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Review, 5-3: You Oughta be in Pictures
Nureyev's "Cinderella" is More than Ready for its Screen Test
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider
Photography by & copyright Icare
PARIS -- Continuing
Thursday's theme, the second reason we decided to open up a bureau
here in 2001 was that on my Fall 2000 visit, I found the Paris Opera
Ballet a revelation, and realized that our readers would be missing
out if we did not give them regular news of this company, at that
point the best ballet company I had ever seen. Performing in a house
that managed to be ornate and intimate at the same time, presided
over by a giant Chagall mural of the arts enacted there, the electrifying
dancers cascaded down the raked stage in a repertory that careened
(in the three programs I saw) thrillingly from Balanchine to Robbins
to Preljocaj to "Raymonda" (staged by Nureyev) to an entire
evening of Forsythe in which "In the Middle Somewhat Elevated"
was nowhere to be seen.
The first season after
I moved here did not disappoint, even if my first performance, Roland
Petit's "Notre Dame de Paris," was postponed by my first strike.
But since last season, the Opera's dance director Brigitte Levevre
has navigated the centuries-old company into contemporary-dominated
territory better left uncharted (not because it's contemporary,
but because it's bad). Often-politically driven promotions (I can't
see another reason) have also meant one has to carefully navigate
one's ballet-going to ensure the best principal cast (the corps
generally does fine). I've missed the POB I fell in love with. So
despite a dubious narrative premise, I ventured back to the Palais
Garnier Thursday, only my second outing to the Opera this season,
to catch Nureyev's "Cinderella," re-cast in the Depression-era US.
I was rewarded with a reminder of how restorative ballet at its
best can be.
Re-casting classic ballets
(or theater) in contemporary settings is a shortcut that's usually
unnecessary and often doesn't work. The key to making an old story
relevant is not to be found in the stage designers' craft but the
interpreters' hearts and the director's intelligence. Stories like
"Romeo & Juliet," "Sleeping Beauty," and "Cinderella" have lasted
for a reason -- they are innately timeless, naturally mildew-resistant.
In the case of Nureyev's "Cinderella," however, even if Petrika
Ionesco's sets seem a bit confused -- a program note says we're
in Hollywood, but the deco skyscrapers and noir lighting clearly
say New York -- the contemporary scenario actually works.
Created on the POB in
1986 to Prokoviev's 1945 score, this "Cinderella" ("Cendrillon"
in the French production) introduces a stage mother (the breathless
Emmanuel Thibault, cast against sex) bent on getting her graceless
daughters (on Thursday, the mugging Laetitia Pujol and the cast-to-type
Stephanie Romberg) into pictures. A person-sized Statue of Liberty
looms in the background of their dark living room, as the family's
slave, Cinderella, scrubs the floor in the foreground, a servitude
her drunken father (Richard Wilk) seems powerless to arrest. Shoulders
hunched, expression dour, Clairemarie Osta plays the pre-princess
perfectly -- not as a glistening jewel in rags but as a rag-girl
whose simple aspirations extend even to guileless goodwill towards
the step-sisters whose other raison d'etre (besides being
in pictures) is to make her life miserable.
Left alone, Cinderella
soon reveals her dreams, plucking from a coat-rack over-sized men's
clothes that transform her into Charlie Chaplin, in whose guise
she executes a dreamy tap dance, partnering the coat-rack, that
owes more to Fred Astaire than Charlot, as Chaplin's known here.
(Indeed, a rehearsal director suggested to the corps that they think
of Fred and Ginger during a later waltz section). A producer (Emmanuel
Hoff) who she earlier aided when he stumbled in from a bike or plain
crash (in an aviator helmet) returns and discovers Cinderella, sees
her potential and, fairy godmother-like, whisks her away to the
Studio and an eventual screen test. (Nureyev himself created the
role of the producer.)
At this point perhaps
it's already starting to seem a bit silly to you, and the giant-sized
Vargas girls who, sentry-like, line the left side of the studio
set, their bathing-suited rears turned to us, their sides lit up,
would seem to take us further over the top. But it works -- by the
time the inflatable pumpkin-chariot showed up, deflated, then re-inflated
into a Rolls to whisk Cinderella away, I was won!
a Producer?: Wilfried Romoli in the Paris Opera Ballet's production
of Rudolf Nureyev's "Cendrillon" (Cinderella). Photo by Icare
courtesy Paris Opera Ballet and copyright Icare.
Studio set itself -- a giant upstage building facade marked "Studio"
in the background, a landscape of Chrysler building-like skyscrapers
stretched out behind it, under an ominous sky -- places us firmly
in RKO-land. The producer dashes across the stage, now done up as
Groucho, complete with a cigar which will stay in his mouth for
most of the show. He returns sans Groucho garb to usher Cinderella
into a high director's chair, where a team of dressers drapes her
in a resplendent ivory gown. Three nondescript group dances follow.
