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Flash Review Journal, 1-5: Bad News from the Stars
Brown Stumbles in Paris Opera Premiere, as 'Glacial' Heats up; Shearer Shines in Ashton's "Astarte"; Caron Figures Kelly's Angle

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004 The Dance Insider

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PARIS -- Years ago, when I was just starting to look at dance in a professional capacity, I remember returning from a performance by San Francisco Ballet with my first mentor, now-DI colleague Aimee Ts'ao. I was exulting about a piece by a certain local choreographer performed on the program. Aimee let me blather on until she pulled up across the street from my Mission District digs, turned to me, and essentially cautioned me not to let good dancers delude me into thinking I'd just seen a good dance. (I paraphrase; she was more diplomatic.) I recalled this warning last Wednesday during the uproarious curtain call for Trisha Brown's new "O zlozony / O composite," the mediocre, choreographically smudgy work which had just been performed at the Palais Garnier by three of the world's brightest current ballet stars, the Paris Opera Ballet's Aurelie Dupont, Manuel Legris, and Nicolas Le Riche.

This creative encounter followed last season's POB company premiere of Brown's 1979 "Glacial Decoy," reprised on last week's program, which also included Francine Lancelot and Kader Belarbi's "Bach-Suite 2" and William Forsythe's "Pas. / parts," created on the company and previously reviewed here. The new work was Brown's first created on dancers outside her own company since its founding -- or so says the local press -- and judging by the results, it appears that ballet won out. If she didn't totally succumb to the trap that fells many modern or post-modern choreographers creating on ballet dancers for the first time -- an over-fascination with tricks which, while new to them, aren't novel to the ballet audience -- neither did Brown impress on these three dancers her own distinct style. Rather, what the four came up with -- Dupont implied to the Paris daily Le Figaro that this was a collaborative effort, the three etoiles travelling to New York to work with Brown -- was a lot of clean and extended lines: outstretched arms, up and back-stretched legs, flattened hands and pointed feet, set against Vija Celmins's starry backdrop and to an elygiac Laurie Anderson score. Some solo grappling on the ground was thrown in for modern measure, but largely, it was the choreographer trying to speak the language of the dancers, and not vice-versa. The result, of course, was rarely original, and often even played to type: The guys hued to the traditional guy roles, the lady to the lady's. In one passage, they lifted her laterally and, glowing in Jennifer Tipton's lighting, she slowly extended her leg, bent her knee, and -- wait for it -- delicately pointed her toe.

Brown had some help from her own dancers -- chiefly Carolyn Lucas and Neal Beasley. Paul Taylor, when he creates for other companies, including ballet ensembles, typically actually creates the work on his own dancers before setting it (or having it set) on the commissioning company. Dancers are, after all, collaborators, and performers trained in Taylor expression would be expected to be better at understanding and executing his ideas, and maybe even contribute a few of their own. The Paris dancers are, by their more varied repertoire, typically more flexible than their US counterparts, so this is an experiment that could have worked. But it would have needed, perhaps, more time for the dancers to work with Brown and really understand her style and interests in their bodies, so that they could have met her on her terms.

By contrast, the "Glacial Decoy" cast, largely the same this season, has deepened its interpretation of this work, for which our DI colleague and Brown veteran Lisa Kraus assisted in the staging. In my review of the company premiere, I called the Paris dancers' reading "breathless." Looking back, I may have been seduced by the ease with which -- on the surface, anyway -- this work can be transferred onto a ballet company: Performed in gauzy white gowns, it lends itself to the ballet dancers' inherent lightness as, to a backdrop of Robert Rauschenberg's triple-screen photo collage of Americana, they flit on, off, and about the stage in Beverly Emmons's sublime lighting.

