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Flash Review Journal, 4-7: Re-awakened Dreams and Emerging Nightmares
"Midsummer" with Farrell & Co.; Bad "Signes" from Carlson and the Paris Opera Ballet; de Soto Blows; De Keersmaeker Plays with Miles

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004 The Dance Insider
Photo copyright Icare

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Editor's Note: To celebrate the centennial of George Balanchine, the Dance Insider is providing international coverage of Balanchine's legacy.

PARIS -- In a pristine color print finally found last summer after many years of searching, Dan Eriksen and George Balanchine's 1967 film "A Midsummer Night's Dream," based on Balanchine's 1962 ballet of the Shakespeare play, is a breathtaking reminder of Suzanne Farrell, Arthur Mitchell, Edward Villella, Patricia McBride, Mimi Paul, Allegra Kent, Jacques d'Amboise and New York City Ballet in its glorious prime.

Seen Saturday at the Palais de Chaillot theater of the Cinematheque de la Danse during a special Balanchine weekend, the film absorbs as a time capsule in the purest sense: Everything is preserved and revealed as if new. Watching Farrell -- simultaneously a dance phenom and, as the late and unparalleled City Ballet chronicler Joe Mazo might have said (and probably did) a dewy-eyed, ivory-skinned knockout -- one can only imagine the effect she must have had live, and envy those (like Joe) who were there at the birth. From a technical standpoint (be still my heart!), what astounds about Farrell's Titania is that there is no line between virtuosity and naturalness; she's an unassuming marvel. After she goes up on pointe, there is no break -- from ethereal to earthbound -- when she falls off it. I don't mean that she topples but rather that in descending as an earthling, she makes the preceding position seem natural, too.

Villella, who created Oberon, is more regal -- he is more mature at this point, after all -- but equally fleet and nonchalant in his jumps and entrechats. The only modern equivalent I've really seen is American Ballet Theatre's Jose Manuel Carreno. It's not that he's weak or lazy or careless or aloof, but rather, the presentation is more simple than show-off. It's the restraint of majesty.

Mitchell created Puck, too, and watching his performance after having seen later interpreters (notably Albert Evans and Tom Gold), one can see that Mitchell cut the template. He has fun here, and his feet blur -- in the good sense -- especially on his entrance, flying by in the forest. (Typically for France, the dance critic for Le Figaro, who introduced the film, had to qualify Mitchell as the great "black" dancer. I probably don't need to tell you that no such pigment was attached to Farrell or Villella.) As the female halfs of the Puck-crossed lovers, McBride (Hermia) and even more Paul (Helena) motor the dramatic kernel of the story; their flickering feet bare their hearts, riding the vivid strains of the Mendelssohn score, conducted by Robert Irving. Their partners, Nicholas Magallanes (Lysander) and Roland Vasquez (Demetrius) are more restrained, and indeed have been excelled in more recent productions, notably by Nilas Martins. Richard Rapp's Bottom has also been rendered with more unbridled foolishness.

But the real transformers and revealers of Balanchine's intentions were Kent and d'Amboise's second act court dancers. This is probably heresy to Balanchine die-hards, but veering more towards the narrative than the abstract, I've sometimes departed before part 2 of this ballet; it's seemed to me an abstract add-on, reflecting the choreographer's desire to offer a pure dance element. But after watching d'Amboise and Kent, I think maybe I just haven't seen the roles properly interpreted. For if the steps are abstract, here the relationship is not. It's clearly a tested, complex love relationship; the money moment is delivered when they're not even touching, but pause while ascending the stairs and look at each other; like a seasoned couple might do from across the room in the middle of a party. The gaze acknowledges an unseverable connection, and thus links this act with the lovers' triumph of the first.

The other major revelation of seeing New York City Ballet circa 1967 is that not only are the dancers' arms invested, but their backs actually move, and pliantly. It's a startling reminder that the by-and-large stiff-backed dancers coming out of the School of American Ballet last time I checked NYCB (in 2001 or 2002) are an aberration to the intended Balanchine technique (copyright and... copy right!)

Saturday's screening was preceded by a tres rare gem from 1933: a seven-minute, color excerpt of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in Balanchine's 1932 "Cotillon," starring the 14-year-old Tamara Toumanova and also featuring the choreographer. Balanchine whirls, a tuxedoed, manic blur in sea of tulle. The segment, furnished by the Dance Collection of the New York Public Library, ends with Toumanova, indefatigable, executing a series of seemingly unending fouettes, alone on the stage and, in the end, encircled by the rest of the cast.

