featured photo
The Kitchen
Brought to you by
Body Wrappers;
New York Flash Review Sponsor
the New York manufacturer of fine dance apparel for women and girls. Click here to see a sample of our products and a list of web sites for purchasing.
With Body Wrappers it's always
performance at its best.

Go back to Flash Reviews
Go Home

Flash Review 2, 1-14: Faint Thunder
'Ivan,' Seen Through the Eyes of Noverre, at the Paris Opera Ballet

By Katharine Kanter
Copyright 2004 Katharine Kanter

New! Sponsor a Flash!

PARIS -- We are in Paris, at the Opera Bastille, and the night's play is "Ivan le Terrible," a ballet by Yuri Grigorovich created in 1975 for the Bolshoi, and first danced by the Paris Opera Ballet in 1976. Aram Stassevitch, who had conducted Prokofiev's score for the Eisenstein film "Ivan the Terrible" in 1944, suggested to Grigorovich that he adapt the film to the stage. After the conductor's death, Mikhail Chulaki took over, and arranged ballet music from the Prokofiev score for the aforesaid film, to which he added passages taken from the music for Eisenstein's "Alexander Nevsky."

In Paris, the opening night Paris Opera Ballet cast, filmed for television in late December 2003, was Nicolas Le Riche, Eleonora Abbagnato, and Karl Paquette, in the roles of Ivan, the Czarina and Prince Andrew Kurbski respectively, alternating with a cast led by Jose Martinez, Delphine Moussin and Herve Moreau.

Ivan IV, known as "Grozny" (perhaps best translated as "The Thunderclap"), first Czar of Muscovy, is a magnificent subject for the ballet, and one that would undoubtedly have been warmly endorsed by Noverre in his famous "Letters," when he wrote in Letter VII:

"The ballet master must sacrifice all his leisure to the study of history and mythology."

Had Noverre watched Mr. Grigorovich's ballet, fond enthusiasm would, one suspects, have turned rather quickly to dismay.

Ivan and Louis XI

Dispute rages to this day over the figure of Ivan IV in Russian history.

Ivan came to the throne of Muscovy in 1546, one century after Louis XI ruled France (1461-1483). Without a State to defend the individual from powerful private interests, there is no such thing as the sanctity of life, and had Louis XI not crushed the barons, there would be no France today.

On Ivan IV's accession at the age of sixteen, Louis XI's campaign against feudalism was almost certainly the pattern on which the then-Duke's advisors based their own actions. Sunny France is not, however, the gloomy vastness of Russia, and the obstacles the reformers faced were hardly of the same scale.

In 1547, Ivan (ruled 1546-1584), was crowned czar, and launched wave upon thundering wave of reform. He introduced the printing press, a century after Gutenberg's breakthrough in the West, promulgated the Sudebnik, which introduced some coherency to legal standards and procedures, convened the Stoglav (Hundred Chapters) Church Council to restrict the Church's feudal prerogatives, created the nucleus of a standing army, the streltsi, armed with modern weaponry to get round the State's dependency on grace-and-favour military assistance from private interests, and created a chancery system to formally record government activity, an embryonic form of the modern civil service. He also altered rule in the provinces: rather than the aristocratic governors, the local elders had to report directly to the czar, and lead the war against banditry undermining state authority.

Through an assembly that vaguely resembles the French notion of Etats generaux, the government maneuvered to shift the balance of power away from the Boyars, into the hands of the merchant class.

Kazan was conquered in 1552, Astrakhan in 1556, and Siberia in 1583.

Fallen Angels

What has made Ivan IV a tragic figure is that he himself fell prey to demons. That is why his case has been studied closely by all Russian thinkers. How shall one rule the unruly for the public good, without crushing the individual soul and breaking the people's spirit? How shall one rule, when one cannot rule oneself?

There can be little doubt but that Ivan used of fiendish cruelty.

At one point, ringed about by enemies, Ivan toyed with the idea of fleeing to England, and procured for himself a safe-conduct to that island. Suddenly, in 1565, he announced that a vast central area, the Oprichnina, would henceforth lie under his direct control, and be administered by a Guard, drafted into service as a counterfoil to the Boyars, and known as the Oprichniki.

It was an ill-judged move. Muscovy broke down into anarchy under two governments, two armies, and two territories, one ruled by the czar, the other by the Boyars. Within the Oprichnina, the black-clad Oprichniki, fallen angels as Hieronymus Bosch has depicted them, loosed mayhem. Novgorod was wrecked, the countryside plundered, and so many peasants fled their lands that decrees were issued restraining their movements. This eventually led to their being tied to the land in serfdom.