What's different this time -- at least as performed Wednesday by Geraldine Wiart, Beatrice Martel, Aurelia Bellet, Alice Renavand, and the ever-blossoming Muriel Zusperreguy -- is that from meeting the work with their native talents, the dancers have now progressed to working their way inside Brown's sensibility and have absorbed it. Impressive ballet feats -- often involving whipping legs -- are now tossed off rather than shown off. The dancers don't just skip straight-legged on the ground; they regard it. These ballet dancers, accustomed since the age of three or so to being presentational, have become, if not pedestrian, simply present, existing in the work. Not that they've left their ballet gifts behind: It's usually difficult for me to experience a ballet without music, but here, the dancers bring their own years of practice at musicality to creating it even where there is no actual music to help them out.

(Their prodigany has been half-recognized by Opera management; Bellet and Renavand were promoted last week, to sujet and coryphee, respectively. Zusperreguy is still a sujet, and while being a sujet at the Paris Opera Ballet can hardly be considered languishing, it's not a rank befitting the ballerina who has fully revealed herself in this work.)

The program also included the trifle "Bach-Suite 2," choreographed by Francine Lancelot and Kader Belarbi, the latter of whom also performed it, eliminating the 'dancer or the dance' quandary for this critic. Belarbi has no one to blame but himself for achieving the incredible feat of rendering this innately joyful music (from "Suite no. 3 for cello....") with such plodding physical heaviness and spiritual/dramatic stinginess, although he was abetted Wednesday by Raphael Pidoux's unenthusiastic playing on the cello.

Oh that M. Belarbi could have seen Mlle Moira Shearer with me the next day at the Centre Pompidou in Frederick Ashton's choreography for "The Jealous Lover," part of a filimic tryptic, "The Story of Three Loves," directed by Vincente Minelli and Gottfried Reinhardt, this segment by the latter. The story itself is a kind of "Red Shoes" reprise: Auditioning in a London studio, Paula Woodward (Shearer) is on her way to impressing director-choreographer Charles Coutray (James Mason) when she suddenly collapses. "It's not my ankle," she tells her former ballet dancer aunt (Agnes Moorehead). Sure enough, a doctor tells her it's her heart, and that she risks death if she continues dancing. She tries to stop, but one night finds herself at the premiere of Coutray's "Astarte." In a trance, she lingers until long after the curtain, then slowly descends to the stage where, in her evening-dress, she begins dancing to the Rachmaninov music of the piece, heard only in her head, rediscovering her love of dance.

"Can you do that again?" Coutray shouts, emerging from the shadows of a box and excitedly rushing down to the stage. He wants to take her back to his home and studio to repeat what she's done; the ballet has been missing something. She resists at first, trying to explain that she's quit dancing -- he's now remembered her from the audition. But she won't say why, and he assumes it was for a man. Pooh-poohing this notion, he finally convinces her to relent. Dazzled and re-smitten with dance in his home and studio -- a dance palace strewn with sculptures of dance figures, tulle, sketches and set models -- she changes into ballet gear and, tentatively at first then building to a frenzy of a finish, she works the dance out for him. (Skip the next paragraph if you don't want to know how it ends.)

Paula pays the price, of course, moving Coutray to decide, after just one performance, that "Astarte" will never be performed again. But she will always be with him -- this she told him before they parted, and they were her last words before she died -- and the message that Shearer, by her passionate performance, leaves with us is that you should always dance with all your heart, no matter how fragile you think it is, and as if it were for the last time.

"The Story of Three Loves" was screened as part of the Pompidou's festival of the complete works of Vincente Minelli. The festival continues tonight with the screening of a period print, in Technicolor, of the 1951 "An American in Paris," starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. Before a screening last month of "Gigi," Caron spoke about the making of "An American in Paris." The French performers, still living with post-war food shortages, were impressed by the robustness of the Americans. Kelly, she said, discovered her in a performance of Roland Petit's Ballets de Paris. And it was Kelly who set the camera angles for all the dance segments. Check them out tonight at the Pompidou, at 8:30 p.m.

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