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Flash Review, 6-1: Advanced forms of Life Amongst the Pterodactyls
Thibault Tilts the Scales in Paris Don Q

By Katharine Kanter
Copyright 2004 Katharine Kanter

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PARIS -- On Sunday May 23 at the Opera Bastille, Emmanuel Thibault made his long-awaited debut in a principal role as Basilio in the Paris Opera Ballet's production of Rudolf Nureyev's "Don Quixote," alongside Dorothee Gilbert as Kitri. Following the performance, colleagues who attempted to get through the crush report, the queue waiting to talk to the man at the stage door stretched for ninety minutes. It wound through the building, up the stairs, and out onto the street.

In an age more sensitive and more artistically inclined, this student of the great Noella Pontois would already wear the laurel wreath, threaded with wire of gold. But, threadbare as the age is, Emmanuel Thibault has been dancing humbly in the corps de ballet over the past decade (even the rank of sujet, which he currently holds, is still considered part of the corps de ballet here), and at lunchtime the day before he danced Basilio, was traipsing about in a crowd of fishermen.

And so the matinee of May 23 was a milestone for the Ballet. His Kitri, Gilbert, is a girl of 20, adroit and astounding in self-assurance, endowed with a many-sided technical facility, and a remarkably scientific approach to the dance. These are early days, and her dancing is still largely focused -- as one would expect in France -- on the legs and feet. But stay tuned for developments in years to come! This is her first major role as well, and the lass has not yet quite the stamina for three very taxing acts. But Gilbert and Thibault ripped through it together like a house on fire.

This being a most extreme profession, stage partnerships are, in their intensity, likely to be more central to an artist's life than any personal concern, and this partnership looks set to go far indeed.

Neither in his famed ballon, nor in his elevation, nor yet in his batterie, does one find the mystery underlying Emmanuel Thibault's work. Others may jump higher, some few have more ballon, some few beat faster, and to be sure, countless men are taller and more photogenic. But Thibault's technique is already a legend amongst his peers, while, more importantly perhaps, rivers of ink have been spilt here over his impeccable musicianship, this being, to this reviewer's knowledge, one of the few dancers in our time who plays on instruments, and reads an orchestral score.

Over the last few days, we have had occasion here in Paris to see Messrs. Ganio, Acosta, and Bolle in the title role of the selfsame ballet. They can all get through Nureyev's shockingly-difficult variations. Purportedly, however, this is an art form, and the question posed is, Where is beauty in all this?

In Nureyev's choreography, as such, there is little or no beauty. It is halting, convulsed, even brutal. Where the steps fail us, beauty must be sought in the relation between the steps and the music. The most significant difference between Thibault's approach and the approaches of the other three stars of the stage seen in this run is that he uses all of the music, as one can see by close study of the small connecting steps. The other three gentlemen -- as do most dancers -- use the connecting steps simply to get to the next Big One. To Thibault, there are no "unimportant" notes in the score, and therefore, no "unimportant" steps. All steps are dancing steps, each properly accented. It is a form of speech, to which there sounds music at all times. Accordingly, the plastique, taken here in its Russian sense, i.e. the process by which geometrical forms of ideal beauty are generated in the dance, exists in this gentleman's work as an unbroken continuum. It arises from the tension between the music, the dance, and this artist's indomitable will to convey clearly and intelligibly to the public the ideas called up by his knowledge of the musical score.

As for the conductor in the pit -- lucky that fellow, to have got a new instrument in his orchestra! The delight on that musician's face is worth a month of Sundays!

Leaving aside for the moment how very droll the mime passages were throughout, allow us to point to one scene in particular, as striking proof of this artist's mastery of the actor's side of his craft.

Far upstage and dimly-lit, infants, attired as Kitri, Basilio, Lorenzo and Camacho play a pantomime scene on a miniature trestle-bridge as Basilio looks on. Thibault's every mime gesture, his scimitar-like ability to focus the audience's attention on the action, and the shedding of the eye-light, "lights" the trestle-bridge and "carries" it with its tiny occupants, well downstage.

Over the course of the ten years since this writer first saw this artist, he has changed a thousand things about his mime, his use of the stage, his partnering. What has never changed is the same irrepressible joy.