In 1572, the Oprichniki were abolished.

Although written records are scarce, Ivan IV is believed to have had seven wives, murdering several. He also slew his own son Dmitrii.

Outline for a libretto, as Noverre would have it:

Now, Grigorovich knows far more of history than the bare-bones outline above.

Rather than rely upon Eisenstein's film of Ivan's life (and a padded-out musical score that has been turned into a percussive uproar), in line with Noverre's theories our choreographer could have painted a thought-provoking gallery with, perhaps, scenes exploiting some of the following:

-- The personalities of the czar's advisors, and their meetings with envoys from the West. -- The personality of the church leaders, and the czar's struggle with them.

-- The faction-leaders amongst the Boyars.

-- The chiefs of the merchant class and their hatred of the Boyars.

-- The reaction of the Muscovite people to the initial wave of reforms, turning to horror at the creation of the Oprichniki.

-- The Tartar camp, their leaders, and the purported savagery of their customs.

-- The czar's mad relatives, and the traitors amongst them.

-- Ivan's closest advisor Andrew Kurbsky (who fled to Poland in 1564, and is entirely misrepresented in this ballet).

-- The lair of highwaymen in outlying areas, and the character of these rogues.

-- The backwardness and wild irrationality of old Russian customs, tainting the czar himself and thwarting his efforts at reform.

As one can readily see, all this would have provided many of the 160 members of the Paris Opera Ballet, one of the world's few truly great ensembles, with no less than 20 major roles, and a wealth of personages, steps, shading, and different uses of the music.

In this very company, we have well over 20 gifted people who can portray such things. If they be given the chance!

None of the above "effects" are so complex that they cannot be painted, or at least vividly suggested, in a ballet. None are to be found in Grigorovich's work. Bewildered and bedeviled, I pulled out Noverre's trusty ol' letters, and found much there of amusement and instruction.

Noverre, Letter XXII ("How gesture shall be made to accord with Thought"):

"To find the moral strength to inject soul, truth, and expression into one's movements is utterly impossible, if the body be constantly shaken by violent and repeated effort, and if the mind be devoted perforce, entirely to forestalling the accidents and falls that threaten to occur at every moment."

The giddying steps Grigorovich has choreographed for his soloists, where the head spins and the bones ache, are a textbook illustration of Noverre's point above. As are many of the men's ensembles: To give but one example, that moment in Act I, where the Russian warriors execute five times over the same lumpen step. Do you take an expression of warlike savagery with your tea, or just a drop of milk?

Blighted by voyeurism, the pas de deux between the czar and Anastasia rely on lifts that are disagreeably acrobatic, even perilous. In Anastasia, the tension created by those lifts as she appears from the dead erases all poetry and mystery from what is intended to be hallucinatory.

Noverre, Letter XX ("Of Coryphees"):

"This performance so strongly affected a section of the public, that, upon catching sight of the Danaids, the spectres, death, and the Fates, they rose up and fled the theatre."

No one, so far as I could tell over half a dozen performances (this writer's unusually assiduous attendance arising from the visits of several colleagues from abroad), has felt anything but puzzled amusement at the choreography, and collegial sympathy for the corps de ballet. Nor have I seen anyone flee terrified from the Bastille Theatre, despite that theater's ominous name, and the presence onstage of bronze-clad warriors and any number of scythe-and-axe wielding angels of death.

Noverre, Letter XVIII ("On the Expression of one's Countenance, and the Disadvantage, to wearing a Mask"):

"Were our ballet masters clever composers, and our dancers skillful actors, what could prevent our assigning suitable employ to each and all?"

On that Janus Head that is theatrical dance, the one side is Beauty, and the other, Expressiveness. Character dancers turn the coin towards the sun of expressiveness, and classical dancers, towards the more far-off and abstract constellations of Beauty. The proponents of the two styles are not interchangeable.

The Russian theaters have kept on the rolls many character dancers. These people are possessed of a definite physical conformation and muscle type, great skill in the relevant forms of national and character dances, and mastery of a dynamic mime style as well. Movement tends to fold and unfold laterally towards the center and the floor may sometimes be used as a drum, while the tracing of geometrical shapes reaching out into vaster space is of lesser concern than it is to the classical dancer. And the Russians have trained to be effective in these very dances, without suffering injury.

