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Paris Journal, 10-21: Artifacts
Parcen, Hoffman, Maffre & Lacotte Pay Homage to Taglioni; Monnier Dabbles on the Dance Floor; Halprin Intensive

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004 The Dance Insider

From Pointe Power to Powerpoint

PARIS -- In 12 years of observing, interviewing, critiquing, and working with dancers, four words I've never heard a dancer say are "I can't do that." And indeed, when we visited the ornate theater of the Italian Institute here last spring to evaluate whether its elegant but petite, column-constricted, and very hard Marley-less floor would be suitable for a dance performance, the Paris Opera Ballet's Sophia Parcen didn't say these words either. She folded her arms reflectively, regarded the space and particularly the floor doubtfully, shook her head and raised her eyebrows, and explained that the floor would be hard on her pointes, that there was no room to jump and little to maneuver much. We agreed that at most, Parcen could offer some poses from the Romantic vocabulary for our and the Institute's September 30 bicentennial homage to and discussion of the legacy of Marie Taglioni, the first dancer to use pointe artistically (and no doubt the first to not say "I can't do that").

But Parcen is a dancer and so voila!, when she took the stage for a gem of a tribute September 30, what followed was a tour-de-force of the gamut of Romantic expression, from the pointes of her pointe shoes to the tilted carriage of her head at the proper moments. She turned, she jumped, she expanded the stage beyond its apparent lateral and vertical dimensions -- working (and this grace was the product of work) with an extract from Gabriel Faure's "Emeraudes" (Pelleas et Melisande), she transported us back to the 1832, alchemized dance and music to take us to a rarified place and, in spirit and feat, gave us a reminder of what Romantic ballet is capable of. In the process, she also reminded us of what dancers are capable of. As my Dance Insider colleague Robin Hoffman put it, "She made us forget the limitations of the space."

Robin's own rigorous Powerpoint presentation, using contemporary photographs by Ellen Crane and Marty Sohl as well as archival images from Taglioni's time and afterwards, traced the Romantic legacy from Filippo Taglioni's "La Sylphide," the ballet in which Marie Taglioni first used pointe artistically in 1832, to the "heightened femininity" of Les Ballets Trockadero, including "the fiery Olga Supphosova," a.k.a. Robert Carter. "I think Carter is particularly funny," she explained, "because his pointe dancing is so virtuosic that he wins you over.... The line between fantasy and reality blurs very effectively. I have to wonder if the Trocks feel the same closeness to their pointe shoes as I did to mine. I bet they do."

Perhaps no modern ballet choreographer save William Forsythe has heightened the possibilities of the art like John Neumeier, the Milwaukee-born director of the Hamburg Ballet. Expanding on a photograph of Hamburg's Heather Jurgensen in Neumeier's "Bernstein Dances," Robin pointed out, "She looks like a chic modern woman, openly expressive. I've heard pointe shoes criticized along with corsets as being restrictive, hampering of movement, and binding. I think this photo illustrates my opinion to the contrary. After all, pointe shoes, combined with good ballet technique, give a liberation and nimbleness, an ability to change direction faster, and move in ways not possible without pointe. They don't make a woman weaker or more constrained, since she must achieve a great deal of strength and mastery to dance well on pointe. I think this is also one reason that pointe, and ballet, have stayed with us in dance, always finding useful expression."

I can't personally relate to the challenges and exhilarations of dancing on pointe, but as the son of an architect, I loved Robin's analysis of an Ellen Crane photograph of San Francisco Ballet's Muriel Maffre in Balanchine's "Agon": "This photo...reminds me of a modern skyscraper, in which earth and cosmos are connected. This arabesque stretches between earth and sky. Again the fact that she is on pointe helps achieve the illusion, even though it is an ideal opposite of the Romantic one. So, the use of pointe work has found its place again in art." (We will share the rest of Robin's presentation as well as Crane's and Sohl's photographs in a future Dance Insider Photo Album.)

Maffre joined us in person for the conference portion of the evening, opening the discussion by reading from Theophile Gautier's June 3, 1844 La Presse review of Taglioni's return to Paris at the age of 40 to reprise "La Sylphide" with the Paris Opera Ballet. Gautier's observation that Paris is quick to forget resonated particularly well with the French-born and trained Maffre, who has danced mostly 'in exile' since 1990, as a principal dancer for the San Francisco Ballet. But she doesn't seem to have been forgotten; au contraire! When I asked Maffre how she managed to use the strength of technique to achieve and convey the etherealness of the Sylphide -- I've been transported by her in this role in Bournonville's production -- fellow panelist Pierre Lacotte, who reconstructed the Taglioni original, interjected: "Muriel was born a star. She dances from the heart."

