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Flash Review Journal, 6-5: The Unseeing Observer
La vraie danse francaise, from the Bastille to the Menagerie
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003 The Dance Insider
PARIS -- Poor Bob Gottlieb.
The New York Observer dance critic flies all the way to Paris only
to see one ballet he knew he wasn't going to like (Maurice Bejart's
"Le Presbytere") and another anyone who's seen a season at the Paris
Opera Ballet could have told him would have disappointed (Patrice
Bart's "Le Petite Danseuse de Degas"). And as if he hasn't suffered
enough, immediately upon his return to Gotham he trudges out to
BAM for a spectacle by the most well-known self-promoter in European
ballet, Jean-Christophe Maillot, and, taking a page from George
Bush, condemns the entire pantheon of French ballet based on three
bad experiences. J'accuse!
"Forget Freedom -- French
Concepts Trash Ballet" runs the headline over Gottlieb's May
19 piece, which begins, "The French have a lot to answer
for, and I'm not talking about Iraq." This apparently has become
a popular pastime among New York critics -- taking the White House's
French-bashing as a cue to deride facets of the French culture they've
never liked, be it Johnny Hallyday, the French rocker recently derided
by the New Yorker's Anthony Lane before Lane praised his work in
the latest film from Patrice Leconte, or, here, Gottlieb taking
pour ol' Bejart out for another thrashing. Even conceding Gottlieb
is right about "Le Presbytere," which
I don't -- I think Gottlieb totally missed the spirit
and intent of the work -- by judging the entire French scene on
the basis of three ballets, he parrots the willful ignorance of
Mr. Bush in forgetting France's long support of the US over one
disagreement with his administration.
By Mr. Gottlieb's thinking,
I would be entitled to pop over to New York, see an all-Peter Martins
evening peppered by David Parsons' "Pied Piper" and on this basis,
condemn American Ballet as unimaginative and unresourceful. As it
happens, I am 'stuck' here in Paris, where, at the Paris Opera Ballet
alone, I have been able over the last two seasons to see ballets
by Mats Ek, Pina Bausch, Roland Petit, Jiri Kylian, John Neumeier,
Michel Fokine, Angelin Preljocaj, Marius Petipa, Balanchine, Nureyev,
Jerome Robbins, and, yes, Maurice Bejart.
Contrast this with the
menu of Balanchine (fine), and the, to borrow Mr. Gottlieb's word,
plague of Martins works a subscriber at the New York City Ballet
must endure. Slightly more variety is to be found at the Dance Theatre
of Harlem, while at American Ballet Theatre, middling and undeveloped
artists like Stanton Welch and Natalie Weir are presented as innovative.
But let's get to Bejart.
In fact, let's get to BAD Bejart -- not "Le Presbytere," which I
saw here too and loved, but the 1992 "Miraculous Mandarin," which
just entered the POB repertoire on an all-Bejart evening I caught
last night at the Bastille. This is Bartok's conception re-cast
in a milieu suggesting Al Capone's 1920s Chicago (Wilfried Romoli's
wide-lapelled gangster chief) or Berlin (Alessio Carbone's drag
queen-prostitute). Laurent Hilaire's Mandarin shows up in blue Mao
regalia, of course, and, with his usual dignity, almost rescues
the ballet with his Noh-like traversing of the stage, manic hands,
and resilience in the face of being beaten, stabbed, and hung. I
hated it -- and wondered how a Bartok estate which stopped
Grace Ellen Barkey's much more literal interpretation let this one
pass -- BUT, in context, I applaud it.
