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Flash Review 1, 7-1: Picasso and the Dance
Jude, Hoyos & Bordeaux Revive an Era at Chatelet

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- How thrilling to sit Saturday night in the ornate orchestra of the Theatre du Chatelet, whose stage was the first to reveal Picasso's curtain for Leonide Massine's "Parade" (to music by Erik Satie, on a scenario by Jean Cocteau), and see the lights come up on the same curtain! But the real revelation in the Picasso and the Dance program given at Chatelet this past week by Charles Jude's Ballet de l'Opera National de Bordeaux and Ballet Christina Hoyos was the simplicity of the designs by an artist some of whose work outside the stage might be called inscrutable. Unlike so many of the visual artists who would work on the stage today -- Mikhail Chemiakin's distracting proto-surrealist sets for the Kirov's new "Nutcracker," seen at this same theater last fall, come to mind -- Picasso didn't see the stage as just another frame for his work. His curtains, sets, and costumes for "Parade," "Le Tricorne," "Icare," and "Cuadro Flamenco," all part of this program, are truly collaborative with the choreographers, dancers, and composers.

For "Parade," made in 1917 and reprised in recent years by the Joffrey Ballet and Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, the curtain shows a circus family taking their lunch on a stage in the country. The figures, particularly the harlequin in the foreground, are certainly of Picasso's world -- but from his realistic Blue Period, which ended some dozen years before. As a prologue to the more Cubist sets and costumes which will follow, they humanize the characters.
The American Manager in Ballet de l'Opera National de Bordeaux's production of Leonide Massine's "Parade." Costume design by Pablo Picasso. Marie-Noelle Robert photo courtesy Theatre du Chatelet.

The most Cubistically conceived of these are the French Manager and the American Manager, both as much sets as dancers, their faces hidden under mounds of costume. One holds a long pipe in a willowy fabricated arm, skyscrapers growing out of his back, a top hat crowning his head. A horse, manned by two dancers, appears with probing Cubist-type eyes. The Young American Girl and Acrobats -- in a basic color and fabric scheme that will continue throughout the evening -- are simply garbed, in basic blue and white.

Of Saturday's cast from the Bordeaux Ballet, only Gregory Milan's Chinese Magician (or, as the French program called him, "Le Prestidigitateur Chinois"), a role originated by Massine, performed with a charm level with the sets, quirky music, and stylized choreography. Not having seen this ballet since the Joffrey performed it in San Francisco in the early '90s, I was expecting an arm-rolling stereotype a la "The Nutcracker." There was something of this in the character's mincing steps and the coolie stoop of his shoulders, but Milan overcame it in his magician's hypnotic gaze. French dancers don't do well at parodying Americans, and, unfortunately, Christelle Lara's embarrassing Young American Girl was no exception. The choreography for this character was inspired, according to Josseline Le Bourhis's program notes, by the staccato rhythms of silent films. But Lara just seemed to be stopping and starting between a series of calisthenics that culminated in fisticuffs and gunplay. I'm not averse to being parodied, but it's got to be over the top to be funny.

The Horse, by contrast, should be much more droll. This is the funniest part in the ballet, but just because the two humans are hidden beneath the costume doesn't mean they can go to sleep and let it do all the work. Frederic Vinclair and Julien Prud'homme relied on the costume and some rudimentary galomphing to deliver the laughs, with the result that the segment inspired only mild titters from the audience. According to Le Bourhis, the public greeted the May 18, 1917 premiere of this work in the same theater as a provocation, "an insult to good taste and good sense," and even with cries of "To Berlin." It was hard to see cause for scandal in this tame reprisal.

For Serge Lifar's 1935 "Icare," Picasso went for a much simpler design, dominated by a massive yellow backdrop which, after he has ascended, rises to reveal an upside down, winged Icarus hanging (or falling) from the base of this Sun. Here again the simplicity of the design serves the story -- the drawn character is a believable extension of the live one danced originally by LIfar and, Saturday, by Jude himself.

