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Flash Review 1, 1-2: Orgy at the Opera
Petrouchka is Dead, Long Live Petrouchka

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- From the heartbreaking performance of Laurent Hilaire in Mikhail Fokine's "Petrouchka" to the heartbreaking -- for different reasons -- new Blanca Li, ballet as MTV pageant take on "Scheherazade" -- everything that could be right, and everything that is oh so wrong with ballet today was on parade at the Garnier Friday night on the Paris Opera Ballet. The answer to the ongoing question, "How can we make ballet relevant?" is NOT "by bringing in bad girls like Blanca Li to re-cast all our classics through the vogue sensibility of Madonna." It lies rather in valuing the traditions we have by presenting them with vitality. As seen in her "Scheherazade," anyway, Blanca Li is a poseur who would present a voguing Scheherazade (complete with ballet dancer stiff undulations) and an orgy denuded of any lurking threat of death as Modern. Fokine, on the other hand, was a true ballet and dance revolutionary who took a perhaps tired vocabulary and revitalized it, re-inventing it for each and every ballet he made, wringing everything out of the human body and out of the map of movement possibilities, particularly in mime, as Hilaire wrung every possibility out of what Fokine left him. As seen Friday, anyway, the Opera's current Diaghilev tribute program -- also including Nijinksky's "L'Apres-Midi d'un Faune" and Jerome Robbins's "Afternoon of a Faun" -- was entirely a split decision.

Like the David Parsons-American Ballet Theatre "Pied Piper," the Li - Paris Opera collaboration on a new ballet to the rocking Rimski-Korsakov score most famously choreographed to by Fokine is a good idea gone bad. Across Europe -- and even in the States, where her solo show "Zap! Zap! Zap!" was a hit of last Spring's NYC France Moves festival -- Li is the current choreographic It girl. At 37, she's already opened her own nightclub in Spain, her own studios in Paris, choreographed and acted in a film by Pedro Almodovar, sung risque back-up for Malcolm McLaren, and mounted shows in Paris's Red Light district. Receiving little public funding in a climate where there really is no infrastructure for private donations, Li has nonetheless triumphed, establishing herself and her company as a major contemporary dance presence in France. She begins a tenure this year as dance director of the Berlin Comic Opera, is currently finishing a film, and had previously worked with POB etoile Monique Loudieres. In short, POB dance director Brigitte Lefevre could hardly NOT have invited Li to work with the Opera if she didn't want to be accused of being hopelessly out of date with the contemporary scene!

With that preamble, then -- that there are no bad actors here -- what the finished product reveals is a dreadful lack of understanding of what makes a ballet like "Scheherazade" tick, an appalling disregard for the intent of Rimski-Korsakov's music, a confusing of drama with pageantry, and, on a program with such a well-preserved Fokine masterpiece as "Petrouchka," an embarrassment to the Opera as well as to Li.

Of course, a decision to abandon the original Alexander Benois libretto is artistically valid. But what Li has done, perversely, is retain the orgiastic elements of Benois's book for the original Fokine production, and jettison the tragic denouement which makes what comes before more than just a gratuitous orgy. And even a gratuitous orgy, if played to the hilt (a la Mark Dendy in "The Wild Party" ) would have been a game try, but the orgy to which Li pretty much reduces the plot is a tepid one, more like a chaste slumber party.

But let's back up. What Benois and Fokine came up with, as recounted by Balanchine in his "Stories of the Great Ballets" (Doubleday, 1954, edited by Francis Mason), is this: Scheherazade is of course the spinner of tales who spins them to avoid being killed by the King or Sultan. "Scheherazade" the ballet, the original, takes one of her tales and runs with it. To reduce it to the essential plot points: Zobeide, the favorite concubine of King Shahriar, cheats on him as soon as he goes off (supposedly) to a hunt. She and the other harem women convince the chief eunuch to admit the slaves to their chamber, including the Favorite Slave, Zobeide's lover. A ribald orgy ensues. But the king isn't really away; it's all a ruse devised by his scheming brother to catch Zobeide in the act of cheating on him. This they do, returning unexpectedly. Everybody is killed -- most vividly the Favorite Slave -- until only Zobeide remains. The king waivers as she pleads; finally, as the king's soldiers move towards her, she pulls out a dagger and stabs herself in the belly. As Balanchine writes: "Her body doubles up over her arm. She is dead. The men drop their swords. Shahriar raises his arms in despair and weeps over her. His pride seems as nothing compared to his lost love."

