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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
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
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
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
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
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
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.