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Flash Review 2, 11-5: Petit Encore
Contact Improvisation Meets Ballet Fish Pose in Opera's "Clavigo"

By Christine Chen
Copyright 2003 Christine Chen

PARIS -- Last Wednesday, I glided into the Palais Garnier to cap off my five-day jaunt to France with the Paris Opera Ballet's performance of Roland Petit's "Clavigo." The Opera House seemed exquisite, and my seat at front row center was impeccable -- close enough to catch stray sweat off the hottie dancers, yet removed enough (because of the orchestra and the raked stage) to appreciate, with perspective, the entirety of the action. Petit's "Clavigo," previously reviewed here by Paul Ben-Itzak, premiered in 1999; I saw most of the original cast, with the exception of Clairemarie Osta in the female lead. In her place, Eleanora Abbagnato stepped in with ease. Abbagnato's dancing is lush and lithe with a powerful depth of soul, and she emotes, from her gut, the necessary passion to carry her character's emotional arch. In the end, though, there was nothing any of the capable performers could do to distract me from the stereotypically drawn characters and the coarsely depicted plot. Petit's choreography, while interesting in its movement invention, simply could not give the story-line enough texture to make it moving.

The program notes indicate that Petit's ballet is based on a five-act play by Goethe, which is in turn based on a non-fiction text written by Beaumarchais (of "Barber of Seville" and "Marriage of Figaro" fame). Goethe, who was 25 at the time he wrote "Clavigo," penned his play in 8 days, and took on the task at the suggestion (dare-like challenge) of his lady friend at the time. (How romantic.) Beaumarchais, on the other hand, wrote his story to seek revenge on his sister's careless lover, Clavijo, who did a "love her and leave her" number so he could go off and become a famous journalist. Wow -- love, betrayal, revenge, romance, ambition, and I haven't even touched the actual story of "Clavigo" as depicted in the ballet.

So down we get to the story and the ballet. The first few scenes take place at a ball where we are introduced to Marie (Abbagnato), her brother, Beaumarchais (Karl Paquette), Carlos (Yann Bridard) and his friend Clavigo (Nicolas Le Riche). The black-striped mesh foreground at first only gives us glimpses of the action (imagine the "Body Double" cover art, or if you're not into that sort of thing, imagine half-closed venetian blinds). When it is lifted we see an army of party people performing quirky (by classical ballet standards) staccato movement in well organized, linear pairings. Clavigo and Marie fall for each other Romeo-and-Juliet-style, across the crowded whitewashed room at the ball. Both Carlos and Beaumarchais look on disapprovingly. Carlos is clearly up to no good as he sneers and does everything in his power to oppose the union. Beaumarchais opposes the union, but he makes it clear that he is interested in protecting his sister, not his own self-interests (as is the case with Carlos). Ironically, according to the program notes, Beaumarchais originally approved of his sister's pairing with the real-life Clavijo, thinking he could gain financially from their union. In the ballet, though, the polarity between Carlos and Marie's brother is clear, and is as black and white as Jean-Michel Wilmotte's striking sets. Petit uses Carlos to represent a dark/evil side, while he uses Beaumarchais to represent a light/noble side. If I hadn't read my program, I might even think that the two represented parts of Clavigo's psyche (angel and devil on each shoulder) rather than distinct characters.

After a little flirtation and foreplay, the actual seduction scene between Clavigo and Marie is essentially a study in how much ballet pas de deux vocabulary can be accomplished while holding a passionate lip-lock. The result is an interesting intertwining of bodies, with deft maneuvering and jungle gym-like climbing and lifting maneuvers. Again, fascinating acrobatics, especially as executed by the sensual Le Riche and the swooning Abbagnato, but the movement itself is a little too "Contact Improvisation meets Ballet fish pose" to be called original.

Carlos regains Clavigo's attentions by engaging him in a mini-duel/wrestling match. At first, it is a battle filled with real anger, but it soon turns into a testosterone-filled display of aggression, before concluding as a friendly and playful shoving match. Carlos then whisks Clavigo away to debauch a little. The next scene played out as would be any scene involving two bachelors walking into a sex club. There is a fun and explicit homosexual duet downstage right (unfortunately, not Carlos and Clavigo), which is set wittily in front of and behind two large white vertical panels. Different body parts are revealed at different times, and the result is playful and titillating. Alongside this activity, there are some orgies, and finally a little menage a trois action between two girls and Clavigo, then between the two girls and Carlos. Clavigo participates willingly, if very skeptically, while the hedonistic Carlos eats it all up (pardon the pun). I watched this all with a bemused smirk on my face ("I can't believe they're doing this in ballet at the Opera House!"), yet it reminded me of the final performance in the film "Center Stage" -- an onstage sex scene which amused rather than stimulated.