Only a few days after this performance, the same dancer, in the same ballet, took on the role of the foul-mouthed, coarse and slovenly Gypsy Prince. Gone, vanished, the playful, the amiable Basilio. Here, every detail of movement, the character's gaze and even bodily weight has been altered, to become that strutting gypsy ego-state.

One can only hope that by some great stroke of luck -- does anyone out there have the ear of Pierre Lacotte -- we shall find Thibault on the Paris stage dancing James this coming July.

And so, this has been an interesting week.

On the night of May 20, in this same ballet, and only very shortly after the strapping six-footer Marie-Agnes Gillot was appointed etoile, so too was the 19-year-old sujet Matthew Ganio appointed, over the heads of several premiers danseurs, notably Messrs. Pech and Carbone. As the curtain thudded down, cheering was heard backstage, and that was that.

Who is the boy, and what might lie behind this curious move?

Ganio is a comely lad, tall, and well set up. He has a pleasant if somewhat bland personality, and is a good dancer. Both his parents are prominent figures in the dance world.

Otherwise, we know nothing whatsoever of Ganio. Neither tried nor tested, he has held no major roles save three performances of Basilio. In December 2003 at the internal Concours, and despite six months' absence for injury, Ganio was promoted to sujet alongside the rather more vivid Simone Valastro. Now, we find him ruling the roost, and one cannot but wonder, why?

Turning briefly to our prejudices (we all have them, I believe), I must own to one in favor of Myriam Ould-Braham, dancing on several nights as one of Kitri's two friends, and as Cupid. One can quite see why Markova wanted the young lady to appear in the recent film on her life: not only does the actual shape and use of Ould-Braham's sinewy foot recall that ballerina, but she is possessed, in embryo, of that same ineffable and very personal quality of motion. In a troupe that is, overall, a plastique-free zone, here is the exception: the torso and arms placed in calm beauty, even in the most abrupt of passages. Note the gargouillades, each tiny circle graven in bronze; the flying assemblees a textbook definition of "brio," the play with the fan as though to the manner born....

Now, if the lady could but keep those legs down....

Not to mention Melanie Hurel as Cupid would be absurd! Although her dance-quality is perhaps not so fluent, the lady's stage intelligence more than makes up for this. The moment Hurel appears, she establishes eye-contact with her Dulcinea and her Queen of the Dryads, setting up, as they dance in trio, a counter-point between her steps and theirs, her very arm movements set delicately against theirs. Never dancing for herself alone, she is probably the only lady in the Opera who still marks the up accent on pique turns. One lovely example of her musical timing is the attitude devant on balance in Cupid's variation. Before unfolding the developpe, she holds the attitude both times, for a mere second, as though tossing a kiss to the public, and then only, developpe. Ould-Braham, exquisite as she was, ignored that clearly marked pause in the music.

The more one watches Hurel dance, the more one realizes that we should all be studying her work very carefully.

On to this "Don Quixote" production itself:

At this particular moment in time, one hesitates to voice the faintest criticism of classical dance productions as they have become a very scarce commodity, and one can hear the chorus roaring, "So, you'd rather have Jerome Bel then...?"

My point, jadies and lentilmen, remains: had we better choreography, and were it better instructed, classical dance would be a Mass Movement, and we would not have got ourselves into the pickle now salting all our bones.

A version severely revised by Nureyev after Marius Petipa, this "Don Quixote" is certainly one of the weakest in the international repertory, on account of its lamentable score -- Minkus reworked by John Lanchberry -- feeble intrigue, and bone-crunching choreography. The mime prologue, Act I, and the gypsy camp in Act II are almost entirely the work of Nureyev, and Act III has been extensively reworked by him as well. The Minkus-Lanchberry score is a muddle of catchy tunes to tinny orchestration, with neither musical coherency, nor development. There is some ugly, syrupy, slurpy stuff in there -- one should not be surprised to find the orchestra having great difficulty in staying awake.

