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Flash View, 2-13: Phantoms of the Opera, too
Zwielicht: Judging the Concours

By Katharine Kanter
Copyright 2004 Katharine Kanter

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PARIS -- Twilight.

The title is taken from a truly eerie song in Schumann's "Liederkreis, op. 39," based upon diminished fifths. Its song-text (by Schumann himself?) begins,"Daemmrung will die Flugel spreiten" and ends,"Manches geht im Nacht verloren, hutte dich, sei wach und munter!" How very like the atmosphere of this sombre little event! Although it is not, at the present time, mandatory for a dancer in the Paris Opera Ballet to attend, the purpose in entering the troupe's annual competition for promotion (known as the "Concours," and held on the Opera Garnier stage), is to rise through the ranks to attain that of premier danseur.

In the interest of transparency, the Concours was instituted in 1860 by Marie Taglioni, as a PUBLIC event. It is now by invitation only, even for the press! WHY? As the old saw goes: A Cat may look at a King. The contest is held at the Christmastime, viz., at the height of the ballet season, when people are exhausted, and consequently at risk of injury. Some will be rising at six in the morning for over a month to prepare the Concours, and the first man or woman to go down onto the stage at nine o'clock will have been up at dawn, although they may have danced until eleven o'clock the night before.

So critical to one's career is this event, that people have been known to go down and dance on a fresh injury, and then be off ill for weeks thereafter. I find that outrageous. Others will no doubt howl that "it's the rules of the game."

But these are not winsome puppies being pushed by their handler into Crufts Dog Show. They are professional artists, who are being tested in the real world, on a real stage, 150 nights a year. To see them thrust back into a frightened-schoolboy state is an unpleasant experience. What is more, one invariably walks away from the Concours with a queasy feeling that the dice have already been rolled beforehand, and elsewhere. Not on stage. And so, I am beginning to think that this has been the last year I shall ever attend.

By current rules, the corps de ballet is judged by a jury made up of management, the odd etoile and premier danseur, two prominent teachers or artistic directors from outside the Paris Opera Ballet (although few, one imagines, would care to contradict the views of Paris Opera Ballet's management), and jurors elected from amongst the corps de ballet itself.

The marks are -- so we are told -- weighted. Twenty points are given by the jury, based upon one's dancing on the day of the Concours, while ten points are a management prerogative and purportedly reflect both one's attendance at class, as well as an imponderable, defined as conscience professionnelle. A curious parallel to the French criminal justice system, where, by law, the Judges may rely upon what is known as "intime conviction" (innermost belief) in handing down their finding, and disregard, if they choose, the evidence produced before them.

Lest we forget: one is being judged not only by one's friends, but, as one approaches the more august ranks, by one's RIVALS. A practice that may lead to the most awkward little misunderstandings, n'est-ce pas?

Unfortunately for the credibility of the system, the most gifted individuals will never be mamma's boys, or All-American cheerleaders whose life's goal is "popularity."

For its part, management has pursued over the last decade a perfectly clear promotion policy, one fully coherent with its views on choreographic art.

Having seen this past January the corps de ballet of the Bolshoi Theater, we all of us in this fair city of Paris might wish to be a shade more modest about our technical accomplishments, and perhaps even to ponder whether there might be more to dancing than just using one's legs and feet.

Finally, the Concours fosters a dog-eat-dog mind-set, unlikely to promote brotherly love.

I, for one, would like to see it scrapped.

What does one see? With a few notable exceptions, over eight or nine hours, a display of raw force, harsh landings, and muscular daring-do, whereby variations of many a style and period are bulldozed down to much of a muchness.

One finds oneself, willy-nilly, calculating the degrees in height of an arabesque, or the angle of aperture of an articulation; a shrill witness to present "artistic" trends.

To give one, easy-to-understand example: cambre. Cambre is an affect. In the dancing of the woman, it can evoke rapture, it can evoke abandon, it can evoke quiet resignation, and so forth, while in the dancing of the man, it can evoke a gathering of one's strength, or a thousand other things. But it must evoke something, whether compelled by the drama, or, if the piece be abstract, by the music. It cannot just mean: "Now I bend backwards" -- unless we are in the circus.