Petit then cuts from the sex club to Marie's dream sequence. She stirs in bed, and Clavigo descends upside down (supported by a harness) from above. He is suppose to convey a spider-like quality, but I think he looks more bat-like. Marie seems to be slipping, emotionally, as they perform a pas de deux, then he disappears. She wakes, flutters around confusedly, then stutters in her movements, clearly heartbroken. Her descent into an Ophelia-like madness climaxes as she ends up crumpled on the ground convulsing with pangs of grief. At this point her brother enters and, at the sorry sight of his sister, becomes distraught and angry (especially after having glimpsed Clavigo's transgressions at the sex club -- by the way, what was he doing there anyway?). Clavigo tries to visit, but Beaumarchais prevents him from having any further contact with Marie, at which point we break for intermission.

Act II continues with more pleasantries. Carlos has brought Clavigo to a party for another round of debauchery. This time an exotic woman, officially named "L'Etrangere" (stranger/foreigner), tempts the more reluctant Clavigo. Danced with power and verve by Marie-Agnes Gillot, this woman is strong yet detached in her sexuality. When Clavigo does manage to enjoy himself and shows some interest, the woman aloofly leaves him for Carlos (Ooh! Bitch!). At this point, Marie visits Clavigo's thoughts. As a typical sylph, she flits around in the requisite ethereal manner then disappears when he notices her.

Clavigo is shaken back to reality with Marie's funeral procession -- a frenzy of the now black-clad corps dancers. At the end of the first act, I was not sure whether she was dead or merely catatonic, but now I guess she might have been dead. Beaumarchais, seeking retribution, stabs Clavigo, who appears like a deer in the headlights before impact. And understandably too -- he is still grieving over Marie's death, and is a little clueless about his role in it when he gets stabbed. Carlos and the exotic woman look on, but don't seem too concerned (where's the love?). Le Riche flourishes in his depiction of Clavigo's final death dance, then it is over.

The ballet seemed to be a study in broad strokes. From the sets to the characters, everything was black or white. Maybe I live a depraved and jaded "Sex and the City" lifestyle, and sure I know these were different times, but I couldn't find much sympathy for Marie, a delicate flower who seemed to overreact to a one-night stand. Was this something more? Love? I couldn't tell from this staging. And instead of seeing Carlos and the exotic temptress as villains, I found myself secretly cheering them on -- her for being in such control of her femininity and sexuality, and him for trying to show his friend a good time. I was annoyed at Beaumarchais for being so overprotective of Marie (which probably contributed to her delicate constitution), then for reacting in such a juvenile and rash way to Clavigo. And poor Clavigo -- he was not simply a tragic hero who suffers a downfall from his flaw of loving too carelessly, but from my perspective, he didn't do anything wrong. Was I suppose to pull a morality tale about love and fidelity from this story? Seems to me, he fell in love, albeit quickly, made no promises, then followed his friend for some fun -- which he barely enjoyed because he was thinking of Marie the whole time. He tried to come visit to her at the end of Act I, but Beaumarchais wouldn't let him near his sister (it may have been too late at that point, but if she was merely catatonic, a visit from Clavigo might have lifted her spirits). Rejected in this way, and still unaware of Marie's fate, Clavigo understandably wanders some more, still in love with Marie, but searching for something else. He gets some karmic retribution from the exotic woman, who plays with his emotions, but then he has to endure the guilt of Marie's death and of course the stabbing from vengeance-seeking Beaumarchais. Poor guy didn't even know what hit him.

I think I may have enjoyed the program more if I had not read the notes. The notes promised a dramatic tension within Clavigo between his love for Marie and his ambitions. Instead we got a Clavigo caught between Marie and Carlos. It promised romantic love, which to me, felt like a one-night-stand. It promised betrayal, but instead gave us a man who made an understandable decision. Sure, I may be viewing the whole thing with a 21st-Century lens, and it might be irrational to expect a contemporary take on this story, but in a ballet which is progressive enough to depict such sexual acts as the menage a trois, orgies, same sex and opposite sex unions, blow jobs, and more, couldn't the feelings of the characters be portrayed with more sophisticated complexity? I think if I hadn't read the program, I would have enjoyed the lovely dancing, the fun and scandalous corps work, the simple but effective sets, the powerful score performed at my feet by a capable orchestra, and the dashing "Age of Enlightenment" costumes. Thinking about it that way, it WAS pretty good. And of course at the end of it all, I looked up to see a beautiful Chagall painting around the chandelier and smiled as I walked out of the regal Opera House.

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