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Flash Flashback, 8-9: Is Ballet Irrelevant?
In Nureyev's "Raymonda," Yes

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000, 2006 The Dance Insider

(The Dance Insider has been revisiting its Flash Archive. This Flash Review originally appeared on October 20, 2000.)

PARIS -- It isn't hard to understand why Rudolf Nureyev would want to totally denude Petipa's Orientalist ballet "Raymonda" of most of the Russian mime elements. As detailed in Diane Solway's recent biography, Nureyev was in his dancing prime and wanted a ballet that would showcase dancing, for him, his partner Margot Fonteyn, and the corps. And it isn't hard to understand why the Paris Opera Ballet should treasure this first evening-length work by its late director. But in an age where, in North America at least, even leading ballet directors and arts presenters are aware that ballet has lost its relevance to many, a ballet so archaic in its representation of women and non-white cultures is left, devoid of the museum value its mime might have provided, and danced unconvincingly (technically or dramatically) by two of its three leads as it was last night at the Palais Garnier on the Paris Opera Ballet, with little justification for being presented in the year 2000.

I'm not with those who say story ballets as a whole are an outdated, embarrasing, anachronistic bore. However, I do think they need at least one of the following two aspects to make them work in 2000: Fantastic dance choreography virtuosically danced; or a dramatically convincing performance that contemporizes the story. Let's take an obvious example: In "Giselle," the heroine basically goes mad and dies of a heart attack after it turns out Albrecht has been lying to her, twice over: he is not a peasant, but a count, and he is not available, but engaged. And yet, when her fellow willies -- maidens who died before they were married -- want to dance him to death, the ghost of Giselle jumps in and saves the cad. On its face, this could be seen as the story of a woman with a big self-esteem problem. Convincingly danced, tho, it harkens back , in fact, to the dawning of the ethereal ballerina, and becomes about that; how pointe was first used for effect -- in this case, to make Giselle seem ethereal and other-worldly. The best Giselles float -- and thus this ballet becomes almost more about the dancing, and I don't think it needs to justify itself in the context of current social principles. Similarly, when it is convincingly acted by both leads, we see it as not about a woman with low-esteem and the cad who literally broke her heart, but a woman noble and godlike in her capacity to forgive; and, even, a Don Juan taught a lasting humility.

"Raymonda," as far as I could understand it -- and, quite frankly, the story is a bit murky, perhaps a result of the sacrifice of the mime elelements Nureyev belittled as just "all those traffic driections" -- is about a princess in medieval times, the crusader and the "Oriental" heathen who love her, and the two couples devoted to her. All this unfolds with rather lavish accoutrements, most sensationally an entire tent (designed by Nicholas Georgiadis) that the heathen Abderam's people unfurl in Princess Raymonda's palace. And to the lushest of music, by Alexandre Glazounov.

Dance-wise, the results last night were a mixed bag. Raymonda's four friends were winningly essayed. The men, Herve Courtain and Stephane Elizabe, danced with verve if not great elevation. The women, Fanny Fiat (Clemence) and Muriel Halle (Henriette), with ease, particularly the silken Halle, who made the most of her solos, dancing with understated elegance.

The corps, particularly the young quadrilles in the dream-fantasy segment of the first act (Raymonda dreams she is kidnapped by Abderam while dancing with her betrothed, the crusader Jean de Brienne), danced with an edge-of-your-seat breakneck pace. I'd heard about this raked stage that is the bane of many American dancers whenever they have to encounter it (the stage literally has an upstage and a downstage), but watching this corps, I could appreciate its value to an audience. The effect is as if the entire assemblage is constantly descending towards you, careening toward the lip of the stage; danced on fearlessly, as it was last night by this corps, it adds an element of dangerous precipitation to the proceedings.

