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Flash Review 1, 3-20: All Dolled Up
Sasha Waltz, "Coppelia," and the Manipulation of the Body

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- The rear approach to the Garnier Opera House is guarded by 18 women in bronze, hoisting lamps above their bared torsos, some with their eyes open, some closed. Continue about a hundred feet up the rue Halevy on a recent Saturday afternoon, and you would have encountered a vigil of a different sort, with live women, some with lampshades on their heads, protesting the latest billboard fronting the trendy Galeries Lafayette: It showed a woman on a pedestal with a lampshade covering her head, plugged in to a wall socket. The activists were objecting to the objectification of women represented by the billboard, but a frequenter of the ballet at the Garnier would have found another feature to object to: The model's pencil-thin body, compressed even more by her skintight black catwoman's suit. The figure resembled, in its thinness, those of some of the Paris Opera Ballet dancers featured Saturday night in Patrice Bart's re-imagined "Coppelia," which envisions a swarthy Dark Prince of a Coppelius whose objective is to turn Swanilda into a mannequin. A lighter vision of humankind -- and a healthier representation of the human body -- was revealed Friday at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt in Sasha Waltz's "S."

"S" is relevant to discuss in the context of nudity in dance because Waltz proves that it's not the nudity which is problematic, but whether the choreographer has justified it compositionally. Notwithstanding a career-making performance by one of its stars, the context of Bart's "Coppelia," which is less about the disillusionment of Coppelius than his scheme to literally objectify Swanilda, makes it relevant to consider ballet's hyper-thin body standard in the context of a review of a ballet, particularly as there were prominent reminders of that standard to be seen on the stage Saturday.

Perhaps egged on by the early exit of one spectator who gave the performers a Bronx cheer as he exited, I winced when Waltz's 2000 "S" began with one solitary naked guy flat onstage, joined in his nudity post-haste by the seven other performers after they'd one-by-one caressed the first man. Even as I winced, I checked myself: Was I just a prudish American viewer unused to seeing naked bodies onstage?

Yet even as Waltz paraded her dancers' bodies, she was soon satirizing herself. A man slowly, rapturously strips a woman down from her 19th century ball gown regalia until she's stark naked; lays her gently downstage left; then steps back and begins to divest himself of his matching white shirt and trousers. But he gets no farther than the shirt when he's interrupted by the entrance of another woman, and freezes as if caught in the act, meekly laying down sideways upstage from his partner, resting his head in his hands and going to sleep. This interloper, who's entered rather jauntily in high heels and short skirts, then strips to the buff.

The satire continues later in this first of three sequences when the first woman, after succumbing to a sort of delirium tremens (along with other performers now on the stage), nestles into the man, who has been watching concernedly, and he suddenly gets the shakes too before both disappear into the stage. (There is much disappearing and re-appearing in this fashion, accomplished by a rectangular platform downstage left with gaps on all sides.)

Once the ensemble is on stage, and contributing initially to my skepticism, much of the dancers' movement consists of body spasms while on their backs, as if in allergic reaction to the surface. When I was able to wrench my attention from all the lovely flesh and look up, there at the rear of the stage, projected in motion and sometimes freeze-frame on a screen, was the ocean. A primeval meaning, then, explains the bodies' nakedness and their writhing like fish suddenly cast onto dry land.

Next it is playtime, as the dancers don bright (red) and simple (black shorts and bras for one pair of women) costumes, and begin with a variation on Simon says, except that both leader and followers retain only jerky control of their bodies. Now the screen shows a pier. And, on the isolated rectangular platform, a highway occasionally rolls, taking performers with it as they slip below the platform through the crevices.

That road apparently leads to Africa, or at least that's what the projections of the final section suggest, featuring a fertile plain with bushes. overlaid with moving figures, animal and human. I particularly loved the rhino whose curiosity as he examined the landscape was evident even in outline.

The final destination of Waltz's journey in "S" appears to be Bausch-land, as what unfolds in this third section is so outlandish that at the end you find yourself laughing not at Waltz's tanztheater, but with her.

One couple presents itself Butoh-like. I usually wince when "Butoh-like" is used to describe anything slow, but here I think Waltz may be having fun with the form. It's not just that the masked partners navigate the stage at a snail's pace, nor their ivory (plaster of Paris?) masks, but that their matching, rag-like costumes proceed to melt and drip all over the stage until the woman's breast is revealed. (One good guess suggested by a colleague: That their clothes were made of rising bread dough.) The man is hounded offstage, screaming, by a guy whipping him with a bunch of wheat stalks.

That same performer also suffers his own meltdown, turning into a human milk fountain, spouting it up over the himself, the stage, and the other performers, one of whom decides to take a shower under his dribble. Pilobolus-like, the dancers slip and slide in the milk. But it doesn't devolve into a free-for all. Everyone leaves or stills until the shower-woman (the 19th-century-gowned woman of the first act) makes her way to the rectangular platform and, her upper body naked, claims the dwindling light with her glistening beauty.

. . . . I've ended my review of "S" this way both because of the startling, simple beauty of this final image and to set up baggage I may have been bringing with me to the Paris Opera Ballet's dancing of Patrice Bart's 1996 "Coppelia" the next night. But first: The expressive and eloquent performers of "S" were Lisa Densem, Nicola Mascia, Grayson Millwood, Joakim NaBi Olsson, Virgis Puodziunas, Claudia de Serpa Soares, Takako Suzuki, and Laurie Young.

