained dancers and seeks out new choreographers will not stagnate (whether it gets better or worse is a another matter). I can say from experience that Britain's Royal Ballet was a much more interesting company when the dancers came from both abroad and from the Royal Ballet School. Companies which are composed only of dancers trained in their respective affiliated schools certainly have brilliant corps de ballets, but the soloists and principals are often lacking distinct artistic personalities and fire. (The Bolshoi is an exception.)

POB is such a company. The exquisitely trained corps received loud enthusiastic applause from the audience for the pristine opening of the Kingdom of the Shades. It reminded me of the time I saw the Kirov Ballet in 1986 in Los Angeles. Both companies (not in relation to each other, internally) produce dancers with identical line and timing, making for a remarkable perfection on the visual plane. However, the precision of the steps cannot make up for the lack of true musicality. The steps are done together on the beat, in mechanical unison, as a player piano plays music. The elements of feeling and organic origination of movement that transform this into an artistic experience, are missing."

The lights dimmed and the film began. I had never seen Babilee dance, only in still photos, and now here were clips of him creating "Le Jeune Homme et la Mort (The Young Man and Death)" with Jean Cocteau and Roland Petit at the Paris Opera. And interviews with Babilee himself and dance luminaries such as Yvette Chauvire, Leslie Caron, Marika Besobrasova, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Maurice Bejart and even Jeremie Belingard, who had danced the Golden Idol the night before at POB. I was amazed and inspired by Babilee. He moved with such total commitment, not dancing to the audience, but for his own pleasure and artistic expression. Even Baryshnikov said he had never seen anyone dance like that. I wrote in my notebook: "Amazing man, nothing to say," meaning I was speechless.

The lights came up and Peter Scarlet, director of the S.F. International Film Festival, introduced Babilee, now 77 years old, for a question and answer session. One man offered him a welcome to San Francisco and noted that the POB was also in town, the implication being that there was some connection. I winced. Babilee had left POB fifty years ago. At last a woman asked him why he had left the POB. He replied simply, "I like to be free. At the POB I had to dance in roles where I did not have the talent [in French this can mean ability, or being suited to it]. To be on stage without the talent for a role is torture."

Alas, I was supposed to go see these tortured dancers again that evening. I slowly exited the theater, and as I passed Babilee and Scarlet, I asked Scarlet if it were possible to interview the subject of this incredible documentary. Unfortunately, Babilee had already been in town nearly a week and was leaving the next day. If I had only known sooner...but there had been no mention of his appearance on the film festival's website. I even considered begging for an interview then and there and skipping my second viewing of 'Bayadere.' I was disappointed beyond belief that there would be no interview.

I dragged myself to the War Memorial Opera House that night, especially dreading having to sit through the Minkus score again. (As a friend and former musician with the S.F. Ballet Orchestra used to say, "Why Bayadere (buy a dare) when you can get a cheap Minkus?") When Manuel Legris as Solor came flying out of the wings, I knew I was saved. His presence was electric and I thanked Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva for answering my prayers. And later I saw I was doubly blessed as Aurelie Dupont revealed herself as Nikiya.

Going back to the previous evening's performance, I will note the significant differences in casts and mention the elements of the production in general that impressed me both positively and negatively. Overall, the sets were beautifully done, though the stage was a bit cramped owing to the fact that the stage here is smaller than the one in Paris. The costumes also were gorgeous, with the exception of the "tutu-ified" ones in Act 2, the Kelly green quartet, the blue and pink quartet and Gamzatti's garish purple and red classical tutu. The second night Gamzatti's bodice was toned down more and hence, easier to look at. As for Nureyev's version of this 19th-century classic, I prefer Makarova's four-act recreation.

The Tuesday performance featured Agnes Letestu as Nikiya, Jean-Guillaume Bart as Solor and Marie-Agnes Gillot as Gamzatti. Instantly I was struck by the execution of the mime by every dancer. It was clear, precise, deliberate and even if one didn't already know the meaning, the dancers' intentions were always conveyed. I rarely see that level of mime apart from the Russians. As the Grand Brahmin, Laurent Queval was superb with his eloquent hands and intense eyes, down to the perfection of his makeup, which reminded me of a classical Indian dancer's. Unfortunately, Bart, though a very pleasant and handsome young man, and a good dancer on the technical level, never made me feel he was passionately in love with Nikiya. And Letestu, somewhat reserved, never convinced me she loved him even beyond death, although her dancing was fine. Gillot's Gamzatti was mixed in that her acting was exceptional when she wasn't dancing, but the moment she started a variation she looked tense and out of character. She is a marvelous turner and in the second act pulled off a set of en dedans fouettes into attitude, followed by regular fouettes that were perfectly placed. (The French have beautiful turns.) In general I feel that so much attention is given to detail that the bigger picture lacks energy at times. The dancers are so worried about being perfect that they forget to dance.

With Aurelie Dupont as Nikiya, Manuel Legris as Solor and Delphine Moussin as Gamzatti the following night, I had a very different experience. Moussin didn't measure up to the other two in technical strength, especially compared to Gillot the first night, but her interaction with Dupont and Legris worked well. It was the two lovers who moved me in the second act as Nikiya pleads with Solor while he sits with Gamzatti. Dupont's effortless balances and lyricism, combined with her living in the role, caused Legris to become so totally confused about his own feelings and actions that I literally had tears in my eyes. She then went on to do an excellent dance with the basket of flowers, using very different qualities, yet as delicately nuanced. Earlier Legris also did a brilliant job with his variation, executing his double saute de basques with both legs tucked underneath him. Again, he was moving in the opening bed chamber scene of the third act, his solo eloquently speaking his sorrow.

I am happy to eat some of my own words about POB when writing about Dupont and Legris. They were fabulous. Think what the company would look like if everyone could join them in finding that "other" level of dancing?

(Editor's Note: To read Paul Ben-Itzak's Flash Reviews of last fall's Paris Opera Ballet season in Paris, type "Paris Opera Ballet" into the search engine window on our Home Page.)

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