Has such excess all been seen before? Yes, in 1846. This is Bournonville speaking:

"There is a flexibility that degenerates into weak-jointedness, a bravura that transforms dancing into gymnastics, and the question 'How?' into 'How Many?' What warrant can be found in the entire realm of art, for a leg lifted to the height of the shoulder, nay, even to the crown of the head? Is it a pleasing impression that is produced by an entire solo sur les pointes....? 'But it is the fashion, Paris fashion,' people say, 'we must go along with the times!'"

Another thought: there is a particular mental state perceptible in the dancing of the men, that tells of one thing: After a quarter-century's rule at the Paris Opera School by Claude Bessy, a woman to whom one may tactfully refer as "forceful," and a decade's rule in the troupe by another, namely Mlle. Brigitte Lefevre, it has become a matter of urgency to set up a men's section in the school, that shall have its own director, who shall be a man, and who shall run that section in accordance with his own lights, and as he please.

Another thought: Why, in a country where no less than 12 percent of the population is African or North African, does one see class after class go by, one hundred strong, year in, year out, and not a single black man or woman at any rank?

Back to the 2003 Concours itself, and the free variations: how does one sensibly compare someone who attempts to present a difficult classical piece, to someone dancing a puff of candy-cane floss from Roland Petit, or to a girl writhing about upon the lavatory furnishings in the Bidet Scene from Mats Ek's "Appartement"?

That this sort of thing be tolerated, even encouraged, speaks volumes.

Let's get this straight. Classical dance does not depend on fluffy tutus and pink satin shoes. It is, in a nutshell, a step-based art form. Evolved over several hundred years, those steps respond to the tonal system in music. They will never go away, just as tonality will never go away, corresponding as it does, to something innate and eternal in the human mind. Unless it be step-based, it cannot be classical dance, and to pretend otherwise, is consumer fraud. In his "Ton und Wort" (published in French in 1979 under the title "Musique et Verbe"), the conductor Wilhem Furtwaengler has discussed this with far more knowledge than I can:

"Tonality ... is what allows music to clothe itself with 'form,' the structural element that allows a piece to take on a shape, to build a beginning, a development, and an end. Here, as support to defining a form whose growth is organic, tonality will never 'wear itself out' ... tonality cannot wear out, because it is the living vessel of an organic function. We are ourselves organisms, the laws of organic life are our own laws, and so are we bound by them.... Moreover, as a composer myself, I would never forego... what, in my eyes, remains the most critical aspect: the universal value of what one wishes to express. The moment one abandons that principle, one comes up against 'individualism,' everywhere hard at work today digging the grave of art."

Be that as it may, as the usher solemnly carried a bidet out before the poker-faced Jury, one had to stifle a fit of raucous laughter.

The class that has attracted most attention internationally is that of the Coryphees, contesting promotion to sujet, the reason being the presence of Mlle. Dorothee Gilbert, aged 20, promoted at this Concours.

Currently touted as France's answer to the Romanian principal at Covent Garden, Alina Cojocaru, Mlle. Gilbert has been placed onto the fast-track for appointment to premiere danseuse, just as was the disappointing Eleonora Abbagnato four years ago. Well, we shall all of us have to be getting up very early in the morning to match the deep seriousness, the spiritual elevation, and the simplicity of the Romanian angel. Meanwhile, in 47 years in the trade, I have seen any number of 20-year-olds touted as Major Talents. Few stick the course.

Whether quadrilles, coryphees or even sujet, this theater boasts a number of ladies who may well lack Mlle. Gilbert's pretty jump, her pinpoint accuracy, her startling fluency, but who nonetheless strike this theater-goer as equally, perhaps more, talented. They have already been brushed aside as "too old" -- at 23 or 24, say (!) -- and, like pine trees standing idly about in the forest, are given neither role, nor repertory, to sink their teeth into. Thus, one's sole opportunity to see them, other than in a cast of thousands, is on the day of the Concours. Which is, in point of fact, the main reason this writer attends.

