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Flash Review 1, 3-3: They Sing the Body Electric
'Ugly' Beauties in Jiri Kylian

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004 The Dance Insider

Photos Copyright ICARE

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PARIS -- In "Hymn," Judith Jamison's homage to Alvin Ailey, Anne Deavere Smith, acting a narration based on text by Ailey, extols the "ugly" dancer. (Click here to read Jennifer Dunning's New York Times review of a recent performance.) It's a paean to the profound power of expression in the unusual dancing body in an art which more often defers to the deified beautiful physique of the moment. I was reminded of the depth of these human landscapes watching Celine Talon and Wilfried Romoli in Jiri Kylian's new "Il faut qu'une porte..." on the Paris Opera Ballet, Monday at the Palais Garnier.

First, a word about these two gifted dancers. In considering Romoli in the context of the "ugly" dancer, I may be prejudiced by having first seen him as Quasimoto in Roland Petit's "Notre Dame de Paris." My first view of a dancer, particularly when it blows me away, tends to influence subsequent impressions -- almost as if I still see the character as much as the dancer who first impressed me. Romoli often seems a sort of creature to me, or, at least, somewhat other-worldly and not entirely in this one. If anything, the one weakness of this demi-character dancer -- whose line is as clean as his portraits are finely-etched -- is that he often plays zombie. Some roles, like the Moor in Mikhail Fokine's "Petrouchka," are appropriately accentuated by this aspect, but others, like his Hilarion in Mats Ek's "Giselle," are almost distorted. (When I wrote the review to which we've linked, this didn't bother me so much, as I was still entranced by the Romoli's Quasi.)
Celine Talon and Wilfried Romoli of the Paris Opera Ballet in Jiri Kylian's "Il faut qu'une porte..." Photo copyright ICARE, courtesy Paris Opera Ballet.

When Kylian's new work (inspired by Fragonard's "Le Verrou") opens with an extended slo-mo segment of reaching and grasping and twisting and back-to-back partnerning and attempts at flight, I worried that the zombie had been once again resurrected. In some vignettes, it works, as when Romoli shows absolutely no visible reaction to the creaking sound which accompanies his mimed attempt to open the door's heavy latch. (Dirk Haubrich made the score, "after" Louis Couperin. The uncredited set consists of a wide and high bed against a wall dominated by a red curtain, and the door at stage left.) But eventually the pace and the dancers' bodies relaxed to real-timing, and Romoli's expression did too.

Really, I think it would be impossible to remain a zombie when holding, grappling, provoking and responding to Celine Talon. If you've not seen the company, Talon is that dancer -- of whom most companies have at least one -- who is almost universally acclaimed by an adoring audience even as management remains apparently blind to her virtues, or at any rate not so aware that it would promote her above the level of sujet to premiere danseuse, followed here by etoile. If Romoli's virtue and occasional liability is his control, Talon's main gift is her utter exuberance and vivacity. Culturally, and I say this at the risk of revealing a cultural prejudice, she seems more Italian than French; there is no restraint, just gusto. This spirit is apparent even in the quickest gestures; "Il faut' commences when the silent tableau of Romoli sitting at one side of the massive satined bed holding an upside-down chair and Talon sitting on a chair on the other side is broken by her suddenly throwing a bouquet downstage.

After this, I was cringing for the first third of the dance -- not at the performance, but at seeing what looked like yet another European love duet that depicts wooing as wrestling -- think "Taming of the Shrew." But then it became more humorous -- and when a French audience can't restrain itself from laughing out loud, you know it's funny! The door finally pried open, Talon tries to leave, and is restrained by Romoli's hold on her long dress, until she finally eludes him. The bouquet is tossed back and forth. My own insensitivity to the nuances of couples handicaps me from decoding the nuances of the partnering that ensued, so I'll deflect by returning to the choreographer of this "ugly" dance.
Jiri Kylian (foreground) rehearses the Paris Opera Ballet's Aurelie Dupont and Manuel Legris in "Il faut qu'une porte..." Photo copyright ICARE, courtesy Paris Opera Ballet.

As the founder and frequent choreographer of Netherlands Dance Theater III, a company of over-40 performers, Kylian is in fact in his element making work on dancers besides those who are in their lithe primes. He soaks in the nuances such dancers are capable of delivering, and these particular two dancers, Talon and Romoli, soak in the many shades he's provided them with in this new dance. It strikes me that the novelty Kylian's brought to ballet the past thirty years is not just in the outer combinations he's devised, but equally in the inner landscapes he's mined.

.... Which isn't to say he doesn't stray to superficial dynamism. With Joke Visser's hideous reptilian-skinned costumes and Michael Simon's ponderous lighting and "symbolically meaningful" set of Sphinx-like creatures and square stones and hovering, ominously shifting mobile, Kylian's 1991 "Stepping Stones" verges on over-wrought superficial European -- oh all right, Euro-trash. It didn't strike me this way the first time I saw the piece, on American Ballet Theatre, but that's probably because it was a welcome stretch in that repertoire. Seen on this company, the work is revealed as more shallow. (I'm not saying these dancers are shallow, but that outside of the ABT context, in which even something so mundane seems to enlarge the rep., the work is unmasked in its natural and boring state.) The exception, in the performance I saw, was Marie-Agnes Gillot -- another ballerina inexplicably kept at the level of premiere danseuse while inferior dancers are fast-tracked to etoile. But I guess I shouldn't really be surprised to see her surpass the work -- Gillot often elevates her material; she's that type of dancer. Now that I've seen more of both of them, I realize that it was probably she (aided by partner Clairemarie Osta) who made Angelin Preljocaj's "Annonciation," seem better than it was when I caught it in 2000. Uncannily, and notwithstanding her suppression at her current rank by management, Gillot is actually getting better. In this performance -- in, well, in trashy flashy choreography -- she eliminates what had been her one deficit, occasionally brittle dancing. She's fluid, rubbery -- a veritable Plasticwoman, except Plasticman is not so graceful.

I began by considering the "ugly" dancer. Maybe this is a good opportunity to make sure the sense in which I use the word doesn't get lost in the translation engine by our French readers. What I really mean by "ugly" is simply the dancer whose features and the way she uses them in expression set her apart from her peers. I wish now you could see Gillot's face, too, for it marks her, as the final touch to her exquisite dancing and evocative interpretations, as a work of art.

The Paris Opera Ballet performs the Spectacle de Ballets Jiri Kylian, including the two works reviewed above and the 1999 "Doux Mensonges," again tonight at the Garnier, with Aurelie Dupont and Manuel Legris in the new work. The Netherlands Dance Theater brings four works by Jiri Kylian to the Brooklyn Academy of Music next week, and to Cal Performances in Berkeley March 24-28. Three of the works on these bills have previously been reviewed by the Dance Insider: "Last Touch," "Symphony of Psalms," and "Click - Pause - Silence."

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