The ballet opens with a mime scene so limp that it quickly palls. Don Quixote, who has precious little to do in this ballet that bears his name, jerks nervously about on a pallet, occasionally rising to swing a sword. A trio of maids appears, all tooth-grindingly off the music, followed by Sancho Panza who has, inscrutably, become a monk. Where is the gross, fat, lazy brute of a peasant? And casting as Sancho Panza Simone Valastro, a slender youth of 23 who also happens to be a first-rate classical dancer? Hard as the lad tries -- and he is a damn good mime -- this is not a school lark with the girls at Saint Trinian's. Couldn't a 60-year-old professor, suitably pot-bellied, be found to play this? Otherwise, the mime scenes given Sancho Pano are nothing but pointless vulgarity.

I am also dubious about the way the character of Kitri is being instructed. Judging by all the Kitris we have seen here, the view at the Paris Opera seems to be that this is a brazen little piece, hard, and somewhat over-aware of the ways of the world. But this is Spain, in the early 19th century! Teenaged girls, even inkeeper's daughters, were not like that! A saucy, daring little minx, certainly, but an innocent one.

As for the so-called "Gypsy" dances, what gypsies? Romanian? Hungarian? or Greek perhaps? What are those dances? How did Caucasian steps wend their way into a gypsy camp?

The splendid POB corps de ballet we find reduced to stage props, in the most conventional of groupings and with little to do but simper, and wear costumes nicely, despite heroic efforts to hold the corps together by Christophe Duquenne and Yann Saiz (the latter was extraordinary) in the role of Espada. When they do get to dance, we are treated to an Amoklauf, wild pandemonium where everyone, and I do mean everyone, is off the music. The beat comes down, clearly, and then one hears, equally clearly, and staggered like machine gun fire, everyone coming down off it, in a clatter of pointes or heeled-shoes.

If we cannot help dancers to pay heed to the music first and foremost, there is no point in instructing them to stand on lines and orientate to points on the stage. The classical dance is a musical form, and if people stop their ears, they'll break alignment. Within the difficulty, it's that "simple." Which brings us back to the issues we raised above, in relation to Thibault's work: Rather than starting with the step, and then crumpling and distressing the music to 'fit' the steps, he starts with the music, tempering the steps so that the music -- not his ego -- speaks.

Were we to start from the music, we would have to instruct everyone to close those articulations, get the legs down, and stop dancing all the steps so humungously big. (And stop trying to make nine turns.) One cannot dance for the music, and dance to impress the eye as well. The two are incompatible.

Thus, the street-dancer's variations, no matter who performs them, are a hideous mess, precisely what Bruce Marks, the choreographer, teacher, and a former artistic director of the Boston Ballet, means when he speaks of "the over-energizing of dance," a point echoed recently by the POB etoile Aurelie Dupont in an interview with Dance Europe.

And pity poor Kitri! The ladies' variations, including hers, are supposed to be dainty, piquant and coquettish. Neither spectacular, nor gigantic, nor bone-crunching. The Queen of the Dryads should be calm, majestic. How can any instructor listen to the latter's weird step, a kind of pterodactyl-like hybrid of an outsized glissade (proto-crustacean of the Jurassic era) crossed with a jete a la seconde (proto-fowl of the Jurassic era), as it comes crashing down into the ground with ear-splitting din? And those developpes with the ladies' undies on full display! So undignified!

In terms of casting, of the Dryad queens, only Aurore Cordellier has -- at least to my mind -- sufficient poetic imagination to inhabit the role.

Speaking of undignified, if someone could explain to me what that thing was that Carlos Acosta attempted at the start of his final Act III variation, I should be most grateful. Apparently the step's name is "catiole," and according to reports on www.dansomanie.net, Nureyev wrote it in, but it looks not only incredibly bad for the back, but rather like a rhinoceros in full flight. Or perhaps a motorized hippopotamus splooshng up from the Nile?

Overall, Gang, and speaking of the Nile, could we try to remember that this is NOT "Riverdance"? (Then we ask with false naivete why so many are out injured, including three of the men initially scheduled to dance Basilio, and a couple of Kitris as well!)

Bruce Marks was this past month in Denmark instructing Bournonville's "Abdallah," from 1855. He told Amy Watson, dancing the role of the Gazelle of Basra: "Don't dance it. Mark it. On stage. Dance throughout as though you were marking it."

Mark that!

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