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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
"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
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
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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