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Flash Flashback, 2-1: Murder at the Ballet Competition
Bejart's 'Concours' a Course in Dance Theater from the Paris Opera Ballet

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002, 2008 The Dance Insider

(The Dance Insider has been revisiting its Archive. This Flash Review was first published June 27, 2002. To read more about Maurice Bejart, who passed away November 22, see today's Dance Insider tribute by Maina Gielgud.)

PARIS -- Whether Maurice Bejart's 1985 "Le Concours" comes off as cheesy, thinly choreographed ballet take-off or pungent satire and poignant theater seems to depend on whether it is performed by stellar actors and virtuosic dancers. On Wednesday night at the Garnier, with Laurent Hilaire portraying the world-weary detective investigating the murder at the ballet competition of Eleonora Abbagnato's Ada, it was the latter. On Thursday, Kader Belarbi's leaden sleuth and Miteki Kudo's vapid Ada dragged the rest of the gifted Paris Opera cast down and flattened the entire production.

It's a pity, because "Le Concours," which might also be called "Murder at the International Ballet Competition," is both a well-thought-out satire and a biting commentary on an arena, the ballet competition, which encapsulates much that is right and wrong with ballet as it's practiced today.

Let's start with the fun stuff!

And for that, let's start with a phenomenal cast of players, headed by the former Paris Opera etoile Michael Denard as the French chief of the six-person jury of the "Third International Concours de la Danse." Actually, let's start with Beatrice Martel as the American jury member. At first I lurched towards offense at this overbroad characterization of Americans, both as scripted (literally -- this dance-drama includes dialogue) by Bejart and enacted by Martel. Dressed in bright pink dress and matching bonnet and lipstick, she's loud, she's crass, and she's dumb. Then there were Akihiro Nishida and Alice Renavand's Japanese jurors (Miho Fujii last night), who commenced their speeches with a little bowing routine; and Florence Branca and Richard Wilk's (replaced by Vincent Cordier Thursday) severe Russians.

But then I realized that Denard was over-playing (in a good way), too; with exaggerated enunciation and stick up the butt carriage, the French judge was not exempt from caricature. This was not racism; this was making fun of competition jury types.

And yet Denard, especially, does not just play his juror as a type. His enthusiasm for "La Danse!" is genuine; you can see it when he perches on the lip of the stage taking notes on the competitors, imagined to be where the audience is. You can also see it in a segment where he seems to hear the music and the muse and performs a solo in which he transcends his fifty-something years, and which exhibits the genuine passion for dance which many younger dancers seem to bottle up. When he leaps and suspends in the air, you get more than a hint of Denard's accomplished dance career. For their contribution to this segment, Nishida and Renavand (more than Fujii) delivered a wry take off on "Nutcracker"'s groan-producing Chinese Tea dance.

And, speaking of "Nutcracker," the Grandparents in the party scene, characters probably no more than 70, are always physicalized (usually by younger dancers) as creaking about the stage as if all their joints were about to fall apart. But the great Hungarian film actress (and former lieutenant for the Allied armies) Zita Gordon-Gielgud (Maina's mother), making her Paris Opera debut at 91 with this production, here delivers one of the most mobile and spirited performances. And she doesn't teeter on a cane, real or imagined.

As for the ensemble of competitors, initially there is some rehashing of tired cliches, as all scramble for limited positions at the golden barre center stage. But then Bejart gets at some of ballet's real problems, particularly as regards young dancers: After a group segment, as soon as the judges leave they all rush to the periphery of the stage in a circle, clutch their stomachs and wretch.

Even the most hilarious send-up among the young dancers contains the most troubling commentary on the competition mentality in ballet: Alexis Saramite, a spitting image for the young Baryshnikov, plays that gaudily-dressed, over-athletic (often) Russian you've all probably seen in ballet class, with feathered hair in a headband, shirt tied at the bare midriff, pink-striped pants and pink leather boots. He twirls, he hikes a foot up to his ear with his hand, and when it comes time for the pas de deux competition, he takes center stage and asks, "Pas de deux? What is pas de deux?"

But Bejart really explores reality when the Inspector retraces Ada's life to try to find her killer, in six tight scenes. We see the mother(Nathalie Rique), a former ballerina, now mad, who would rather kill the young Ada than see her dance; the ballet teacher (real-life legendary Paris Opera School of Dance director Claude Bessy, in an understated, genuine performance) who feels betrayed that her labor of love would quit class for a boy; a pas de deux with the boy; and Ada tryiing to support herself, variously, by disguising herself as a boy to get a gig in an all-boy tv show; serving as an assistant to a provincial magician (Yann Bridard), and backing up a punk rocker (Karl Paquette.)