Of course, this piece originated on this side of the Ocean, and when one thinks of how contemporary ballet has devolved here, from Balanchine to "Signes," the Carolyn Carlson embarrassment I caught April 1 at the Bastille on the Paris Opera Ballet, it's a foreboding sign. Embarrassment because, moving to the faux New Age score of Carlson's husband, Rene Aubrey, ducking the awkward mobile paintings of Olivier Debre, the dancers frankly look like they don't want to be there, with the exception, maybe, of a stand-out, transcendent Amelie Lamoureux. Watching the classicist Herve Courtain forced to contort his noble chest bare to the music of this piper from dance hell, one can understand why Courtain has been passed over for promotion to premier dancer; his gifts are evidently not valued here these days. Even the normally sublime Marie-Agnes Gillot, who was able to transcend Jiri Kylian's Euro-trashey "Stepping Stones" on its recent performance here, cannot find a moment to shine, what with dodging pastel giant-sized triangles. Gillot's recent promotion to etoile was long-overdue, but that it was conferred after a performance of this particular work boggles the mind. Or maybe not; on exiting this cold space, one is met by a subscription-advertising poster featuring this elegant ballerina unceremoniously languishing in a bidet. One can't help but wonder if this is the direction the Paris repertory is headed too.
Marie-Agnes Gillot of the Paris Opera Ballet in Olivier Debre's costume for Carolyn Carlson's "Signes." Photo copyright Icare, courtesy Paris Opera Ballet. Set by Olivier Debre.

Don't get me wrong! If anything, I think that the pool of probing modern dance choreographers provides the answer to the eternal "where are all the new ballet choreographers?" question. Take Olga de Soto, whose new "Incorporer" I caught recently at the Pompidou Centre, on a last-minute tip from a New York colleague. (You know who you are!)

De Soto tests me at first, too, as yet another dancer enters with the Paris post-modern dance demeanor du jour, a sort of neo-pedestrianism which, to my mind (I wasn't there) seems to misunderstand the Judson aspect. Even pedestrians are engaged, but the dancers I've seen in this mode simply aren't, pretending that we aren't there and not entirely mindful that they are. Vincent Druguet, the main interpreter for "Incorporer," starts out like this, a blase island on a vast stage. De Soto appears too, but after the fashion of a sort of third base coach, coaxing the player and occasionally providing equipment -- in this case balloons and water bottles -- before retreating to the far upstage right corner of the stage where she plays a sort of water music, turning over clear boxes that drip with the liquid.

Maintaining the disinterested manner, Druguet blows up the balloon and plays with it a bit. In the course of the dance, he lets the air completely out of the balloon, then begins to play with exhale and inhale, deflation, and how they affect the body's balance and trajectory -- as if he were the balloon. He inflates another balloon, and we see it contains a small orange ball. When he deflates it a bit, the ball seems to motor up and the balloon to propel him all over the stage. Later, de Soto hands him a balloon with water in it which he inflates and, finally, sits on and explodes. Then, regularly looking to the choreographer for cues, he taps out a water ballet of sorts on the wet stage under his bare feet, before tossing a last balloon whimsically into the air. I fear my descriptive powers have failed me and you here, but the essence of why this ballet worked for me is that the choreographer was really working, setting herself and her dancer a task clearly prime for dance exploration, involving a balloon and its implications for breath and mobility. Water balloon games may be prohibited in public parks here -- I'm not making this up -- but they should definitely be encouraged on the stage.

'Play' often plays into Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker's explorations, and "Bitches Brew - Tacoma Narrows," previously reviewed here by Tara Zahra, and playing the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt through Friday, is not exception. After seeing the French premiere Monday, I have more reservations than my colleague. Claire Diez's program notes liken De Keersmaeker's work, involving 13 dancers, to the Miles Davis piece, "Bitches Brew," to which its set, originating from a session of 13 musicians. "Her style is no more one, but 13," suggests Diez. But dancers aren't always choreographers, and the American dance-hall moves chosen by the performers, if not quite so mocking as was De Keersmaeker's "One" of Joan Baez, become repetitive and tiring by the end. Still, at a time when the Ballet here seems to be veering towards a mechanized, inorganic future and much of the post-modern oeuvre eschews using music, it's refreshing to have a reminder from this modern classicist of the essential connection -- after all, it's how most of us first access dance -- between music and dance. And that it's not only okay but occasionally even liberating to smile.

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