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Paris Journal, 5-3: Shadows of our Forgotten Ancestors
Long Live Taglioni; Taglioni is Dead

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- The good news is that on Friday, April 23, 2004, 200 years after she was born, Marie Taglioni received a visit by a representative of the Paris Opera Ballet, the company with which Taglioni was most associated, and with which she singularly elevated the Dance when she rose expressively on pointe in her father Filippo Taglioni's "La Sylphide" in 1832. As well, Taglioni's monumental legacy was recognized by the official Italian Institute here. The bad news is that a few hours after POB dancer Sophie Parcen and I paid tribute to Taglioni by arraying her deteriorating grave at the Montmartre Cemetery with 36 pairs of pointe shoes donated and signed by the Australian Ballet dancers and by Bloch, and by reading the Italian Institute's proclamation in French and English, Taglioni not only passed unremarked upon at the Paris Opera House or Garnier, but was blasphemed on its stage. On the very evening the company should have been publicly giving thanks to the prima ballerina of all prima ballerinas and reminding its audience of the power of the expressively inhabited pointe shoe, director of dance Brigitte Lefevre instead chose to feature a work with dancers in bare feet. On an occasion which could have offered a refresher in the cathartic possibilities of the Romantic ballet which entered the world on Taglioni's toes, Lefevre chose to end the evening with a tableau of pointless desolation, her splay-legged, dejected star plopped on her derriere on the lip of the stage.

The barefoot ballet in question was yet another incoherent, bad-idea-in-the-first-place attempt to scale the imposing mountain that is Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." The road of 20th-century dance history is littered with the carnage of choreographers who have attempted to repeat the initial, revolutionary success of Nijinsky's premiere version of 1913. Paul Taylor would seem to bring more to the table than many of these -- Serious Paul Taylor, that is. Unfortunately, for his "Rite of Spring, the Rehearsal," we get Silly Paul who, as is often the case with this side of the dance master's choreographically split personality, devolves tout de suite into Incoherent Paul. From reading the program notes ahead of time, one intimates that hoods are involved, as well as a pursuing detective, and that much of the action takes place in a dance studio. But once the ballet starts, there appear to be at least two gang leaders and at least two molls, the detective seems to get arrested and despite the (again) heroic (interpretation and dance-wise) efforts of Muriel Zusperreguy in the one through-line role ("The Girl"), there's little sense to be made of what passes. This is one of those dances where if you didn't know the name of the choreographer, you'd assume this was his first and last contribution to the form, and you'd be reaching for the hook after about ten minutes.

Taylor is one of those choreographers whose gifts aren't always apparent on the surface of the choreography; inflection counts for a lot. While Serious Paul's works have been given profound readings by ballet companies -- that I've seen, San Francisco Ballet's "Company B" and American Ballet Theatre's "Black Tuesday" stand out as poignant productions where subtle shadings were highlighted -- ballet ensembles as a rule (notwithstanding the rare comedian like Robert LaFosse) don't do well with silly; they are too rigid. Add the inherent, characteristically French restraint, and there was probably little stagers Ruth Andrien and Kenneth Tosti could have done to save this production.

More critically, though: About midway through I realized that here I was in the home of the Paris Opera Ballet on the bicentennial of the birth of the effective mother of pointe, and not only was the company's dance director refusing to honor Taglioni -- there was no mention on stage nor in the program -- she was actually dishonoring her memory by presenting a ballet in which the dancers danced barefoot. Shame, shame, shame. (Through the POB press office, I asked Lefevre why she had decided to program this barefoot ballet for this night and why there had been no mention of or tribute to Taglioni April 23, and was no tribute planned. I also asked whether the Paris Opera had any plans to repair or replace Taglioni's deteriorating tomb. To date, I have received no response.)

As troubling, in a way, was the new 'ballet' with which Lefevre chose to end this evening that marked Taglioni's bicentennial. From the program notes, "La Septieme Lune" (in English, "The Seventh Moon") from the appropriately named Davide Bombana, wants to be inspired by Noh drama at the same time (have we heard this before?) it disclaims any attempt at fidelity to the Japanese form. In other words, from an art form much of whose impact owes itself to, well, the grace of the form, Bombana has taken not the form but inspiration for the scenario, or at least the naming of the scenario. That scenario would seem to involve a woman (on April 23, Agnes Letestu) who, after an orgastically rendered opening encounter with a man (Jose Martinez) waits in vain for him for years until he finally returns. You wouldn't know this if you hadn't read the program notes, because in the actual dance, Martinez returns again and again (How can I miss you if you won't go away?), only to retreat in gravity (and in black, 'natch). The intervals are marked by Fury-like men (in black leather-like pants and, at one point, black tops of see-through, nipple-revealing netting, 'natch encore) rushing furiously about the stage. At last, exhausted by her fickle lover, the ballerina collapses on her butt near the lip of the stage, with hanging head and splayed bare legs.

Now, I suppose one could say that there's at least an echo of Taglioni's 'Sylphide' here, in that the heroine is felled because of the actions of her lover. But if there's resemblance, there's no resonance. "La Sylphide," having introduced the Romantic Era into ballet, offers deliverance, if not to its characters than to its spectators; we see the consequence of the hero's actions which, even if selfishly, were motivated at a base level by the desire for union with his beloved. We learn a lesson, and hopefully emerge from the spetacle the better for it. Bombana has no lesson to offer; this is pure nihilism, and not just because everyone's dressed in black. Worse, the choice of this ballet by Mme Lefevre is no accident, judging by next season's programming -- and program guide.

I am looking at that guide now; by the choice of new Opera director (the Opera here comprises both the national opera and ballet companies, and is headed by a general director who theoretically is Mme Lefevre's superior), Gerard Mortier, the descriptions of the opera and ballet offerings are accompanied not by production photos, but by the (mostly) nihilistic photography of California (I cover my own head in shame) 'videoaste' Bill Viola. The photos are taken from Viola's series "The Passions." Theoretically, there might be some justification for illustrating a season guide with images that abstractly illustrate the themes of the works to be presented; indeed, in going over the book with my artist- and Opera lover-father, I found I could be convinced that some of the images relate to the works they advertise. (A naked, descending female corps for Rudolf Nureyev's production of Shakespeare's "Romeo & Juliette," for example.) But context is everything. "Passions" can be positive, too, and there is little of that in the portfolio presented here, in which evocations of suffering, dying, and dead people (including, reportedly, the videoaste's dead mother) feature heavily. This is simply nihilism. In the context of the coming ballet season, which features only three classical and NO romantic ballets, it warns of a bleak future for the Paris Opera Ballet, and indicates it is no accident that its pioneering paragon of Romantic Ballet stands (by the company's directorate, at least) forgotten.

(The Spectacle de Ballets seen April 23 also included Nijinska's "Noces." Having not previously seen this major work, I don't think I can justly evaluate the Paris dancers' interpretation and thus will not be critiquing this performance.)

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