Jude, a protege of Nureyev, has been dancing professionally for thirty years. I stupidly assumed he'd be too old for this role, but was happily disproved. His boyish, long-haired good lucks and chiselled, bigger-than-life form were perfectly suited for a choreography etched almost friezelike, in big notes. Jude's Icarus's first frustrated attempts at flight and stumblings foreshadowed the tragedy of his fall from the sky. For the flight itself, while Jude was able to suspend himself in the air, he conveyed the sense of being aloft more in an overall lift of his carriage and spirit. When he fell, only one wing remaining, sweating, panting, but really broken in spirit more than body, the pathos was real, the final extension of leg and broken wing as he lays prostrate poignant. (Also aiding the illusion of flight was the the way Ludovic Dussarps's Daedelus followed his son's trajectory.)

It was certainly ballsy of Jude the director to program Massine's Flamenco-tinged 1919 "Tricorne" ("The Three-Cornered Hat"), to music by Manuel de Falla, on an evening featuring a troupe of real flamenco dancers. This ballet, writes Walter Terry in his "Ballet Guide" (Popular Library, 1977), "is not only a ballet with a Spanish setting but one that also employs the techniques of Spanish dance (adapted and somewhat simplified) instead of classical ballet." The problem is that the dancers expected to carry this out are still ballet dancers. If you've got Massine in the lead role of the Miller -- the simple story involves him, his wife, and the hilarity that ensues when a decrepit governor tries to steal her -- charisma will go along way to disguise that these are not Flamenco dancers. Eric Frederic gave it a game try, his boyish enthusiasm making one forgive if not forget that his farruca was unschooled. But Stephanie Roublot's anemic Miller's Wife (originated by Tamara Karsavina and given first in New York by Tamara Toumanova) made one wish Jude had followed the example of a previous producer, who hired Argentinita for the role.

For Picasso's part, this piece could give a schooling to the many spangled contemporary stage designers whose idea of a costume concept is lots of jewels and glittering fabric. There are few babbles, bangles, and bright shiny beads to be seen here -- only basic pastel colors, such as yellow and green dresses with black or white designs.

Two years after the 1919 premiere of "Le Tricorne," Massine having left the Ballets Russes, Diaghilev was in search of a spectacle for the company's Spring season at the Gaite-Lyrique. In Spain with Stravinsky and his assistant, the poet and soon-to-be librettist Boris Kochno, he hit upon the idea of a 'cuadro Flamenco,' for which Stravinsky would reararrange the traditional music. But Stravinsky, as Jean-Albert Cartier records in the program notes, insisted that the music must be authentic and therefore refused to rearrange it. Diaghilev soon realized he could hardly mount such an evening with the Ballets Russes dancers. He decided to mount a traditional evening of Flamenco, with authentic Flamenco dancers and musicians and decor by a Spanish artist, and ended up asking Picasso to revisit an unused design from "Pulcinella." The result was a backdrop evoking a a 19th-century theater loge, on which Picasso painted four couples -- in their eyes, the closest to Cubist figures on the set designs seen this weekend -- enjoying the spectacle. Through an arch is seen a sloping entry-way, the effect being as if the dancers and spectators are descending into a subterranean performing space.

The evening premiered May 17, 1921, and following this season, the designs were not brought out again until 1996, when Hoyos created a work in the spirit of the original at the Opera de Nice. (No choreographer is credited for the 1921 work.)

It's an admirable idea, to expand a consideration of Picasso and the Dance beyond ballet. Unfortunately, the work Hoyos created relates the least to the decor at the program's heart. Take away the set and this could be any 30-minute tabloa-style finish to a Flamenco evening. The music, particularly from the dynamic and lively singer Jose Anillo (he even gives a little fillip to his foot on exiting), offers a lush tones to match the tones of the backdrop. But the dancing just reminds that female dancer-directors of Flamenco companies seem reluctant to hire any other female dancers who might outshine them. The three here are nondescript, with the possible exception of Rocio Alcaide, and it doesn't help that three men outshout them with their feet even when they're sitting down, and can't wait to take the stage from them.

"Parade" and "Tricorne" were staged by Susanna Della Pietra, an assistant to Massine who studied at the Dance Notation Bureau, using Benesh or Labanotation. (The program doesn't specify.) The scores for "Parade" and particularly "Le Tricorne" received sprightly renditions from the Orchestre National Boredeaux Aquitaine, under the direction of Thomas Rosner. Lifar composed the percussion score for "Icare."

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