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Flash Review, 7-7: Contemporary Classic
Neumeier Brings Camille to Paris

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2006 The Dance Insider

PARIS --- Whenever I see a ballet by John Neumeier, the Milwaukee-born director of the Hamburg Ballet, I can't help but think how shameful it is that more American ballet companies -- especially those that pretend to be interested in introducing innovation into the classical form -- aren't producing his work, particularly considering what does pass for innovation these days. (Christopher Wheeldon? Please.) Unlike his fellow American working in Germany, William Forsythe, who lately has added to his genuinely inventive geometric landscapes upper body movement pirated from the post-mod attic, Neumeier is more apt to adroitly exploit modern concepts than present as new old contemporary techniques. The result is that unlike the tired re-stagings of story ballets one usually sees at, say, San Francisco Ballet and, with occasional exceptions (work by John Cranko, for instance), American Ballet Theatre, Neumeier succeeds in modernizing his context and employing modern devices without sacrificing the classical movement core.

Take his "La Dame aux Camelias," created in 1978 for the Stuttgart Ballet and just taken into the repertoire of the Paris Opera Ballet, on whom I caught it June 30 at the sumptuous Palais Garnier where, happily, it will also open the fall season. In lieu of an overture, the ballet begins, post-modern like, to silence; at an auction occasioned by a decease -- that of Marguerite Gautier, the doomed lover of Armand Duval. The music -- Chopin, a brilliant choice for the intimacy it lends to the proceedings -- kicks in when Armand rushes on, evidently just having learned of Marguerite's death, and, eventually, grabs a purple gown from a would-be purchaser, recalling the evening he first saw it, on the then-living Marguerite, as they both watched a performance of "Manon Lescaut."

As my DI colleague Aimee Ts'ao reminds me, Neumeier is fond of the story within a story. Here it's justified by a literal interpretation of the literary source, Alexander Dumas Jr.'s novel of the same name; both weave pivotal points of Marguerite and Armand's union and its dissolution around performances of the 'Manon' ballet, based on Abbe Prevost's novel. Laure Guilbert's program notes would have it that the destinies of Manon and her lover Des Grieux foreshadow those of Marguerite and Armand. Whether it was my ignorance of 'Manon' or, in the cast I saw, Isabelle Ciaravola's hammy one-dimensional portrayal of the title character (opposite a more sober Jose Martinez), I found this device only got in the way, because the story within a story was less credible. The distance between the two real lovers (Aurelie Dupont and Manuel Legris in my cast) and the theatrical ones -- the difference in their dramatic weight -- was so substantial that, in fact, whenever the latter appeared they had the effect of dissipating the impact of the larger story. So, for example, at the end of the ballet, when a dying, over-rouged Marguerite, having gathered all her reserves to struggle to the theater, watches the final act of 'Manon,' if the aspect of her face says she's been stricken by a shock of recognition that will precipitate her to her death, it's hard to imagine why, at least from the rendering of 'Manon.'

If it's a given to anyone who's seen them before -- with others or in this enduring partnership -- that the cipher-like Dupont and the humane Legris will take our breath away, or make us hold it trepidatiously in expectation of what's coming, the revelation in this ballet and this production of it is Neumeier's duet for Marguerite and Armand's father, here portrayed by the grand veteran Michael Denard. He's putatively the villain -- it's at his pleading, impelled by her being a courtesan and thus in his view an embarassing alliance for his son, that she keeps breaking it off with Armand. The tragedy issues from Armand's ignorance of his father's machinations, leaving him to take Marguerite's repeated fissures as betrayals. And yet, indicating a regret that we see from the beginning, before the flashback starts and he looks more stricken than his son because he realizes his responsibility for the events, from the moment he appreciates how serious Marguerite is, as a woman and about his son, Denard plays the father as ambivalent about what he's doing and deeply aware of the possible consequences. She may be a courtesan but she's a lady, and it's swaying him; Neumeier's choreography for the pair, as well as their interpretation, particularly Denard's, reveal it. Most story ballet choreographers would be content to dispense to a character role, particularly when enacted by an older performer, simple (and simplistic) mime. But Neumeier gives Dupont and Denard a genuine pas de deux, punctuated by passages such as that in which Denard slowly, tenderly lifts a crumpled Dupont up, beginning with an arm cuddling her head, and a dance with him supporting her ensues.

In this duet, as in those between Marguerite and Armand, Neumeier achieves what should be the goal of every choreographer working in narrative, and makes of dance an expression of the heart -- and a nuanced one at that.

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