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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
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
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
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
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"
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.
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.,
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.
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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