In other words -- it's a tragedy. Li totally misses this. As she re-envisions the story, after some silly business with, alternately, group dances by the women and then the men, and a brief moment of Zabeide moping in what looks like a lavish cell, we get your basic orgy. It's not particularly clear if the male protagonist, played last Friday by Jose Martinez, is the king or the Favorite Slave. Martinez's bonhommie and Delphine Moussin's incredible, soft liquidity as Zobeide save their prolonged duet from seeming like just so much gymnastics. The intertwining of limbs (Moussin stretching a leg up to rest on Martinez's shoulder, for example) and Herculean lifts (he on the ground lifting her up fully) might seem, if seen on paper, just tricks. But both these dancers -- particularly Moussin -- have a way of making the physically impossible seem natural. LIke Helene Alexopoulos of New York City Ballet, Moussin makes the stage seem her natural element, and even the most extenuated moves seem human.

Yet even the charm of these two stars can't stave off annoyance and perplexity when the music arches to sinister crescendos and you can almost see the king or some dangerous force rushing in, and instead there's just more romping around on the 50 or so pastel pillows strewn about the stage. I'd have been ready to surrender myself to a full-scale romp -- combining the heat of flamenco, the psychological intensity of Graham, and the emotional pull of ballet, all of which Li supposedly has at her disposal -- but instead we get a g-rated high school dance. It's an orgy that doesn't want to be one -- even to the point of Moussin's flesh-colored leotard. (Let's see the real thing or, let's see a more suggestive or enticing costume.) Even as orgy, in other words, it doesn't deliver.

In other words, there's no pay-off -- dramatically or spectacularly. This seems so basic that I shouldn't have to say it, but what makes love and romance and sex thrilling on an operatic stage is either it's scale or it's cost. The only cost here is that associated with Christian Lacroix's bright costumes. (Red and mostly a success for the women, despite the bizarre antennae-feathers projecting from their turbans; rather gay for the men, in corsets with their meaty thighs revealed.)

But the costumes, at least, are in the spirit of the Leon Bakst originals, which set off a fashion trend in the Paris of 1910. Not so Li's choreography or libretto. In 1904, proposing a set of reforms to the Imperial Theatre in Moscow (and as recounted by Balanchine), Fokine wrote that "Dancing should be interpretative. It should not degenerate into mere gymnastics. The dance should explain the spirit of the action in the spectacle.... It should express the whole epoch to which the subject of the ballet belongs. For such interpretative dancing, the music must be equally inspired. In place of the old-time waltzes, polkas, pizzicati and gallops, it is necessary to create a form of music which expresses the same emotion as that which inspires the movements of the dancer. The ballet must no longer be made up of 'numbers,' 'entries,' and so on. It must show artistic unity of conception..... Ballet must have complete unity of expression, a unity which is made up of a harmonious blending of the three elements -- music, painting, and plastic art."

If Li's "Scheherazade" doesn't quite degenerate into gymnastics, it does degenerate into spectacle for its own sake -- and not very shocking spectacle at that. It is loud without making a statement. Perhaps it does explain a disturbing if not yet dominant trend in our epoch, where celebrity is mistaken for achievement. While the music is of course inspired, Li's fealty to it is only of the most generalized sort; both music and movement are rapid and florid. There is little artistic unity, either of plot or choreography. Much of the pre-show hype was about the range of Li's influences, she hailing from the flamenco-land of Andalusia, and then having studied at the Graham and Ailey schools. But with all three of these caches, she uses only the most obvious gestures. The men, lead by Martinez in their section, stomp, with Martinez assuming an authentic flamenco glower as he raises his hands above his head in a flourish; the woman and Moussin in particular weave their hands; I suppose there are some contractions, but solely for attempted erotic effect; the costumes are bright as we might see in an Ailey company production, but the dancers, with the exception of the supple Moussin, don't have any of the sinuousness that is at the heart of the Ailey style. (Particularly embarrassing Friday was Laure Muret's Scheherazade, constantly called on to undulate her bare belly and hips, only to reinforce the stereotype of the stiff-torsoed ballet dancer.)

