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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."

--Violette Verdy

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 to her.

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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