To advance one's technique, and one's stagecraft, one needs roles to work on. How can one tell what those ladies would do, if given half a chance?

What worries me has been better put by Bournonville: "(A) materialistic view of art, that makes physical endowment the foremost qualification.... a handsome appearance, combined with careful instruction, is enough to let one appear with success in principal roles, and even to evoke an enthusiasm which, at a distance, resembles that aroused by genius."

In all events, the strongest contest in the coryphee class was, to my mind, put in by the unpromoted Severine Westermann, who did something most intelligent and artistic with Lifar's Shadow variation from "Mirages." A world that has vanished, a world of sixty or seventy years ago, the thoughts, emotions and cultural references of a generation perhaps only slightly different from our own, but different nevertheless, suddenly appeared before us on the Garnier Stage.

In the class of coryphees, M. Matthew Ganio (19), a danseur noble well over six foot tall, was promoted to sujet, and highest ranked. Through no fault of his own, for the lad is clever, and a very good dancer to boot, this is a chessboard move. Next year, several of the troupe's ablest men -- and least pliant personalities -- will be thirty or nearly thirty, in other words, by today's Roman Coliseum, anti-human standards, they will be past their supermarket shelf-life. At the 2004 Concours, M. Ganio (again, I must stress, through no fault of his own), will be put up against them. One need not be a Biblical Prophet to predict who will be promoted premier danseur.

Promoted to sujet as well was the Italian-trained Simone Valastro, one of this troupe's few truly expressive artists. Never coarse or careless, the man's dancing is sharply-focused and theatrical, his musicality infectious, and at the Concours, in a well-chosen variation from Jerome Robbins's "Dances at a Gathering," his port de bras studied in a way that we are no longer used to seeing here.

In the class of the men quadrilles contesting promotion to coryphee, the set variation from M. Lacotte's reconstruction of Filippo Taglioni's "Sylphide" is notoriously anti-musical and, also, notoriously too difficult, and one accordingly found one's mind wandering. Wandering, to whether there might have been rather more pizzazz and razzamataz, had a very recent, and very able, graduate from the school, M. Medhi Angot not been deemed "too plain," and packed off to England, to cool his heels in driving sleet and eddying pools of icy water.

Amongst the ladies in the quadrilles, contesting promotion to the rank of coryphee, let us salute two of the unpromoted, Miho Fuji and a young Bulgarian, Sarah Kora Dayanova. One generally breaks out into a sardonic grin, as the serpent-infested basket gets knocked about like a tambourine in that dreadful variation of Nikiya's from Nureyev's version of "La Bayadere," but Mlle. Fuji drew tears to the eyes, and, yes, cambre did evoke something, while one quite forgot to calculate angle of aperture! Mlle. Dayanova did some astonishingly beautiful things in her free variation (Aurora). But should one be astonished? Mlle. Dayanova is, I believe, being trained by a lady who would appear to be our answer to the late Professor A. Pushkin, viz., Noella Pontois.

Apart from three intelligent teenagers -- Mlles. Levy and Giezendanner, and, more especially, Mlle. Laure Hecquet -- there are other, slightly older personalities in this class, who are more than strong enough to be tested at roles -- but the roles are never forthcoming, as they are left to moulder away their youth in the obscurity of fatuous choreography.

A Depressing Appointment

For promotion to premiere danseuse, the set variation for the sujets was a little gem of choreography, Neumeier's variation (Louise) from "The Nutcracker" Grand Pas.

A keenly-felt and regretted absence was that of Mlle. Fanny Fiat (who rather recalls Alla Sizova, by the bye), a lady who not only has the technique, but above all, a mind exciting enough to wear the laurel wreath of premiere danseuse. For unknown reasons, perhaps wishing to spare herself another distressing round of non-promotion, she chose not to present herself this year.