Taking off my reporter's hat for a moment and donning my publisher's beret, we'd like to thank the Italian Institute's Giorgio Ferrara and Paolo Grossi for graciously hosting the evening in the elegant and historic Hotel Gallifet. In addition to the above-named participants, we'd also like to thank the following supporters of the Dance Insider's ongoing efforts to preserve and celebrate the legacy of Marie Taglioni: Australian Ballet, Bloch, Body Wrappers, Evelyn Cisneros, Edward Ellison, Esse Aficionado, Nicholas Birns, Nolini Barretto, Joy Williams Brown, Eileen Darby, Maina Gielgud, Giovanna La Paglia Ballet Studio, Martha Graham Dance Company, Ivor Guest, Christine Jowers, Katharine Kanter, Timothy Heathcote, Peter Kyle, Stephan Laurent, Julie Lemberger, David McAllister, Sophie Maopoil, Francis Mason, Rebecca Mosley, Martha Mountain, Dennis Mullen, Russian Ballet magazine, Madeleine Nichols, Jerome Robbins Dance Colllection/New York Public Library, Anna Arias Rubio, Cynthia Quinn, Quinn Pendleton, Santa Clara Ballet, Sara Sweet Rabidoux, Tobi Tobias, Dick Turner, Lucy Venable, Hannah Wiley and Ed Winer.

To learn how you can contribute and find out about free advertising premiums available for contributors, e-mail me at paul@danceinsider.com. To read the latest news about our efforts to restore and preserve Taglioni's memory, please click here.

Researching with Monnier

Despite the unlimited possibilities of pointe -- as Alonzo King once told me, ballet is just a mathematical system or language -- choreographers continue to search for ideas from other influences. I'd never seen Mathilde Monnier's work until this week, but judging from the PR material, Monnier likes to pose herself a problem or a question and then set about to explore solutions. Her topics vary. Judging from the results in "Publique," seen Tuesday in its Paris premiere at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt in a co-presentation with the Festival d'Automne, this avenue -- roving from topic to topic -- has its limitations.

Working to the anthemic yet highly personal music of rocker P.J. Harvey -- it plays to stadiums as well as your gut -- Monnier set about to create a sort of party between good friends. Anger, angst, meditation and even a dose of solipsism on the dance floor. Also joy; my dancer companion said she liked "Publique" because it made her happy, and I don't make light of this result in the milieu of an often ponderous French dance scene. (She also observed that the opening tableau, in which the eight pedestrian dance hall-clothed dancers sort of fidgeted about the space, reminded her of her school-days rumpus room, where trouble-makers were sent.) And yet, as always in dance concerts that would replicate, reflect, or riff on dance clubs, my question is: Have you taken us further? Have you used your educated moving body to help us understand the 'naive' moving body? Or, conversely, have you used the naive moving body -- the public, dance club dancer -- to help us understand something new about the art? Monnier teased it, and us.

The money moment or segment came when, to a particularly percussive anthem, seven of the dancers suddenly lined up in, well, almost a chorus line, facing us and moving in more or less syncopation, on an air drumming motif. Suddenly a dancer in a loose red shirt more or less charged into their midst, and you knew she was going to up the ante. As her colleagues one by one disappeared over or behind an upstage ramp extending the length of the stage, she surrendered to a thrashing trance. At first, this was simply channeled dance hall energy. But then one, then two of the three red-headed dancers popped up behind the ridge of the ramp, their backs to us, barely moving -- and suddenly we had what I'd call counterpoint.

At another passage, a solitary red-haired (wigged, I think) petite dancer, moving slowly, absent-mindedly, was joined and, briefly, echoed by her double. But Monnier aborted the idea before it could really go anywhere.

More often, and for too long -- especially at the beginning -- the choreography (some of it seemingly improvised by the dancers) before us reminded me of "modern dancer on the dance floor" -- when you're at a club and there's one woman roving around oblivious to both others and the music.

If this was an opening in a direction Monnier planned to seriously pursue beyond one piece, I'd applaud it and look forward to more. Unfortunately, I've the feeling that "Publique" is just another passing "recherche."

Social Dances from Anna Halprin

At least Mathilde Monnier finds her fields of choreographic dreaming on the body. If there's one thing that exasperated me about much art-creating in my hometown of San Francisco, it's its social genesis. Anna Halprin's 2000 "Intensive Care," created in collaboration with the performers and seen September 25 at the Centre Pompidou in a co-presentation with the Festival d'Automne, is a fitting if not fit example.

The play, I mean dance, opens with four roller chair-bound figures sheathed in white. They wreathe about a while before revealing themselves as an older woman, an older man, a very young woman and a 40ish man. Now they wheel about the room. Now each finds solace in a partner. Now they are suddenly backed by an unseen force, against the upstage wall, where they cower with fright until black-garbed yet assuring figures gently take them one by one from their chairs and into an orange if not white light. In other words, Arlene Croce's worse nightmare.

It wasn't as bad in the viewing as the telling, but, therapeutically transporting as this piece may be for -- well, for all of us, in our quest not to fear the reaper, baby -- artistically there was little transcendent about it, with the exception of the personal and riveting performance of the choreographer, an American institution dancing into her ninth decade of life and clearly delighted to be making her long-overdue Paris debut.

More interesting artistically and archivally were excerpts from the 1965 "Parades and Changes," whose nudity famously excited the New York City District Attorney's office into issuing a summons when it played Hunter College in 1967. The celebrated "indecent" segment was here a pristinely recreated curio, in which the performers repeatedly removed and replaced their formal suits. Luminously lit by Jim Cave, it was a striking essay on the simple beauty of the body as a work of art. Like the playful segment in which the naked dancers tumble while crumbling a mass of butcher-paper, a fitting subject for a performance presented in a museum.

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