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Flash Review 2, 7-15: D.O.A.
Le Riche Kills "Carmen" and Sucks the Life out of "The Young Man and Death"

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- April 1946: "One Spring evening, I went to the rue Monpensier to knock on the door of Jean Cocteau to, once again, ask for his help," Roland Petit recalls in "I have Danced on the Waves." (Editions Grasset, 1993; cited in the Paris Opera Ballet program.) With Boris Kochno, Petit, just 22 -- he would go on to become France's greatest choreographer of the second half of the 20th century -- was preparing for the second season of the Ballets des Champs-Elysees. The two didn't want to lose any momentum after a sensational debut season. Who better to conjure up a new scenario for their grand dancer, Jean Babilee, than their "grand magician friend"? Cocteau had just emerged from his bath. Covered in towels except for his face and hands, he proceeded to improvise "Le Jeune Homme et la Mort," dancing the story with his hands. On June 25, 1946 at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees, swathed in Karinska's simple costumes and amidst Georges Wakhevitch's simultaneously stark and marvelous sets, to music by Bach chosen at the last instant -- they had rehearsed to jazz records and later accented piano rhythms* -- Babilee and his equally young wife, Nathalie Philippart, took the stage in the title roles of what would become the first important French ballet of the post-war era.

Earlier this year, in the Centre Pompidou's Videodanse festival, I was able to see a pristine video of Babilee and Claire Sombert performing Cocteau/Petit's "Le Jeune Homme et la Mort" in 1962 -- to my good fortune, and perhaps the ill fortune of the subjects of this review, Nicolas Le Riche and Marie-Agnes Gillot, who performed a skeletal recreation of the ballet this past Saturday at the Garnier. The Paris Opera Ballet program also included the choreographer's "Carmen" and "L'Arlesienne." The results say much about what is wrong with the Paris Opera Ballet and elsewhere in ballet in recent years.

It may be unfair to compare anyone with Jean Babilee -- the greatest French dancer of the last 60 years, and one of the greatest dancers period; but Le Riche, often heralded as one of today's greatest dancers, would seem to be fair game. And the stakes are too huge to let him -- and Loipa Araujo, Jan Broeckx, and Fabrice Bourgeois, who rehearsed Le Riche and Gillot -- off the hook.

The simple scenario of Cocteau and Petit's ballet might seem bleak: Young angsty artist awaits a woman who turns out to be not his salvation but his death in a garret. He chases her. She resists but occasionally tempts, before pointing him to a noose on which he subsequently hangs himself. She returns with a death mask which she removes and places on him before leading him off across the rooftops of Paris, illumined by the Eiffel Tower. But when lovingly etched, even if its subject is bleak great art can move with its beauty. Even on tape, the Babilee-Sombert interpretation does this. Whether soaring painfully, yearningly through the air or flipping over and seeming to balance on one hand on a table, Babilee works with great delicacy. Light as he is, the ballet is revealed almost as a series of tableaux rather than a contiguous, seamless dance -- that's how much he treasures each movement Petit has given him. Consequently, we're impressed with his vibrance and, in this story of death, with the preciousness of life. It's this value, albeit with a fringe of sadness, that remains with us in the end. Existentialism -- and it was in the context of a nascent French existentialism that this ballet was born -- is often misunderstood as hopelessness. In fact, it values not the inevitability of death but the sanctity of each moment of life. For the ballet to get this across, the dancers, too, need to value each moment of the movement. Babilee did this.

Le Riche's context is a very different one: A repertory, steered by Paris Opera dance directrice Brigitte Lefevre, that seems to value a nihilistic suffering that holds out no promise of redemption; and a time in which even once great dancers feel the need (or are coached or undercoached with this result) to RUSH. Consequently, just about all the moments held up to the prism by Babilee are blurred and given scant attention by Le Riche; a ballet that once seemed almost outside of time becomes an opportunity for him to show off his speed. There are just about no frozen moments, not even the delicious one where the Young Man offers Death a cigarette. Consequently we have no sympathy for his plight and don't really care when he hangs himself. The ballet's ultimate passage, too -- the Young Man's passage across the Paris skyline -- also loses its impact.

As for Gillot, she seems like a caricature of the tall dancer (though I've not seen her much this year), a pity because she used to be one of the Opera's most natural, composed and effective actors. From the moment where she enters in a frightful black wig stomping around angrily, she's more silly than scary. Sombert -- as seen on tape, anyway -- scared because of her coldness. As Babilee soared and grovelled pleadingly around her, she remained implacable. Gillot -- incredibly under-coached -- simply plays 'mean.'

Le Riche was back after the intermission to give an equally one-dimensional turn to Don Jose in Petit's 1949 "Carmen," opposite Clairemarie Osta in what is possible the worse casting choice of the season. Haven't seen a video of this one's originators for Petit's Ballets de Paris -- the choreographer and Renee Jeanmaire -- but I did recently score a program of the company's 1950 season, when Moira Shearer took the lead opposite Petit, in a supporting cast that also included Serge Perrault as the Toreador and Belinda Wright as the girl bandit. Illustrations of Clave's colorful scenery seem to jump off the page.

They're still used in the current Paris Opera Ballet production, but Le Riche's wooden portrayal somehow seems to kill the scenery before he disposes of Carmen. As for Osta, it stretches credibility to think this girl-next-door capable of eating any man alive, or driving him to murderous extremes. Guillaume Charlot fared better, turning in a suitably dandyish Toreador.

For a company whose current director seems hellbent on impressing audiences with the futility of life, an evening in which one of the greatest ballet stars in the world succeeds in spiritually killing two of its greatest ballets seems a fitting, if tragic, conclusion to the Paris Opera Ballet season. (And the prospects don't look much better for the Fall; after opening in the purgatory of Angelin Preljocaj's head-scratcher "Le Parc," the POB repertory promises to take us straight to hell with Le Riche's new "Caligula.")

The evening also included "L'Arlesienne," previously reviewed here. Incredibly, the program gives no credit to Van Gogh, the former Arles resident from whom the backdrop seems directly lifted.

*As recounted in "Balanchine's Stories of the Great Ballets," edited by Francis Mason.
(Doubleday, 1954.)

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