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Flash Review, 12-5: Looking for the Narrative
Story Hour with Balanchine, Robbins, and the Paris Opera Ballet

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003 The Dance Insider

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PARIS -- My problem with appreciating Balanchine as he should be has often been that his abstract ballets don't always appeal to me. (This is not a judgment on the ballets, just a declaration of personal taste, and perhaps a confession of critical limitations.) I'm not alone in finding some 'non-narrative' ballets as inscrutable as many find algebra, notwithstanding that their creators, including Balanchine, intend they should be as penetrable as music. Sometimes I try to make 'sense' of these ballets by insisting on finding a narrative. Balanchine was keenly aware of this tendency by many in his audience, and met it head on, as I was reminded by reading his notes on "Serenade" prior to seeing that ballet Wednesday at the Palais Garnier, on a Paris Opera Ballet program with "Concerto Barocco," "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux," and Jerome Robbins's "Afternoon of a Faun."

Here's what Balanchine had to say about the 1934 "Serenade," writing in "Stories of the Great Ballets" (Doubleday, 1954), edited by Francis Mason:

"'Serenade was my first ballet in the United States. Soon after my arrival in America, Lincoln Kirstein, Edward M.M. Warburg, and I opened the School of American Ballet in New York. As part of the school curriculum, I started an evening ballet class in stage technique, to give students some idea of how dancing on stage differs from classwork. 'Serenade' evolved from the lessons I gave. "It seemed to me that the best way to make students aware of stage technique was to give them something new to dance, something they had never seen before. I chose Tchaikovsky's 'Serenade' to work with. The class contained, the first night, 17 girls and no boys. The problem was, how to arrange this odd number of girls so that they would look interesting. I placed them on diagonal lines and decided that the hands should move first to give the girls practice.

"That was how 'Serenade' began. The next class contained only nine girls; the third, six. I choreographed to the music with the pupils I happened to have at a particular time. Boys began to attend the class, and they were worked into the pattern. One day, when all the girls rushed off the floor area we were using as a stage, one of the girls fell and began to cry. I told the pianist to keep on playing and kept this bit in the dance. Another day, one of the girls was late for class, so I left that in too.

'Later, when we staged 'Serenade,' everything was revised. The girls who couldn't dance well were left out of the more difficult parts; I elaborated on the small accidental bits I had included in class and made the whole more dramatic, more theatrical, synchronizing it to the music with additional movement, but always using the little things that ordinarily might be overlooked.

"I've gone into a little detail here about 'Serenade' because many people think there is a concealed story in the ballet. There is not. There are, simply, dancers in motion to a beautiful piece of music. The only story is the music's story, a serenade, a dance, if you like, in the light of the moon."

I think Balanchine's being a little disingenuous here. Where a narrative is seen in "Serenade," it's not wholly the fabrication of an over-active imagination on the part of the viewer. In fact, that collapse which originated in the classroom introduces a plot in some form. The fallen dancer is soon met by a man and a woman, she guiding him vertically downstage (on the Garnier's raked stage, literally) right with her hands over his eyes and her body pressed to his. He leaves with the one he came with and the first dancer is left prostrated, remaining stiffened when she's lifted up later by three men, who are joined by more women as she's born off upstage right with her arms raised and back arched.

It's understandable that the audience might perceive a story in this. The dancers, however, must interpret the choreography (and its interpretation of the music) straight, their only inflection musical, not dramatic. (Or at any rate, certainly not melodramatic.) It's on them that falls the obligation of fealty to Balanchine's design.

As mentioned in my review of the Paris Opera Ballet's first program of the season (and first of three programs featuring Balanchine to commemorate his upcoming centenary), this company's strength can devolve to its weakness in interpreting Balanchine's abstract ballets. They incline to the dramatic, these dancers, giving them unparalleled (with the possible exception of the Russian companies) potency in narrative ballets but handicapping them when they should be keeping their 'acting' in check. Yann Bridard, riveting to watch as the Degas figure in last season's "Le Petite Danseuse de Degas" and in Angelin Preljocaj's "Casanova," can make one wince with his telegraphing in abstract ballets, and that was the case in Wednesday's "Serenade," when he played the second man. Painstakingly a zombie-like blank, his interpretation, combined with Nathalie Rique's Wicked Witch of the West flapping of her arms behind him as he lets go of the first woman(Agnes Letestu)'s hand before being led off, injected more drama into the ballet than, judging by his notes, Balanchine intended.

As for Letestu, she doesn't often lend herself to somberness, even if the music insists upon it. She fluttered about in the first section, broke concentration to undo her bun before collapsing, and settled rather than collapsed. Perhaps I'm contradicting myself and asking for drama, but maybe and more fairly, I'm disappointed that Letestu wasn't able to meet the weight of the music and the choreography as an equal.

