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Flash Film Review, 1-30: "Violette
et Mr. B`'
Et Jerome Robbins, Nicolas Le Riche, Isabel Guerin, Elisabeth Platel, Lucia Lacarra,
Vladimir Malakhov, Margeret Illman....
"Balanchine told me: 'You have to
re-do this piece, and once you've jumped up there, you have to stay up there.'
And I did."
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider
PARIS -- "Violette et Mr. B," the
new documentary from Dominique Delouche that chronicles the great New York City
Ballet star as she teaches the ballets of Balanchine and Jerome Robbins to er,
today's, er, stars, is an odd admixture of the satisfying and the frustrating,
the pure and, I'm guessing, the political. The star comes through, passing on
not just the steps to dances like"Liebeslieder Walzes" and "Dances at a Gathering,"
but the images with which they were taught her by the choreographers, as well
as summations of their intentions. But the supporting stars seem to have sometimes
been selected more as a calculation to attract youngsters to the film than for
their aptness as pupils of Balanchine and Robbins ballets. Thus what should be
the film's strength -- an insider's view to how dances are passed on and explained,
dancer to dancer -- is not always served, as dancers either past their primes,
or demonstrably not open to a Balanchinean way of thinking don't always show us
Ms. Verdy at her effective best.
Delouche takes a very raw approach
to his subject: We basically see a very animated, vibrant Verdy -- invariably
dolled up in chic Parisian style -- in the studio in six segments with soloists
or couples that could have been plucked from an International Stars of the Twenty-First
Century gala, albeit with a tlt towards the French: Elisabeth Maurin, Isabel Guerin,
Monique Loudieres, and Elisabeth Platel with Nicolas Le Riche, all of Paris Opera
Ballet; Lucia Lacarra and Cyril Pierre, of San Francisco Ballet; and Margaret
Illman and Vladimir Malakhov, partners at the Stuttgart Ballet.
The real jewels, though, are the
pearls of wisdom and sagacity that issue from Verdy's lips as she teaches four
Balanchine and two Robbins ballets, often using their words. To wit:
"Your hands are not dirty. You must
show them like they are orchids."
"Balanchine would say, 'Don't save
anything -- what are you saving it for?'
"Robbins was Balanchine's best student.
There was wild admiration between the two, but also a measure of challenge. Balanchine
thought he may have been betrayed and surpassed by his pupil."
Teaching "Liebeslieder Walzer" (1960)
to Lacarra and Pierre, Verdy emphasizes, "Don't ever forget that these dances
are popular dances, like folk dancing, and you have to remember to stay close
to the earth.... Create the feeling you belong to a community. The feet have to
sty very light, but connected to the soil. " The couple appears stymied, finally
getting it when Verdi suggests: "Think about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers."
What should make a documentary, and
this documentary in particular, different from what Verdy might say in an interview
is that she's talking not to journalists but to dancers, with whom she shares
a language, and in the midst of their shared passion, teaching them the works.
In effect, the viewer is being placed inside a studio, witness to an exchange
that usually only dancers get to see. What makes the results mixed is the selection
of the dancers, which seems to have been guided by a star system, perhaps also
influenced by where the production money came from. (The films producers include
Les Films du Prieure and Arte France Cinema.)
The heavy proportion of POB dancers,
compared to the noticeable absence of any current New York City Ballet dancers,
might be explained by the fact that the French television network Arte is a producer.
How, though, to explain the boggling selection of Elisabeth Maurin, the only of
the four female POB etoiles featured who isn't retired from the company, but who
should be. Maurin, in fact, seems to contradict the Balanchine spirit. She always
seems to be saving it for something, and at the current stage of her career, anyway,
she dances stiffly and is anything but the dancer to achieve Balanchinean hyper-extensions.
Learning a solo from the Emeralds
section of the 1967 "Jewels" in the film, Maurin not only dances woodenly and
with reserve, but regards Verdy in the same manner, giving little back physically
or verbally. Why a current dancer -- for example etoile Agnes Letestu or premiere
dancer Delphine Moussin, both of whom excel at Balanchine -- wasn't selected in
place of Maurin is a head-scratcher.
While he does more than nod -- in
fact he wears an atypical, decidedly un-Russian toothy grin as Verdy rehearses
him and Illman in the 1960 "Tschaikovsky pas de deux" -- Vladimir Malakhov is,
again, an odd choice because these days, anyway, he holds back and cuts corners.
