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Flash Review 1, 3-5: Less is More Encore
Mixed Forecast for Belarbi's New "Hurlevent" on the Paris Opera

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- In reviewing a new dance that is neither a swish nor an air ball, all I can offer is a first impression which may change with additional viewings or as the ballet evolves. Alors: in his new evening-length "Hurlevent" for the Paris Opera Ballet, seen last night at the Garnier, POB etoile Kader Belarbi succeeds best when he concentrates on the minute, displaying a stylistically free-ranging flare for inventiveness. When he paints in broad strokes, he tends to slip into the generic.

The libretto for "Hurlevent" was adapted by Belarbi and Agathe Berman from Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights"; the approximate translation is "Howling Wind." The novel -- I'm going from the program notes, as it's been a long-time since I read the book -- is the story of the Earnshaws, the Lintons, and the tempest known as the orphan Heathcliff. Raised by the Earnshaws, Heathcliff falls in love with his playmate-adapted sister Catherine, who makes a fatal choice to marry Edgar Linton. Hilarity does not ensue. Catherine, who can't forget Heathcliff, dies after giving birth to Linton's daughter. Heathcliff vows to destroy everything around him, wreaking havoc on Catherine's envious brother Hindley, Edgar's sister who Heathcliff marries, their anemic son, and Catherine and Edgar's daughter Cathy.

Marie-Agnes Gillot and dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet in Kader Belarbi's "Hurlevent." Photograph by Icare courtesy Paris Opera Ballet.

Re-imagining this story in dance terms, Belarbi gets off to a good start. After Heathcliff's monk-like servant Joseph (last night, a very centered Jean-Marie Didiere) begins the tale from a shelf on the proscenium right by slowly emptying a sack of stones, indicating that what's about to unfold is a memory, about a hundred carnations thud to the stage, which is suddenly filled with light. Barely discernable at first, young Catherine and Heathcliff, last night Marie-Agnes Gillot and Nicolas Le Riche, snake through the flowers on their backs. It's hide-and-go-seek, only they seem to be hiding from the world which, for the rest of the ballet, will sap the life out of them. Both are barefoot, and these dancers specifically -- most winningly Gillot, childlike despite her towering stature -- perfectly evoke children in the wonder of innocent love. They play a game of tag that usually finishes with gentle wrestling, a cuddle, and a caressing embrace. Both are rough, and both are ready.

In the shadows lurks the morose, tortured Lindley (last night, Wilfried Romoli), Catherine's real and Heathcliff's adapted brother, as well as a more sticky moroseness which becomes somewhat of a narrative quicksand by the second act, sinking all but the buoyant Gillot, even stifling the usually unbridled Le Riche. Whether hanging from the permanently windswept tree upstage right (the most fixed feature of Peter Pabst's sets) or, Crucifixion-like, carrying two staffs on his shoulders, Romoli here seems physically to be reprising his triumphant hunchback in Roland Petit's "Notre Dame de Paris" of earlier this season. Choreographically, he isn't given much else to do besides moping around and occasionally tangling with Heathcliff.

Gillot fares better in what Belarbi gives her to work with. When Catherine is dressed up and thrust into the Lintons' ball, she isn't quite ready for primetime; she's still a kid. As the corseted adults watch in increasing fascination, she turns their (Freudian? Belarbi's later multiple uses of it seem to indicate such) couch into her own personal jungle gym. Hiding behind it, she sends her fingers scurrying across the top, then peeps her head above, a cat hunting her own tail. She squeals in nervous delight -- choreographer and composer make a smart choice and cut the music. Belarbi also knows how to use this ballerina's many special gifts: In one phrase, Gillot plants her straight leg on the floor, her bent one on an arm of the couch, and cranes her neck under the knee to peer out with her head -- peekie-boo, I see you!

But Belarbi brings out more than the anticipated gifts from Gillot. At the Opera, this principal dancer is used mostly -- at least in what I've seen in two seasons -- in roles that emphasize her towering physical presence. Here, Gillot gets to venture into peri-land, her billowing white gown about the only saving element in a second act where even though she's the only one who's actually dead when it opens, the other main characters seem sapped from the get (a failing in the choreography, not the dancers), taking much of the wind out of "Hurlevent" 's sails.

Most debilitating to the narrative is what happens to Le Riche. As seen earlier this year in Petit's "Clavigo," this is a dancer-actor able to portray the darker emotions -- vengence, hate, anger -- with nuance and shading, not to mention energy. By the second act of "Hurlevent," except for the concluding Heavenly reunion he also is reduced to moping around. To kill Lindley, he merely thrusts a staff into him, which he'd already done earlier without fatal results. More important, this action feels hollow because we never know exactly WHY Heathcliff hates Lindley.

Edgar, Catherine's widower, dies most mysteriously -- literally by overcoating, as, in a sort of Seven Veils dance in reverse, he dons a dozen or so jackets and vests before sitting on the couch and expiring, dropping his chin. Healthcliff lugs him over the back of the couch, which then becomes a marriage altar for the anemic Linton and the sprightly Cathy (i.e., his/Isabelle's son and Edgar/Catherine's daughter). Linton is either sketched or played (by Gil Isoart) in two dimensions (I'm not sure where the weakness lies), while Muriel Zusperreguy is given slightly more to work with (choreography, instead of just stereotypical mime) as Cathy and delivers. At any rate, the kids are no sooner betrothed then Linton dies too and, voila, when the circle of wedding/funeral guests clears, Edgar has re-surfaced on the couch just in time for Linton to be plopped on top of him.

What makes all this second act carnage feel just like so much taking-care-of-business to get us to the lovers' reunion in Heaven is that with the exception of Catherine, we're given too little of these characters to care what happens to them. Jean-Guillaume Bart actually transcends the mostly cliche'd movement he's given for Edgar (the one thrilling exception being when his feet appear from nowhere to grasp Heathcliff's throat), investing the dance of the overcoats with touching lyricism. Likewise, Eleonora Abbagnato invests passion in Edgar's sister Isabelle, Healthcliff's marriage to whom is supposedly part of the revenge plot. But she disappears after being forcibly made love to by Heathcliff in the first act (this we know because of the elastic ribbon which suddenly appears, pulled-down-panty-like, between her feet).

The dramatic heavy-handedness extends too to Philippe Hersant's commissioned score, played last night by the Opera Orchestra conducted by Vello Pahn. The music is serviceable, if not quite Prokoviev's "Romeo & Juliet" in its original force. But do we really need the howling winds -- in stereophonic sound, yet? Come to think of it, do we really need the scrim-projected rustling leaves and clouds? Isn't it really up to the choreographer to summon these larger forces with his steps? The program notes seem to indicate that such was Belarbi's goal. I just think his ability at painting grandly isn't quite as advanced as his gift for drawing intimately. Fortunately, the ballet ends with an exhibition of the latter: The bare-chested Le Riche drifts in front of four stones lit like pyres until the gossamer Gillot floats in and nestles her back into his chest. They dance. They sit. They part. It's an echo of their opening scramble, now become timeless: Their arms float together and they link hands, their spirits permanently reunited before their bodies gently fall to the ground.

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