Unfortunately, this fearlessness did not carry over to the lead. As Raymonda, Elizabeth Maurin danced stiffly and with brittleness, wooden and without much abandon. There was little chemistry between her and Jean-Guillaume Bart's Jean de Brienne, and it was hard to understand how the hot-blooded Abderam (Kader Belarbi) could be so entranced by her. The worse moment here was one I rarely see on a ballerina: Going on pointe to greet one of her friends, Maurin's right foot suddenly unnaturally arched. Let's face it folks -- pointe is basically a wierd manner of conveyence -- no one actually walks like that. Its justification, and it's a good one, is how it can, at the least, heighten the carriage of the dancer; at its best, it makes her, and the entire story -- if I can quote my fellow Mission High School alum Carlos Santana -- Supernatural. But Maurin, last night at least, and at least at that moment, made it seem un-natural, awkward, and even evoked the worse contemporary reading of viewing a woman on pointe: she seems as tho perched uncomfortably on a pedestal. (In fairness, Maurin's dancing did smoothe out over the course of the evening, her manner open up a bit.)

Ah, the pedestal. Left with not much mime to work with to convey the drama -- but, ironically, just its rather retro frame -- the dancers were ultimately saddled with presenting a story not just out-of-date, but that in a way indicts this most mainstream expression of dance. As I walked down the Avenue de L'Opera afterwards, away from this veritable citadel of the arts, I found myself thinking of the, er, dialogue that's been going on in these pages between myself and performer-director-writer Kimberlea A. Kressal. (See Flash Review 2, 10-19: Healing.)

One of our points of contention, on which I've conceded, is whether storytelling is art. However, I bristled at the accusation that in dismissing "Menstruation, Manipulation, Mutilation; Herstory," I was upholding the patriarchy. If anything, I pointed out, her work was preaching to the converted. BUT on viewing "Raymonda," I am reminded that, as long as our mainstream dance enterprises -- the ones with the most money and power -- continue to present such inherently sexist and racist stories, denuded of the historic elements that might justify them as museum pieces, the fact is there are still many left to be converted. Specific to this story: At the end of the second act, Jean de Brienne and Abderam fight an outrageous duel (fake giant horses are employed, the duel starting with a joust). De Brienne kills the infidel and gets the "girl." But why was this even necessary? Why was it up to the men to decide, by fighting, who "gets the girl"? Why wasn't it HER choice? Or, taking it a step further, why was her future staked on how it related to a man -- imprisoned by the love of the infidel, or "liberated" by the love of the crusader? She seemed content enough hangin' with her four homies -- why wasn't that enough? I don't go so far as to question the legitimacy of these ballets; but I do say that in a time where ballet is no longer attracting younger audiences, the demand is higher than ever on the artists that if they do insist on reprising these chestnuts, they've got to be convincingly danced, acted, or both.

The theatrical shortcomings in this case, however, are not necessarily the fault of the dancers; as mentioned, Nureyev extracted much of the theater. If anything, Belarbi, as Abderam, ALMOST succeeds in making his Orientalist (by which I mean 19th century conceptions of the Orient) dance phrases convincing. For in this ballet, the representation of Asian cultures is as much of an offense as that of the helpless maiden. While some of the costumes, particularly the velvety bold one of Abderam, are glorious, the dances themselves are polyglots of every stereotype of Asian dance and Asian people -- with the different forms intermingled indiscrimately, as if it were all the same. Women enter with arms diabolocially ("Arab") concealling their veiled ("Persian/Iranian") faces, and sashay with fists clenched, backs hunched, arms at right angles to elbows. Men teeter back and forth, some appearing with mohawk ponytails springing from the middle of their otherwise bald heads ("Chinese") . In other words, it's all Oriental, what's the difference?! All this is performed to music that, as well, offers only the most over-simplified strains of the music of these cultures.

This review will probably upset some balletomanes. But, I'm sorry, so long as I continue to proselytize for ballet among contemporary audiences -- not to mention my Modern friends -- when I see regressive propaganda like this justifed as being art, I've got to call it out. For if it is art, shouldn't our expectations for its relevance be, if anything, higher?

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