The show-stoppers in these scenes were Gil Isoart's egomaniacal t.v. dance director-star, frustratingly barking orders at his performers as Erwann Le Roux trailed him with a large boom mic; and the spike-haired punker Paquette. As I've previously commented, this is a dancer who seems either to hold back or not have much to give. Maybe, though, like City Ballet's Nilas Martins in Balanchine's "Midsummer Night's Dream," he just needed a foreign hair-do to hide behind. Here, Paquette does not hold back, unafraid to make a fool of himself whether rolling around on the ground or groaning and growling at Ada as he comes on to her.

Indeed none of the performers, from Denard to Gordon-Gielgud (and indeed her real-life dog Poloska, redolent in tutu at the curtain call), holds back. But the moral center of this dance tragi-comedy is comprised of the Inspector and Ada, and for it to create a lasting impression, I think, both these performers need to deliver as actors and dancers.

The Inspector is intricately drawn, in both acting and dance terms, by Bejart. Acting-wise, Hilaire avoids the pitfall of just playing a type, much as the trench-coat and dangling cigarette might tempt him to go there. His detective isn't so much world-weary as slightly skeptical; his aspect is as if in reserve, which is where he holds his trust, his suspicions, and his opinion of the world. The character's dance movement's motif is herkey jerkey, with quick flicks of the lower leg and hip swivels, for example, punctuated by rounds of pointing at various subjects. But in at least one segment, after investigating all six suspects and still not knowing whodunit, he executes a dance of the perplexed which calls on him to jump with some ballonne; it's as if the spirit of the ongoing concours has inspired him to work it out in dance terms. Later, to, natch, Adolph Adam's music for the final pas de deux from "Giselle," he performs a duet with the shade of Ada. Here like Albrecht -- did I mention that the Inspector makes his first appearance to the music for Albrecht's entrance to the land of the Wilis? -- he is haunted by the departed woman.

Belarbi, amazingly out-of-shape, just can't deliver the dancing goods, either classic or peculiarly Bejart. For the classic, he has little lift or span in his legs. For the herky-jerky movements (to Hugues Le Bars quirky sound-score, which Bejart alternates with famous classical selections from ballets such as "Swan Lake" and "The Sleeping Beauty"), he has little precision, muddying the inflections where they should have been pointed. Acting-wise, with his dark features and slightly menacing demeanor, I suppose he looks the part, but that's about it. Where Hilaire gives us nuanced reserve, Belarbi's Inspector is a one-note Johnny, projecting just world-weariness. When Ada's murderer is revealed, the killer is so mad that the Inspector only needs sturdy hands to apprehend and restrain him or her; Hilaire gets this, but Belarbi shakes the perpetrator around.

In other words, Bejart's precise mime and original choreography for this character devolves into the rote with Belarbi.

His partner as Ada last night, Miteki Kudo, doesn't give much more. She's pretty and flexible, but that's about it. She fusses about on the stage at the beginning with the competition masses, trying too loudly to distinguish herself; her reactions to the travails of her various gigs seem to pop up superficially from nowhere, and are not delivered with much gravity. Even when she's shot -- though perhaps this was Bejart's intention -- she just kind of sits down and then lays down as if nothing's happened. And when at the end, the American judge shouts at the prone dead Ada, "Ada, the show must go on!" Kudo loses not just her immobility but her far-off aspect pretty quickly.

Or maybe I'm just spoiled by catching Kudo right after seeing the unfolding miracle of Eleonora Abbagnato in the same role the previous night. Earlier this year, Abbagnato found the weight in Pina Bausch's "Sacre du Printemps""Sacre du Printemps" as the Chosen One. Here, it's quite possible she imports it herself. Her Ada is not an evident star from the beginning, when she enters the competition grounds with the other dancers -- she's just one of them. If I hadn't known she was playing this role, I wouldn't have been able to pick her out. Her reaction to the t.v. director, when he tries to tear off her shirt after discovering she's tried to sneak into his all-boy show, is contained but real. Her upset with Bridard's too-smoothe magician, as she realizes and then protest that he is humiliating the audience volunteer he's hypnotized, dawns slowly but is potent. She is decidedly other-worldly in the pas de deux with the Inspector, and even though she does rise when upbraided that the show must go on, it's with a gone look in her eyes.

But lets end this last POB Flash of the season on a positive note: Sub-par performances in roles that demand high acting and dancing are the exception not the rule at the Paris Opera Ballet. (Another entry in the positive category from "Le Concours": Muriel Halle as Ada's best friend, alternately subdued and manic, as called for.) Over the course of this very deep season, this reviewer has discovered what is probably no surprise to its regular chroniclers: This is a company that lives up to its name as an Opera Ballet, in the full meanings of both those words, its performers as at home with Comedy (in the French sense of that word, embodying both the serious and the comic) as with Choreography. The spectacles here are not rarefied and removed dancing accessible only to balletomanes, but true theater, given by performers that have got to be the deepest in ballet. And, it might be added, selected by a POB director of dance, Brigitte LeFevre, who is aware of their talents and continues to program ambitiously for them, so that the dancers -- not to mention the audience -- can continue to grow.

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