I still think that Lefevre has artistic vision to spare; but the real test of whether she has artistic taste will be whether this "Scheherazade" remains in the repertoire, or is quietly retired to the Old Concubines Home....

While we're speaking of Fokine, he also wrote that his so-called New Ballet, "in developing the principle of expressiveness, advances from the expressiveness of face to the expressiveness of the whole body, and from the expressiveness of the individual body to the expressiveness of a group of bodies and the expressiveness of the combined dancing of a crowd."

At some of our prominent ballet companies -- most notoriously American Ballet Theatre -- crowd expressivness has been replaced by milling about. What a joy, then, it was to see how every single dancer Friday -- from the corps member playing a drunken cossack to star Laurent Hilaire -- embodied and gave life to Fokine's chestnut "Petrouchka," to Stravinsky's music. My eyes watered and my chin dropped and my mouth opened in wonder as I beheld it all, post-Christmas, from the third row, center. Compressed by flats suggesting a large puppet stage (like the costumes and rest of the decor, after Benois's in 1948 from his designs for the 1911 original, for which he co-wrote the libretto with Stravinsky) into a pretty small area, and that sloping downward because of the raked Garnier stage, the entire cast conjured a festive public square, circa winter 1830, in St. Petersburg.

Fokine talked about developing specific choreographies for each ballet, rather than just working with a set classical vocabulary, and his ingeniousness was well explained by the POB dancers. For example, the cossack dance is given as if not by virile, toned 20-year-old ballet dancers, but by fat, truly drunk, even middle-aged soldiers. They appear randomly, arms linked, sliding across the stage, one occasionally breaking ranks to pinch and chase a townswoman. As the head of the cossacks, Yong Geol Kim embodied this spontaneity. And as a leading townswoman who is left alone on the stage swooning and overcome by a simple tune at one moment, and later flirts with the cossack, Beatrice Martel could give a schooling in how to play these soubrettes naturally and honestly, without panning or indicating; not just miming characteristics, but becoming a character. In the brio department, Muriel Kamionka and Cecile Sciaux set the tone early on as rival dancers vying for scarce coins from the spectators. In more "character" parts, Bruno Bouche as "Le Diable," in devil creature costume, and a whole menagerie of "Parade"-scale large animals also gave fresh readings to what could have devolved to stereotypes.

But it was Hilaire, as Petrouchka, who in one dancer embodied everything that is dance's potential to transport us and touch us and move us to empathy, and how a dancer can use his body to effect this. Petrouchka, of course, is the puppet with a human spirt who seems to come to life, only long enough to be killed by a human-puppet rival, the Moor or Le Maure, in a fight over another human puppet, the Ballerina. This story requires the actor-dancer who plays him to be able at once to embody the physical attributes and limits of a puppet, and, to an elevated extreme, the spirit of a human, a man, trying to break through those limits. We see this in the way that, for instance, crumpled and collapsed on the floor after pleading with a picture of his master the charlatan, first his fingers start to flex, and that ripple shoots through his whole body, as if a motor hand been turned on and a machine slowly sprung to life. We see it again when, not knowing his own strength, throwing himself instinctively (but without really a plan) against the wall of his chamber, he suddenly breaks through, his head is stuck there, the rest of his body behind, and the expression in his pausing corps is "Um, okay, what now?" He can't think ahead because, well, he can't think.

But he can act, and later, he interrupts a tryst between the Moor and the Ballerina (Elisabeth Maurin, in a rote performance) when his body, from head to waist, suddenly bursts, at what seems an impossible, sideways jack in the box angle, through the Moor's doorway upstage, leaning towards the other couple at a right angle to his offstage waist, his mouth in a silent scream, his arm jutting towards thems with their fingers splayed.

