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Flash Review, 5-3: You Oughta be in Pictures
Nureyev's "Cinderella" is More than Ready for its Screen Test

By Paul Ben-Itzak
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!
Why 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.

The 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.

Nureyev's choreography 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.
Time travellers: The Paris Opera Ballet in Rudolf Nureyev's "Cendrillon" (Cinderella). Photo by Icare courtesy Paris Opera Ballet and copyright Icare.

Indeed 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 grand music.

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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