Illman, albeit known as a more purely classical ballerina with Stuttgart and before
that National Ballet of Canada, at least shows the spunk required of the woman
in this pas de deux, and throws herself into the style, which is after all, more
typically classical. (A nice anecdote is Verdy's explaining how she found out
about the music from a colleague and turned Balanchine on to it, hardly expecting
that he would create the role on her -- in these circumstances, everyone seems
to have expected the nod to go to Diana Adams -- and her delight when he informed
her she was his choice, partnered with Conrad Ludlow.)
The other retired POB etoiles --
Isabel Guerin, Elisabeth Platel, and Monique Loudieres -- all avidly engage with
Verdy, physically and with their minds and souls.
Guerin particularly is fascinating
to watch, learning the part of the girl in the purple dress from "Dances at a
Gathering" originated by Verdy in 1969. As a regular guest artist with NYCB, and
the wife of NYCB Robinson stager Jean-Pierre Frohlich, she stands apart among
the POB dancers as having a relationship with Robbins that, if not quite as intimate
as Verdy's, is still, as the French say, "sympa." Verdy emphasizes that for Robbins,
expressiveness was in the hands, which could indicate, for example, the woman's
receptivity or not to her partner's advances,as in a single closing or opening
of the fist. Dancing the part, Guerin projects feelings concentrated in the torso,
and emanating out through her hands. She doesn't appear, actually, to need instruction,
but she wants it, pressing Verdy about how she danced the role, and whether her
own interpretation was right and correct. Indeed, after the frustration of watching
the still-active Maurin, if there is any frustration attached to watching Guerin,
it is the knowledge that the POB's idiotic automatic retire-at-40 rule means we
won't be seeing this etoile here soon.
Loudieres, too, engages with Verdy
more as a fellow teacher, as the latter teachers her "Sonatine," in the role Verdy
created in 1975.
It's the segment in which Verdy teaches
the duet she originated with Peter Martins in Robbins's 1970 "In the Night" to
Le Riche and Platel that is the most intriguing to watch. The pair rehearse a
segment -- lyrical and with lifts -- again and again, as Verdy gently scolds Le
Riche that he is not giving enough. (We also see a brief clip of Verdy with Martins.)
Yet Le Riche, who might just be the best male dancer in the world today save Desmond
Richardson, also appears the most natural of the lot; he's the only one who has
shown up for rehearsal looking like a dancer usually looks in rehearsal, in overalls
with one strap over the shoulder. But more important, he is absolutely rapt --
in a pupil-teacher way, in love with Verdy. There is nothing blase about his attention
Platel, though in age she may not
be in dancing prime, pours her heart and body into the rehearsal.
As well, here we get to the core
of what is unique about not just the Balanchine, but Robbins style, by seeing
non-American dancers struggle through it. Verdy, who can sympathize with her Parisian
charges because she too tackled the Americans after training in the school of
the Paris Opera Ballet, tells them to shake the classical Paris Opera "maitrise,"
or technical accomplishment as taught there. With Balanchine, she confesses, she
too had to learn to get rid of certain rigid temperaments, and had an even harder
time in this respect with the Robbins.
This segment, then, indicates what
I would have liked to see more of: While placing Verdy just with 21-year-olds
might have sacrificed something in terms of the intellectual exchange, more eager
30-year-olds like LeRiche and even better, say, a Damien Woetzel from City Ballet
could have been utilized instead of Malakhov. And to the extent older dancers
contribute because they can dialogue better with Verdy, another -- say, a Wendy
Whelan -- could have been substituted for the unengaged Maurin. One really gets
the feeling that Delouche doesn't pay that much attention to today's dancers,
and simply asked company directors to nominate the dancers for his film, with
many responding by sending their current stars.
While "Violette et Mr. B" has other
gaps -- clips of Verdy herself performing are parcelled out stingily, and usually
fuzzy, and interviews with colleagues like Helgi Tomasson (who says Verdy taught
him how to play with the music) and Roland Petit fly by before they can make an
impression -- the biggest mystery here is why no dancers from the company in which
both Violette and Mr. B made their marks are featured. That said, especially for
dancers who might not have the opportunity to work with her directly, the chance
to see and hear Verdy, channelling Balanchine and Robbins -- and, pricelessly,
even demonstrating -- still makes "Violette et Mr. B" must viewing.
(Notes: Special thanks to Anne-Marie
Deyris for assistance in interpreting the French. To see what else we've written
on the ballets and dancers cited above, just enter their names in the search engine
on our Home page.)
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