Then finally -- and, damned if he isn't on those chilling final Stravinsky shrill horn notes -- we see it when, after he's apparently been macheted by the Moor, replaced by a (dead) truly stuffed puppet, he suddenly appears on the roof of the puppet stage, first wildly, spastically straining his arms to the moon before he collapses over the ledge, his arms dangling and twitching as the curtain falls.

This is tragedy, brought to us by a choreographer who knew what it meant and how to summon it in the bodies of dancers, and enacted by one of our few dancers who knows that mime is but a tool for the human spirit, not just an acting device. That, indeed, mime movements should be invested with as much spirit and energy and physical force and conviction is the most difficult, "impressive" "pure dance" move.

There can't be more than a handful of these dancers around, at least on the ballet stage, and at least that I've seen. Another is David Justin of the Birmingham Royal Balllet, still another Robert La Fosse at the NYC Ballet. Joanna Berman, too, at San Francisco Ballet, understands this. But all of these dancers are close to retirement age. However, there is some hope for the future, principally (that I'm aware of() in Wilfried Romoli. Having already turned in one career-making turn as Quasimoto in the POB's production of Roland Petit's "Notre Dame de Paris," Romoli turned in another Friday s the Moor. His dance with the coconut in his chamber -- first, bored, rolling it down his legs, then trying to figure out what it is, then trying to figure how to open it -- was deliciously prolongued. And it set up the moment when he pauses, tempted by the visiting Ballerina, to consider which fruit he'd rather taste. This is a dancer who knows what stylization means, and who, unafraid to make a fool of himself, gives over his entire body and spirit to the attempt. In our age, where "character dancer" is often a euphemism for "he/she's past their prime, but we have to give them something to do," Romoli, like Justin, reminds us of the dramatic power wielded by a character dancer who can still, um, dance, and with verve.

Less verve-a-licious, to say the least, is Karl Paquette. I really thought that the vacuity which left a valiant Moussin all alone when he partnered her in "La Bayadere" would serve him in Robbins's "Faun," concerned as it is with two ballet dancers infatuated with their own images in the mirror of a dance studio. But Paquette appears not to have the capacity to get this; his one expression to the mirror was one of perplexity, i.e. "What is it?" Like Moussin, Paquette's partner this time, Juliette Gernez, persevered despite being more alone than even the choreographer intended. She not only got the narcissistic fascination Robbins intended, but also revealed to me -- I love when this happens! -- something I hadn't seen before, despite seeing some top flight dancers (Kyra Nichols, Darcie Kistler) in this role. When the man broke through his self-absorption and turned away from the mirror, to her, planting a kiss on her cheek, Gernez registered not just puzzlement, but a change. It was this kiss that prompted her to leave, that turned her away from the mirror, and that she held on to, her hand to the cheek as she walks delicately on pointe offstage, until even her image from behind the scrim was gone.

As for the original -- Nijinksy's "L'Apres-midi d'un Faune," choreographed in 1912 to the same Debussy music -- oy lah lah. Done right -- as in the Joffrey's contemporary revival -- this piece can still be seen as what it was intended (visually): a frieze, or series of friezes. While the friezes are two-dimensional, though, the encounter between the faune and the nymphs shouldn't be. Yann Bridard played the faune as the most lightweight, superficial queen. When he took the main Nymph's scarve and nuzzled it, what I thought of most was a cross-dressing teenager sniffing his mother's underwear. Queenie is an appropriate choice for this role, but it's got to be played to the hilt. The lack of conviction brought to the assignment by Bridard left both Amelie Lamoureux's Nymph -- she looked the part, but the lack of electricity with Bridard left up in the air -- and, more importantly, the ballet dangling. In his hands, it was reduced to a triteness which, contrary to the otherwise laudable aim of this program, is more a disservice than a tribute to the memories of both Diaghilev and Nijinsky.


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