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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
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
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
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
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"
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
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
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."
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