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Flash Review 2, 1-23: "Clavigo"
The Evergreen Neo-Classicism of Roland Petit

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- In "Clavigo," essentially Roland Petit's latest evening-length work, Petit and the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet take us on a whirlwind journey that commences as highly stylized, quirky, jerky, sexually-charged yet remote combinations and ends with raw human romantically-charged emotion as the terrestially broken hero Clavigo, his one love destroyed by his own vices, appears not to care or even be aware that her brother is about to stab him in the heart, so lost is Clavigo in grief. It's pure tragedy -- particularly as warmly and credibly interpreted last night by the originators of the romantic leads, Nicolas Le Riche and Clairemarie Osta. It's also pure neo-classicism, using idiosyncratic, almost marionette-like patterns for the ensemble work, but calling in pointe -- particularly as breathlessly employed by Osta -- to drive the emotional nails into our hearts.

Also no mean triumph is Gabriel Yared's original score, which uses not just dramatic brush-strokes (a la John Lanchberry), but pays pinpoint attention to the details of the narrative, giving the choreographer and dancers some real meat to work with, creatively and expressively. And finally, Petit has shown a light, for other contemporary choreographers who would create new dramatic classics, to the great trove offered by our literature, not stopping at "Dracula," "Othello," or "Carmen," but in this case hauling out Sturm and Drang in all its Goethian blood and glory.

The text for "Clavigo" has its own storied history. Begun as a scree by the real-life Beaumarchais (author of "The Barber of Seville" and "The Marriage of Figaro") against the real-life socialite and journalist Jose Clavijo after the latter ruined the former's sister Lisette, it was advanced dramatically by Goethe, who made it into his first play on a challenge from a girlfriend. (I'm simplifying.) Amazingly, it took until 1999 for a choreographer to take up the challenge, and this Petit has done grandly, taking what is many ways an old old story and crafting a very new dance out of it.

To get an idea of the inevitability with which this dance story unfolds, it helps to remember that the Garnier stage is raked, giving the impression that the characters are on a fall and powerless to arrest it. (An impression accelerated even more when one is sitting in the front row!) Against a spare backdrop of blacks and whites, pillars and lines -- seen first through the slats of a giant curtain, as dancers scurry about to get in place -- Petit starts with what could be a formal ballroom dance. Picture the Capulet ball, if you will, with bewigged, tight and formally suited men gavotting with upright women, except add the stylized twitching of the joints. To this add Clavigo, who, interestingly -- considering that Le Riche most recently danced the prodigal in "Prodigal Son" -- is kind of like a male version of Balanchine's siren. He reeks sex, leading always with his pelvis, his thighs almost more mobile than his lower legs, his head, interestingly, immobile, almost detached, hardly involved at all. It's mostly good-natured sex but there's a disquieting air of cruelty also lurking, edged on constantly by his friend and alter ego Carlos, played last night by Jeremie Belingard as a repressed, possibly latently homosexual man who gets his jolies vicariously through urging the debauch of Clavigo.

In other words, you wouldn't leave your daughter or sister alone with this guy. (Clavigo, that is.) Why, then, does Lisette -- here called Marie, which was the formal name of the real-life model -- get handed over to Clavigo by her brother Beaumarchais? If you hadn't read the program note -- which explains the real-life B. was motivated by politics -- last night's interpreter wouldn't provide you with a clue. Once again a crucial role was given to Karl Paquette, a blank slate who apparently has no idea what to write on his expressions, even when given a meaty part like this one. For even though the role of Marie's Brother is not technically "the lead," it is on this character's reactions that much of the dramatic tension depends. When Marie dies in despair-- deserted by Clavigo after one night of real flirtation, and one night of delirious, dream flirtation with a Clavigo who descends spider-like to her bed on a thread from the ceiling, echoing, Petit says, "one of Lautreamont's spiders" -- it's through her brother's reaction on discovering her that we're supposed to understand that even though she's sitting up in Indian position, head slumped and hair falling over her knees, she's actually dead. This is Acting 101: Frequently we understand a character's journey not by what he or she is doing, but by the partner's reaction -- particularly if the subject is dead! Yet Paquette's reaction as he rests an elbow on a knee, pondering his still sister with his chin on a fist, Rodin style (now there's a misnomer if ever I wrote one!), is not so much "Oh my God" as "Hello! What have we here?" Similarly, that the brother's vengence on Clavigo in the end is righteous emphasizes that Clavigo is a tragic hero -- i.e. that he does have one flaw, that he did do something bad to bring this fate upon himself -- but Paquette's thrust to Le Riche's heart is strictly rote. He appears not to be motivated by vengeance, but to be there simply because the director told him to hurry up and get on stage and stab Le Riche so the play could proceed. I wonder what a Jose Martinez could have done with this role, or a Wilfried Romoli.

As Marie, on the other hand, Clairemarie Osta delivered a career-making performance, with nuanced acting and complexly expressive dancing -- in her use of pointe but also in her legs as they scissored in ecstasy in an erotic dream of her lover, and in her torso as it wavered adrift after his desertion. What makes the dream sequence work is that Osta's Marie has seemed in a dream since she first spotted Clavigo at the ball, her eyes taking on the indirect, distracted gaze of someone possessed by love. After she awakens -- not before explicitly rubbing her legs together, always on pointed feet -- we can see her slowly dying in the "I'm going crazy now" dance Petit has designed for her. It's as if one by one the pieces inside her are crumbling, chunk by chunk her heart is breaking apart. She totters back and forth, becoming a ghost before us. It's what happens to many of us, figuratively anyway, when we get dumped. The life goes out of us. For Marie, it's a process that started, inevitably and inexorably, with the high of their first encounter, best embodied in an exquisite lip-lock, a dance in which the two twist apart, standing and on the floor, around and under and over each other, but without ever parting their lips. She was fused to him then, and if he's only now a memory, so she can only become a shade.

