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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' -- versatility.

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 Sabrina Mallem.

"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 follow her.

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 never wavered.

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 with Emmanuelle 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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