The action picks up
in the next act, as "Action!" is called on three films or screen
tests, involving a prison escape, a generic period farce, and "King
Kong - The Remake." The lively "Tahitions"/sacrificial virgins and
auditioners here include Claire Bevalet, Peggy Dursort, Maud Riviere,
Sophia Parcen (disclosure: a friend and colleague), Ninon Roux,
and Gwenaelle Vauthier. Sometimes French dancers lampooning American
grotesques make me cringe -- among other things, they just can't
loosen up enough for slapstick -- but the performers here get the
rubbery-limbed comedy just right, although why the Keystone Cops
of the prison scene were a )misplaced by a couple of decades and
b) dressed like gendarmes escapes me.
But the big (film) production
is, you guessed it, "Cinderella," and the following tableau of the
second act concerns auditions for the lead role, dominated by the
gawky step-sisters' haphazard attempts to execute the combinations
demonstrated by the dance director (Gil Isoart, suave as ever).
By this time, the matinee idol or prince has shown up, Karl Paquette
making his usual less than sensational landing with a thud of an
entrance. But Paquette, normally a wooden partner, turns out to
be the surprise of this performance, turning the limits to his grace
into an asset for parody; he's made to play the lightweight male
blonde bimbo. After numerous attempts at partnering the ungainly
sisters, he's berating the producer when -- right on cue -- Cinderella
turns up, first in shadow behind a scrim-wall at the top of the
stairs, pursued by shadowy paparazzi photographers, who then precede
her, clad in tuxedoes, down the grand staircase. She is ready for
her screen test.
is fine, but what really elevates the subsequent pas de deux from
the camp setting in which it's ensconced is, first of all, the Prokoviev
music, rendered with spirit by Opera Orchestra under the direction
of Vello Pahn, which sweeps up the couple and us, all the more so
with its hints of Romeo & Juliet's theme, from the same composer.
Then there's the dancing and mood set by he principals. Because
Osta is not showy, her transition from cinder-girl to belle of the
ball is credible -- she's the same person, only with an opportunity
to come into her own, finally in an atmosphere that supports rather
than suppresses her. Everyone around her wants her to succeed. Even
her partner finds her accessible; one of my past frustrations of
watching Paquette, and the reason I avoid him, is his cold response
opposite even the warmest of partners, such as Delphine Moussin.
But Osta gets to him, and we see it in his awed yet not over-telegraphed
response to her and even his solo dancing, a bit easier this time
around, particularly in his barrel turns. He'll really let go later,
having a blast with the corps as they race around town looking to
fit the shoe.
The Paris Opera Ballet in Rudolf Nureyev's "Cendrillon" (Cinderella).
Photo by Icare courtesy Paris Opera Ballet and copyright Icare.
the corps does more than its part, for example when the clock strikes
12 by way of a giant, inner workings-revealed "Modern Times"-like
mechanism at the back of the stage and 12 men with roman numerals
on their leotards tumble out tolling the hours one by one. Hoff
as the producer-fairy godmother also delivers his own brilliant
and subtle stroke here, slowly nodding his head and smiling knowingly
at the lip of the stage as the curtain falls on Act II and the despondent
Paquette. Suddenly we realize that it's all part of the producer's
plot, which will and does end well, movie-within-the-ballet and
ballet combining as the final pas de deux is indexed by an assistant's
holding behind his back a scene sign reading "Cinderella - The End"
as a crew films it.
The choreography for
that pas de deux is also serviceably simple, but I think Nureyev's
biggest contributions here are the story adaptation and, more importantly,
the over-all direction. The POB corps is always spirited, particularly
when compared to its American counterparts, but for this ballet
it becomes downright Russian, not simply cascading down the raked
stage but flying onto it and racing across it. (Recently retired
Laurent Hilaire and Clotilde Vayer, the ballet masters for this
production along with Patrice Bart, undoubtedly get a lot of the
credit for setting the pace this time around.) "There are no small
parts, only small actors," another Russian once famously said, and
it's a precept more corps would do well to remember. A corps is
not just a background. Or rather, it is background, but in the same
way the colors behind the Mona Lisa are, giving texture and context
to the work of art. Given an all-too-rare chance to demonstrate
its classical colors, the Paris Opera Ballet corps delivers -- in
the grand Russian style -- in Nureyev's grand ballet to Prokoviev's
The Paris Opera Ballet
performs Rudolf Nureyev's "Cinderella" again tonight at the Palais
Garnier, with Delphine Moussin scheduled to play the title role
opposite Karl Paquette, and tomorrow night, with Clairemarie Osta
scheduled to dance opposite Jeremie Belingard.
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