There's also Clavigo's duet with Marie's ghost, a la "Bayadere" and "Giselle," but the difference is that Petit recognizes that she in fact a ghost. She is usually dancing behind him, affixed to his back, around him, under him as he steps through her V'd legs, he more sensing than seeing her.

As for Le Riche -- well! He has fused to the role. He channels Clavigo. He is Clavigo. We never see a dancer doing steps, we see a man -- beautiful, dangerous, conflicted, living and loving and dying. We don't even always see every emotion played on his face -- as, in actuality, we would not see a real person's face express all his emotions. It's more in his bearing, an atmosphere around him, which changes according to whither he is leaning -- towards love or debauchery, for instance. The debauchery comes more easily for him the first time around, after the friend, Carlos, has foisted him away from Marie for a night of revelry. But the second time -- after Marie's death -- after a brief flirtation with Marie-Agnes Gillot's Stranger, he collapses, the anguish returning. (The big and brassy and imposing Gillot, as usual, breathes fire and creates it in the loins, not just of Carlos and Clavigo,but probably of every man in the audience. Er, especially those sitting in the front row! In so doing, she almost makes it irrelevant that this is one of the few points where Petit doesn't give the soloist much to work with, choreography wise. Fortunately, Gillot doesn't really need any help!)

Indeed, as essayed by Le Riche, anyway, we see the battle between, if you will, Clavigo's heart and his body in the disassociation between the two, almost from the get. His Siren's dance at the beginning, while it does seduce the young Marie, is almost at remove; physically it's charged, but emotionally it's distant. A little while after this, Carlos challenges Clavigo to -- is it a duet, is it a duel? When both men strip their jackets and proceed to joust and tussle and wrestle, it's presented as an entertainment to the court, but Clavigo's thrusts seem at times genuinely angry: Get away from me, punk, and stop blocking my heart.

In the bedroom scene in which he's but a dream conjured by Marie, Le Riche is of course unadulterated pure sinuous sensuality, draped in tight black short pants and a see-through black mesh shirt.

But by the end, where at the start his heart seemed not entirely convicted in the undulations of his body, now, when Carlos thrusts a rapier into his hand as Clavigo holds the dead Marie in his arms, so that he can parry with the charging Beaumarchais, his heart seems almost to have left his body, and joined hers somewhere -- he has absolutely no regard or care for his physical self, not putting up any defense as the brother's thrust hits home. I don't think this is just the choreography -- in the hero's expression, we seem to see Le Riche himself genuinely in a haze, with no idea of what's going on on stage beyond the lost love he cradles in his arms, even if it's his own imminent death charging at him full-bore.

In terms of cluing is in to what this death means for the overall arch of Petit's -- and Goethe's -- story, if Paquette fails us, Belingard delivers. As his friend lays dying, he carefully extracts two things: His own sword, and Clavigo's bloodied blouse. It reminded me of the virgin-destroyer taking bloodied undies to prove his conquest. And, indeed, whether Carlos's pleasure is homoerotic or just in what he believes is his conquest of Clavigo's soul, of lust over love, the image is of a virgin sacrifice. Only, perhaps what no one seems to know -- not Carlos, and not Marie's brother as hauls her body away, depriving Clavigo of even the solace of collapsing in death on his dead beloved's body -- is that Clavigo, in the last moment, will triumph. The submission of his libido to his heart proved by his pining over the dead body of Marie, and seeing her spirit, he gives his body one last tour, recalling its excesses of the past, before, back arched, supported by two feet on the ground and one arm, he reaches the other arm to Heaven, straining to find her again, which we now know he will, after the death of his body and all its urges.

Er, that would be a convenient place to conclude, but we'll take a cue from Le Riche, the dancer, who made sure to present the orchestra at the curtain call. Yared's score should be required listenng for the John Lanchberrys of this world, who, as in Lanchberry's score for Lar Lubovitch's "Othello" of a couple of years back, have given us -- and the dancers and choreographers -- only generalized emotional landscapes. Yared is operating more in the terrain of Stravinsky -- which is not necessarily to put him on the same high level as Stravinsky, but to say he is not stingy with the variety of notes he provides, nor with their narrative and character specificity. Petit is given a lot to work with, and, in turn, gives the dancers a choreography that is much more than generalized romantic, or elementary mime, but uses the many levels, and many different physical relations between partners. The dancers of course revel in this -- every single person on the stage was totally on the music. And under the direction of Emanno Florio, the Orchestra de l'Opera National de Paris didn't just play -- its musicians reacted and responded, as if they were a dancing partner. (Sitting in the front row, I could also see that they were having a smashing good time with the score.)

The brilliance of both set designer Jean-Michel Wilmotte and costumer Luisa Spinatelli was that they resisted the temptation to go high-fashion -- as, say, was the case for Petit's "Notre Dame de Paris," where the oh-so-mod wardrobe jarred with the period. Spinatelli's costumes were sparkling, with some clever touches -- the three-cornered black hats for Marie's mourners, for instance -- but mostly, she provided clear colors that allowed the characters to show in greater relief. And Wilmotte's sets were certainly grand, but simple because of their starkness. Ditto Marion Hewlett's lighting.

"Clavigo" continues at the Garnier through January 31. Le Riche and Osta perform again Thursday, Friday, Monday, and next Wednesday and Thursday nights.

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