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Flash Review Journal, 6-19: Cripples
Stirring Spectacle from Aurelie Dupont and Raimond Hoghe

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- She's been out with an injury since September, but it took only one night to remind the Paris Opera Ballet audience that Aurelie Dupont remains the company's reigning ballerina, a dancer who communicates not by flourishing fouettes but by a presence of body and soul that engages her audience as surely as it pushes her surrounding players beyond themselves. The ballet was Kenneth MacMillan's 1974 "Manon" (to music by Massenet), the occasion was technically part of the international MacMillan celebration, but most of all, Tuesday's performance at the Garnier celebrated the transformative power of a ballerina.

Despite the havoc wreaked on the men who swirl around her like moths to flame, Manon, as envisioned by Abbe Prevost in his 1731 "L'Histoire de Chevalier Des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut" and by MacMillan, is essentially guileless. It takes a guileless ballerina to portray her truly, sidestepping a narrative which might imply contrivance: She falls as easily into a liaison with the young des Grieux as she is then lured away from his bed by the jewels and furs (not to mention a handsome present to her brother, Lescaut) offered by Monsieur de G.M., before returning to des Grieux. Coaxed by Manon and Lescaut, des Grieux cheats at cards against Monsieur de G.M. the ruse is discovered, Lescaut shot and killed, and Manon sent off to a penal colony in New Orleans with Lescaut following as her 'husband.' He rescues her from the grasps of a lecherous jailer, only to see her die, exhausted, in flight.

As in her mentally retarded Giselle in Mats Ek's version of the ballet of the same name, Dupont uses her radiant innocence, this time to help us see the story from Manon's innocent perspective. She eagerly accepts M. de G.M.'s furs and his embrace, but can't depart with him without stopping to smell the sheets on which she and des Grieux have just made love. Of course that's MacMillan's choreography, but we believe it because Dupont makes it a private, not melodramatic moment. When she accepts Lescaut's suggestion to enlist des Grieux in the rigged poker game, handing him some cards to hide in a pocket, it's after she's re-accepted him as her lover, thus the poker game seems a practical way to give them some means before she deserts M. de G.M. In the end, when she tries to keep up with des Grieux as they flee the authorities, running up and down the stage after him with flagging strength, it's as much to please him as to save her own skin. And, demonstrating the way Dupont invests her whole body, not just legs arms and face with a character and an action, we see her exhaustion not through feint steps but a limpness gradually spreading through all her muscles. Fatigue.

The couple is fleeing because des Grieux has just stabbed the magistrate as he made moves on Manon. This deed is not just accepted as a fait accompli by Manon, who returns to and lingers over the body in disbelief that he's dead, a regret -- not just that they're in trouble, but that he's killed a man -- that infects des Grieux as well.

And here's the other marker of a true ballerina that Dupont demonstrates: upping the ante for her fellows. Dupont's des Grieux Tuesday fell to Jean-Guillaume Bart, a principal with a clean form but who all-too-often displays an anti-septic aspect. Opposite (and reacting to) Dupont, what normally seems lack of expression came across as tense, struggling containment, for example as a flustered des Grieux weaves around the parlor of the bordello where the bejeweled Manon and M. de G.M. have appeared. Or when, kneeling downstage center as the curtain falls, he cradles the just-expired Manon in his arms and across his lap and we see his lips move in agony as he keans over her death.

Also upping the anti -- in perhaps the most important role, kinetically -- was Kader Belarbi as Lescaut. After he enters the bordello with des Grieux already inebriated, what ensues in Lescaut's duet with his mistress (Stephanie Romberg) is not slapstick but, really, a study in the importance of timing and balance to partnering.