. . . . Patrice Bart may not have been actively trying to get us to think of ballet's unique and often abnormal beauty standard for females. But by focusing on a Dracula-like, younger Coppelius intent on turning a living breathing human being, Swanilda (on Saturday, Delphine Moussin) into a doll encased in a giant storybook, he made such associations inevitable. Indeed the first thing we see is Ezio Toffolutti's curtain covered with diagrams of the naked female body. So theme-wise, I would have been thinking body, and body image, regardless of whether I'd seen eight well-toned naked modern dancers the night before.

What I saw on the ballet stage was disturbing. The dancers performed with their usual unbridled brio -- particularly Moussin, who added a new fire to the sublime languidness she usually charms us with onstage. But some of the featured women looked unnaturally skinny. I have no idea whether in this case, it's just their body types. But I do know this is a problem in ballet generally, still; that I noticed it more Saturday than heretofore at the Opera; and that it seemed unusual enough to at least warrant a red flag. And to warrant issuing a reminder, especially to suggestible young dancers, that you don't need to sacrifice your health to be a star ballet dancer.

Although it's a little murky in Bart's re-conception, the sacrifice that this Coppelius desires of Swanilda is no less than her life. It's a sort of Coppelia meets Dracula meets House of Wax. This Coppelius, more suave than Arthur Saint-Leon's in the traditional 1870 ballet, is abetted by a sort of double, Spalanzani, apparently meant to represent the absent-minded mad scientist qualities of the Dr. Coppelia in the original. (Although this also is unclear; is Spalanzani, portrayed with complexity by Fabrice Bourgeois, a clueless bumbler or in fact the master-pupeteer, manipulating Coppelius?) This leaves Bart's Coppelius free to play the seducer, and Jose Martinez does this so effectively that we can understand why Swanilda (whose response to him as interpreted by Moussin is ambivalent) is tempted from her steady beau Frantz.

This Frantz, too (on Saturday, the lanky and clean-lined Jean-Guillaume Bart), has been re-imagined; no longer the bumpkin ready to believe that a mannequin is the hottest new babe on the street (Patrice Bart has eliminated the "Coppelia" doll of the original), he is himself a budding scientist, a junior Coppelius. Instead of perturbing Swanilda by his infatuation with the doll of a woman, he chagrins her by insisting she admire a large suitcase full of his collection of pinioned butterflies.

Thematically Patrice Bart's re-imagined "Coppelia" is not a re-imagining at all, but a ballet which, if it doesn't rip off, at least borrows liberally from other literature about men who love women so much they want to turn them into zombies or pinioned butterflies, from Bram Stoker's "Dracula" to John Fowles's "The Collector."

Choreographically, I suspect Bart owes a lot to Martinez, who owns this role. Normally a young buck in the POB pantheon, here he's required to age and slow down just a tad, hunching his shoulders, sloppifying his spine, quirkifying his jumps, distracting his eyes, and skewing the carriage of his head, to which some grey has been added. From the opium pipe he smokes in the beginning to the brandy he manically downs glass by glass as he prepares to subdue Swanilda, this is a man addled by dope and dreams into a world where his perceptions are prompted more by hallucinations than reality. This Coppelius could easily have been played as a type, and I hadn't seen much in Martinez's previous acting to indicate a contrary interpretation, but his acting here is nuanced. He always seems a step behind real-time, looking at everyone else through an inverse funnel. You are alternately scared of him and for him. He creates sympathy, something which only the most subtle of villain portrayers are able to do.

The rest of the choreography, however, is a puzzle. If Coppelius is refracted through a post-Freudian haze, making him elusive to both the audience and Swanilda, the townspeople, right up to Swanilda, are not given so much to work with. For their movement, Bart creates in the 19th century style of Saint-Leon and his contemporaries. So he has, on the one hand, abandoned the story-line at least as it pertains to the principal characters, but, on the other, has not been able to come up with a replacement for the traditional choreography. In developing a language to meet his new story, he stops at Coppelius. This is even more obvious in a POB season that has included Roland Petit's glam "Notre Dame de Paris"; a Petit "Clavigo" boasting an idiosyncratic, plot-specific way of moving not just for the leads but for the ensemble as well; and a Mats Ek "Giselle" which not only re-imagines the title character as village idiot and moves the second act from the swamps to the asylum, but invents a whole new vocabulary of the mad for the female inmates.

What we have, then, is a "Coppelia" that wants to go deeper than the original, but which, notwithstanding the performances of its stars, is a double-failure: It sacrifices the very real tragedy in the original -- the needless crushing by a capricious girl of a harmless eccentric -- and doesn't really replace it with any other moral. Intellectually, Patrice Bart's 1996 "Coppelia" may be on its surface more ambitious than Sasha Waltz's "S," especially as pertains to the subject of objectified women. But in terms of movement originality and cohesive structure, Waltz with her one letter says so much more about body and other images.

(Author's note: Speaking of images, the protest outside the Galeries Lafayette was organized by La Meute. You can read more about La Meute, in English, including examples of sexism in French advertising, and even sign a petition against such, by clicking here.)

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