Dancers of the "heavier" physical type are currently discouraged from even approaching the Paris Opera Ballet School (many have gone into modern dance, actually), while the troupe's current repertoire, dominated by a striving for visual effect, has no call for such men and women, nor are any to be found in the company today. Then, when it comes to putting up a ballet like this, or any major narrative piece really, one is faced with a 'choir' entirely comprised of sopranos, mezzos, tenors, and light baritones. Not an alto, a bass-baritone or a bass within earshot.

Now, the Paris corps de ballet has done an astonishingly good job, and they are dancing themselves into the ground, but should one really require that Axel Schiotz sing the repertory of Chaliapin?

Speaking of music, this "score," cobbled from 377 disparate bits of Prokofiev, really is beneath everything. Put yourself in the dancers' place, and imagine stumbling through that Victory Celebration in the ballroom! The steps and style say one thing, the "music" another, and the urge to topple over -- aided by erratic tempi from the pit -- becomes almost irresistible.

Noverre, Letter XVII ("On Opera Ballets"):

"There is nothing odder than to encounter on stage at the Opera, a host of warriors returned from battle, who have just waged war, and carried off a victory. Do they bear the horror of the slaughter still upon them? Is their countenance vivid? Does their gaze yet flash dread fire? Are their locks in disarray? No, gentlemen! Their attire is elegantly ordered...."

Noverre's ghost must have been at the Bastille these days! Grigorovich's battle scenes, laid out, against all Noverre's advice, in tidy and strictly symmetrical lines, contain a good deal of the involuntarily comic.

Noverre, Letter XV ("On disposing the Main, and the Accessory Parts"):

"Let the actors of the corps de ballet to dance, but as they dance, they shall, as it were, speak and paint; let them mime, and at all times, the passions shall compose their metamorphoses."

Grigorovich has given us but three characters in this ballet: the Czar, the Czarina, and Prince Andrew Kurbski. The corps de ballet is but a cipher, living stage furniture, moving in an anonymous mass, performing, though admirably, the same anonymous steps.

For a purportedly anti-feudal ballet, I find it feudal, really.

As for the casts, one must bow down to Jose Martinez, who has taken on the role of Ivan with care and devotion. Despite the crass steps and heavy metal score, Martinez has gone well beyond the call of duty in his sensitive, melancholic portrayal, and his dancing, as one has come to expect, is of razor-like precision, and to standards that show great respect for the public. Far less persuasive, Le Riche flings himself at the photo-finish of every variation, in a flash-and-dash style that one cannot imagine his predecessors, Messrs. Guizerix and Atanassof, ever having favored. Delphine Moussin is impeccable in the dreary role of Anastasia.

As Prince Andrew Kurbski, Paquette, though not overly effectual, made a stronger impression nonetheless than Moreau, the latter being (rather like Abbagnato as Anastasia) in a fey and self-absorbed mood.

"One doesn't put racehorses, beautiful horses, to draw a beer-cart." Those words of Hans Brenaa come to mind on seeing what Grigorovich has done to the corps de ballet.

It cannot fail to strike one as somewhat undignified to find classical dancers such as Herve Courtain or Stephane Elizabe tangled up in ropes and swinging from the rafters on the Kremlin bells in a mess of graceless steps, and unflattering costume to boot. Their steps are steps for a character dancer. But when done by a classical dancer, the self-same step will look quite different. In the heat of action, no character dancer will apply spit-and-polish to a step -- he will hurtle forward, cleave the airs, brush the floor hastily.... And the question remains, what is dramatically appropriate? To my mind, it is neither dramatically appropriate, nor fair to their very considerable talents, to cast these men as bell-ringers, for Heaven's Sake!

In the tiger's clutches: On learning that an artist whose work has ever been guided by a tender concern for humanity would be cast as a Tartar in Act I, and in Act II as an Oprichnik -- Emmanuel Thibault -- I wondered how that luminous gaze might be bent to one of ferocity, and his features composed to those of a near-barbarian. But he has done it. Even when standing dead still, the man is become a bolt of black lightning. A tiger defending its young would, no doubt, be more amenable to polite conversation.

Otherwise, Grigorovich has served us up a ballet that qualifies, quite simply, as coarse entertainment.

Dear friends, pray spare a thought for the ladies in the corps de ballet on December 31. Their dancing is beyond all reproach, but it's a helluva way to spend New Year's Eve.

Katharine Kanter is a Paris-based writer, and the editor of http://auguste.vestris.free.fr, a web site launched in November 2002 to debate issues and ideas in classical dance.

Go back to Flash Reviews
Go Home