Typically, inebriation is marked on stage by stumbling and perhaps a goofy expression. But MacMillan -- and Belarbi understands this -- uses it to retard the whole body and show the effect this has on the partnering. For example, too late to catch her gracefully, he ends up scooping his partner up by her armpits with the crooks of his elbows. Walter Terry, in his "Ballet Guide" (Popular Library, 1977), describes this duet as "a brilliantly constructed fusion of virtuosic ballet technique with virtuosic lurchings, falls, and totterings in a scene which seems to call for the introduction of a new term into the ballet vocabulary: grand pas d'ivresse (drunkeness)."

With all due credit for this interpretation to the veteran Belarbi -- who originated the role when the ballet entered the Paris Opera Ballet repertoire in 1990 -- the precision of this duet, or the ballet's retaining it, obviously owes something to Monica Parker, the Benesh notator (and head of the Benesh organization) who staged it this time around, assisted by Patricia Ruanne, a former partner to and rehearsal director for Nureyev. Thus we have yet another demonstration of how critical dance notation is to retaining choreographic nuance and the choreographer's intentions. Belarbi learned the role from MacMillan, but future generations won't have that opportunity, and notation makes sure correct interpretation is not left to chance.

Speaking of altered bodily states, Raimond Hoghe doesn't hide the hump on his back, so it's appropriate to began a consideration of his lecture-performance last week at the Menagerie de verre with the way that hump affects his carriage. In fact, it makes it hard to take your eyes of him. I'm not speaking just of when he takes his shirt off, turns his back to us, and scales around and over the hump with a green ruler-sized stick. But it adds a lilt to his gait that makes even a perambulation of the circumference of the menagerie's concrete space, with no prop but a magnifying glass, riveting.

The magnifying glass, and a doll-house (shades of Dan Hurlin) complete with lawn introduced later, suggest Hoghe is trying to say something about perspective. But the most disturbing is not the way he looks, but rather, how he appears to look at the way he looks. In a section set to Yiddish singer Joseph Schmidt, Hoghe tells us he identifies with Schmidt, persecuted by the Nazis because they didn't like his size, because Hoghe is small too. Before showing an excerpt of a piece on the effects of AIDS on the body, he 'acknowledges' that he is not beautiful.

Paradoxically, and after insisting that this is 'not therapy,' the way he then caresses his naked back with the stick (after telling us some Asian arts use the stick to circumscribe the performing space) indicates that in fact, he's quite at home with his body, whatever he may think of its aesthetic appeal.

Aesthetically, that gait -- clearly dictated by how the large hump skews his spinal column and/or hips, and it is large -- takes even an ordinary piece of silliness such as a '60s-style go-go dance and makes it magical. (The music -- recordings by Edith Piaf, Cass Elliot, Josephine Baker, Marlene Dietrich, Dalida, Jacques Brel, and others -- also helps.)

Just before this performance, I'd been worrying over how now that little chunks of my teeth seem to be falling off monthly, nobody would ever love me. (There's that growing liberty paunch, too; running, even all the way up the stairs to Sacre Coeur, doesn't really help you lose weight if you reward yourself with a chocolate-almond-pistachio patisserie.) But after I left this performance -- in which a man so obviously beautiful seemed to think he wasn't -- and made my way to the Grands Boulevards, suddenly I was a chick magnet. A diner stopped conversing with her date to stare at me; a beautiful biker stopped in-flight to flirt. Dance, and its interpreters, as both Dupont and Hoghe reminded me, has the power to impress us not just with the beauty and expression of the dancer's body but the beauty of our own bodies, in all their expressions, and with all their idiosyncrasies.

Aurelie Dupont -- catch her while you can, dance insider! -- interprets the title role of "Manon" again Sunday afternoon at the Garnier Opera House, with the same lead cast. Because of a national day of strikes, tonight's performances of "Manon" at the Garnier and the "Spectacle de Ballets" by Maurice Bejart at the Bastille may be cancelled. For updates, in France call 01 44 61 59 63. Raimond Hoghe performed as part of the Inaccoutumes 15 festival, which continues tonight at the Menagerie de verre with Myriam Gourfink.

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