I applaud that the Opera
gives its dancers and audiences such a breadth of work to attack
and consider. Remember, movie-goers have, in Paris, more than 300
screens to feed their varied tastes; ballet lovers have just a handful
of stages and one home company. (The Opera also, by the way, regularly
hosts two visiting companies -- last year including La Scala Ballet,
this year Hamburg and the Nederlands company, and next year the
Bolshoi.) As well, this "Mandarin" was delivered in the context
of an all-Bejart evening which demonstrated his -- and the dancers'
The world premiere,
"Phrases de Quatuor," was the winner, a gem of a 14-minute piece
in which, as seen last night, Manuel Legris tries frantically to
get control of an aural landscape which includes Pierre Henry's
atmospheric soundscape and a corps of four women intent on knitting
a red garment. He takes one of their chairs, and they fall over
them in various positions; when they move their knitting activity
to the barre, he touches it and legs rise, while pelvises fold over
the barre. He picks up a mic and the women stretch it into a square
behind him, before twining it around him. It starts to rain, and
they urgently grab a white tarp and throw it over him. His hyper-activity
is balanced by the calm and attention to their task of the women,
last night Aurore Cordellier, Emilie Cozette, Eve Grinsztajn, and
"Webern, Opus V," created
on and at the request of Opera dancers Jacqueline Rayet and Jean-Pierre
Bonnefous in 1967 and receiving its first revival here in a while,
was danced last night by Agnes Letestu and Jose Martinez. There
are the looks and subtle hints at a relationship that usually pop
up in a duet like this, especially when the musicians are positioned
on the stage, but there's also a suggested tension, as if, even
in their moments of togetherness, the couple is straining, afraid
that something might break. I suspect the work might have more impact
on more expressive dancers.
And finally, there was
Bejart's "Firebird," created on the Opera in 1970. I don't know
about you, but until last night I hadn't seen a Firebird which didn't
make me roll my eyes, for its outlandish costumes and set, scenario,
and choreography. But I love the Stravinsky music -- and it's this,
not the traditional scenario, that Bejart treats, as played last
night by the Opera orchestra, conducted by Vello Pahn. There is
a Firebird (last night, the less than firey Benjamin Pech), but
really the firebird -- physically and conceptually -- is interpreted
by the entire cast, most winningly in this cast by Fanny Fiat, who
seems to attract light wherever she goes on stage, demanding you
After such an evening,
only an unseeing observer could write, as Gottlieb does, that "Bejart
is one of the prime begetters of dance Eurotrash."
Not that there isn't
Eurotrash to be had around these parts! I'll admit I was dreading
dance in such a mode at Tuesday's opening of the Inaccoutumes 15
festival at the Menagerie de Verre, a modern dance mecca here. The
premise of Fanny de Chaille's "Underwear -- for a politics of the
parade" was to take eight of the hottest male choreographers in
France's new generation of modern dancemakers and parade them on
a runway, fashion show-style.
My fear was dispelled
immediately, when Jerome Andrieu entered with a light-green fabric
which, perambulating up and down the runway, he used variously as
a bandana, blindfold, gag, sash, and more. Throughout the 65-minute
dance, whenever he was on stage Andrieu's focus and seriousness
Other stand-outs --
all wearing white t-shirt and blue jeans -- included Maxime Rigobert,
whose hips seemed just slightly out of alignment as he walked, endearingly
so; Christian Rizzo, a stubbled Pagliaci who jumped up and down
waving his arms and smiling artificially at the cave-like entrance
at one end of the runway before spilling slips of paper with words
all over the floor, sweeping them up, and then repeating the jumping;
and the lanky Gaetan Bulourde, who sung falsetto and, later, sidled
along the edge of the white paper runway arms outstretched, as if
straddling the ledge of a cliff.
But the real star of
the evening was Cathy Olive, whose simple lighting saved the evening
from being too over-the-top, notwithstanding show-off Boris Charmatz.
Which is not to say Olive's scheme was simplistic. A longtime collaborator
Huynh, Olive specializes in refracted light. The men
entered from an open rectangle between two panels of black cloth
at one side of the runway; at the rear of this entrance a triangular
hole was cut into the center of a curtain, another into a curtain
behind that, and from this dimension the light shone. On the other
end of the runway, a simple mobile white screen subdued the white
light behind it. Besides varying the levels, that was it.
The men may not have
had the time in their curtain call to give Olive the customary gesture
of appreciation, but she was definitely the star of the evening.
"Underwear" closes tonight
at the Menagerie de Verre. Inaccoutumes 15 continues through June
21, with Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion opening tomorrow. The
Spectacle de Ballets Maurice Bejart continues at the Opera Bastille
through June 19.
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