Our freshly-promoted premiere danseuse is Mlle. Isabelle Ciaravola. As her head and torso are generally tucked well out of the way behind outlandish hyper-extensions, this writer's attempts to appreciate her work have heretofore failed. So depressing an appointment must give one pause.

In quite different ways, Mlles. Nathalie Aubin (aged 33) and Myriam Ould Braham (aged 21) were impeccable in both variations.

Like the exquisite Miteki Kudo (after several years of inexplicable non-promotion, she has stopped taking the trouble to attend the Concours), Mlle. Aubin is a high-level artist, who, for reasons impenetrable to an outsider, has been relegated to bit parts and stand-ins since the appointment of the current director in 1995. Contesting the Concours for the first time in four or so years, her work was probably the strongest, but the lady was not even ranked by the jury. Was it in allegory to the situation into which current policy appears to have plunged her that she selected as her free variation Nureyev's "Cinderella," in rags, and scrubbing the floor?

Otherwise, the finest work from the class of sujets was put in by Myriam Ould-Braham, a perplexing mixture of delicate classicism, footwork of crystalline purity, and gruesome hyper-extensions.

One would have preferred a deeper plie, but again, a shallow plie is the trend here. May one nevertheless issue a warning: one would not like to see the bod' wrecked and the ligaments stretched out, by a combination of shallow plie and picking up the leg.

Despite the obstruction created by those hyper-extensions, one cannot but be swayed by her art. A small, fair-haired creature, Mlle. Ould Braham looks exactly -- and I do mean exactly -- like the Fouquet miniature at The Hague, painted for Simon de Varye's "Hours." At so early an age, Mlle. Ould Braham has already developed a unique line, her arabesque, in particular, being quite unlike anyone else's. We are in the presence of a most unusual personality. Mlle. Ould Braham seems to be listening, with quiet fervor, to some inner voice.

As the strains of music died away, a knot of people in the trade were heard to breathe as one: "C'est elle!"

But Mlle. Ould Braham was not promoted (there was but one place available), and was ranked only fifth. It is apparently felt that she must diversify into works excreted by the New Dark Age we are currently struggling through.

Lastly, but not least, a disservice was done the class by small errors, but errors nonetheless, heard from the piano.

And so, the 2003 Paris Opera Internal Promotion Concours has come and gone.

No contest was held this year for advancement to premier danseur for the men, for reasons that some would wish opaque. However, as we have just seen in relation to M. Matthew Ganio, it is not all that opaque. On January 6, management pulled off a major publication-relations coup, unveiling to the world the aforesaid young fellow, and two other teenagers in the leads for Igor Grigorovich's "Ivan the Terrible." Talented as the young folk are, let me slam my dainty little fist down onto the table, just for once! At the rank of sujet is to be found one man who is a genius, M. Emmanuel Thibault, amongst several of the finest artists on our continent.

These people are not toy-boys who entered the profession looking to marry into the European aristocracy. They are grown men, who have a degree of competence, and a sense of responsibility towards the public, that can be compared to a structural or nuclear engineer. In the face of such commitment, one would be entitled to expect from management a serious attempt to provide them with intelligent things to dance.

The last time I can recall several of these gentlemen being given a proper role, was, if I'm not mistaken, in March 2003, nigh on a year ago. A year without a role, in a dancer's brief life on stage, is an eternity, and it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain, not only one's technical standards, but the creative intensity that allows one to speak directly to one's public.

Yes, let us give youth a break, and so on, and this may be the Consumer Age, or whatever, but a classical dancer is not a packet of chocolates, to be consumed, crumpled and tossed into the rubbish at age thirty.

Were the world not plunged into economic crisis and earthquake-like political instability, the ideal solution would no doubt be to set up a new troupe, with people from here there and everywhere, who have something important to say in the classical dance, but nowhere to say it. A counterfoil to the Orwellian throng of "Dancer-Athletes" currently wreaking havoc worldwide, with whatever is left of the art form.

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.

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