The corps, however, redeemed itself for the brittle arms of "Concerto Barocco" (to Bach, and featuring many of the same dancers) with, not just the opening gauzy, dreamy frieze but others, as well, as when a group entered in profile, arms linked, evoking a classical frieze. On Wednesday, they were: Nathalie Aubin, Isabelle Ciaravola, Emilie Cozette, Veronique Doisneau, Myriam Kamionka, Virginie Rousseliere, Celine Talon, Alexandra Cardinale, Aurore Cordelier, Dorothee Gilbert, Vanessa Legassy, Karine Vilagrassa, Severine Westerman, Laura Hecquet, Julie Martel, Celine Palacio, and Alice Renavand. The steeds who lifted Letestu were Vincent Chaillet, Arnaud Dreyfus, Eric Monin, and Samuel Murez. Laurent Hilaire was the first man, but the flitting Letestu didn't give him much to respond to. Hilaire was also disappointed in his main partner for "Concerto Barocco," Laetitia Pujol, who actually seemed to cut in front of Nolwenn Daniel at her entrance, as if to say, in the manner of a children's recital, "Me! Me! Look at me!" Pujol's elevation to etoile last year continues to perplex.

No such doubt hovers over Aurelie Dupont, a revelation -- and I use that word deliberately -- every time she dances. On Wednesday, Dupont created anew "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux." If abstract ballets can leave me cold, showpiece ballets like this 1960 one, to an extract of Act III of "Swan Lake," I often find just annoying. In fact, the prospect of seeing a favorite ballerina in this 10-minute divertissement can make me cringe. This was my pre-disposition Wednesday, but I underestimated the transformative powers of the ballerina in question.

Like the Balanchine muse Suzanne Farrell, Dupont brings an apparent spontaneity and organicness to even the most tried of ballets, as if she's dancing to the music for the first time -- making me feel I'm seeing the ballet danced for the first time. She places her hand in Manuel Legris's and meets his eyes as if to say, eagerly, "Ready? Then let's go!" Each time she comes up to a pirouette, it's as if she's engaging the music freshly. (And Legris, for his part, meets her series of pirouettes in his arms with a quick glance to the audience as if to say, "Look at what she just did!") When she fish-dives into her partner's arms, she addresses them before as if she doesn't know how it will end. It's not so much the fearlessness of a Darci Kistler swooping into Jock Soto's catch and landing with her nose just inches from the floor, so much as a "Well, here goes nothing! Alley-oop!" Even checking her landing after a jump is not a sign of insecurity, but innocent curiosity to see how she did and whether she hit her spot.

What's revealed is not a super-human, but a human doing super-human things.

Dupont is a kind of Harrison Ford of the ballet. Like Ford, she appeals to our empathy with her vulnerability. And in exposing this vulnerability in an abstract ballet -- and a showpiece ballet -- she shows me something new: that vulnerability can be deployed not just to dramatic effect, but to show an openness and baring of the self and a sense of not knowing what the results will be as regards her response to the music. It's a kind of nakedness, in sharp contrast to the calcification, jadedness, and blase interpretation that can often come from doing a dance again and again.

Robbins's 1953 "Afternoon of a Faun" is a dance I've seen again and again, always coming away with the same interpretation, essentially reflecting narcissism. Well, according to Robbins, quoted in the Opera program, I was wrong. "When my dancers regard themselves in the mirror," Robbins insisted (in my free translation of the French translation), "it's not out of some kind of narcissism, but to control their gestures as they're before strangers. For the dancer, the mirror is another eye, the same as the blank page for the writer. Don't look therefore for the message. Regard. And if you like it, all the better." In other words, if regarding the mirror constantly might indicate vanity for the rest of us, the dancer regards her reflection for the same reason the painter examines his canvas: She's checking her work.

Bearing Robbins's first instruction in mind, I couldn't help, narrative-seeker that I am, discarding his second. Free not to regard Nicolas Le Riche and Eleanora Abbagnato, in Wednesday's cast, as narcissists, I looked for other meanings, particularly in their regard of the mirror and each other after she enters. I discovered that most of the time, they're not watching themselves, but each other -- as when Le Riche, kneeling, follows Abbagnato's progress downstage right in the mirror. This is not a distancing, but just looking at life from a perspective from which they often examine work. And when they break it to look directly at each other, the effect is electrifying -- as when she slowly turns to face him directly, as they both kneel, after catching his kiss on her cheek in its reflection. But she's caught it directly, too, as we know by her touching the cheek where he's kissed it before she slowly turns to look at him, and by her retreat, carriage aloft and arm outstretched, towards his reflection, as she makes an aching exit. (This was really the first time it had ached for me.)

The Paris Opera Ballet's Spectacle de Ballets George Balanchine - Jerome Robbins continues through December 31, at the Palais Garnier.... Well, that was interesting. I just checked the City Ballet schedule so that I could tell you if you could see any of these ballets on that company. It appears that there's more Robbins on this Paris Opera program than in New York City Ballet's entire winter season. (Do we really need two Peter Martins stagings of story ballets? Do we really need one?)

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