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Winter of Wuppertal, 2-12: No Sacrifice
Paris Opera Ballet gets down to Earth for Bausch's "Sacre du Printemps"

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002, 2009 Paul Ben-Itzak

(The Dance Insider, which has followed Pina Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal around the world for more than a decade, today begins a four-part series celebrating Bausch's work in critiques of her latest ballet and repertory as performed in Paris; the company's recent New York season; an original Dance Insider Illustration by Robin Hoffman; and this review from the Dance Insider archive, first published on May 21, 2002. Douglas Dunn's "Pulcinella," also reviewed in this article, will be performed by Dunn's company February 25 - March 2 for the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Festival. "Supporting this revival is a wonderful opportunity for us to both revisit our own past and to carry our mission forward in the future," says Harkness director Renata Celichowska.)

PARIS -- I've never seen anything like what I saw Friday at the Garnier, when Pina Bausch's 1975 take on Igor Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps" was channelled by the Paris Opera Ballet, the only company besides her own that Bausch has allowed to perform the work. Her confidence was not misplaced.

After a pre-amble, on this all-Stravinsky program -- they love Stravinsky here, yet another reason j'aime l'Opera -- of Douglas Dunn's frothy "Pulcinella" and a rather messy, blurred reading of Balanchine's "Violin Concerto," Bausch's 'Sacre' commenced before it even commenced, with 13 crew members spiffily dumping several uber-barrels of soil onto the Garnier's de-marleyed stage. Since Bausch has had actor-dancers release soil in her work before, it was easy to accept this formation as an actual prologue. So when, having smoothly raked the dirt 'til it covered the entire raked stage, the crew members retreated to a line upstage, rakes rakishly held at their sides, it wasn't surprising that everyone broke into applause.

What followed? Man! We're talking ballet dancers unafraid to get their bare feet, their naked chests, their makeup-less faces and their rag-like (for the 16 women) costumes head-to-toe filthy. The 16 men, bare-chested with baggy grey slacks, were carnivores, sure, with a singular mission to devour the women, but they weren't much more happy about it than the women, lead as they were by the dour and doomed Wilfried Romoli. (If there's a demi-character dancer around that can match Romoli, an acting and dancing power-house, I don't know who he is.) Even when the somber Romoli simply lies down on stage, his arms protruded upwards, you know it's inevitable that he'll get his girl, whether she (or he) likes it or not.

Eleonara Abbagnato didn't like it at all. And when I say Eleonara Abbagnato didn't like it, I don't mean Eleonora Abbagnato as the Chosen One didn't like it, I mean it looked up there like Eleonora Abbagnato herself was running for her life. This is the degree of naturalism that seemed to come out of left field and seize Abbagnato, previously known (at least to me) mostly as a soubrette, her biggest acting challenge being playing the conniving Gamzatti in Rudolf Nureyev's "Bayadere." If you weren't fortunate enough to be sitting in the front row as I was (thanks PR staff!), where the terror you saw in her eyes was not put on, and where you could hear her panting as she stopped to rest from her pursuers, you could viscerally sense the fear in Abbagnato's solar plexus. If you're like me, you find it annoying when, at the curtain call, the tragic heroine is suddenly smiling blithely as if she has no bigger concern than where to dine after the show. Well, at the curtain call for this "Sacre," Abbagnato still seemed lost, not knowing where she was or who all those people out there clapping for her were. Trust me on this; you can't fake it to the first row.

Abbagnato really just set the tone for the female corps, which to a member, all sans make up and pretensions, kept it real: Muriel Halle, Laurence Laffon, Laure Muret, Miteki Kudo, Stephanie Romberg, Geraldine Wiart, Muriel Zusperreguy, Caroline Bance, Aurelia Bellet, Alexandra Cardinale, Amelie Lamoureux, Natacha Gilles, Christelle Granier, Alice Renavand, and Severine Westermann. Until the role of the Chosen One finally devolved to Abbagnato, you could see it in their eyes and panting breasts, too, that it could be any one of them.

And what about the choreography? For anyone that's seen even just the Hodson/Archer reconstruction of the scandalous 1913 Nijinsky original, any choreographer taking on this music and this libretto has charged themselves with a fool's errand. I'm at a disadvantage because I haven't seen Maurice Bejart's, Leonide Massine's, or Martha Graham's versions, but what I have seen is tepid. Marie Chouinard went the route of picking a new libretto, but the inevitable echo of the old made hers seem mundane. More recently, Angelin Preljocaj, the closest thing today's France offers to Nijinsky in terms of a rebel (albeit an officially approved one), made the brave and, for him, one can only think counter-intuitive choice of sticking to the libretto (rather than fuck with it and the music, as he did with Prokoviev's "Romeo & Juliet," chopping up the score and re-setting the drama.) The choice was admirable but the result placid. Preljocaj's humanistic vocabulary didn't have the grandeur to match the music.

Bausch, by contrast, is used to working on an operatic scale. (Okay, this work is 27 years old, but, er, even then she telegraphed her ability to work on an operatic scale.) She masterly arrays patterns across the dirt, involving shifting groups, shifting relations of groups, a woman breaking from the group here to flee from the men, and well-chosen moments when the men and women interact -- even a tender passage where they couple off and tenderly embrace, as if to say "we know this that is about to happen comes from a force beyond our control, but let's have a moment here to be human."

And, as much as these ballet dancers are ready to let it all hang out -- could you see City Ballet being so ready to let loose? I think not -- the strength they bring to the table is their ability to move like a corps. Let's not forget that even though it scandalized in part because it was so earthbound (as opposed to ethereal), this music was initially danced by a ballet company, the Ballets Russes. And it took a ballet company -- the Joffrey -- to pull off the reconstruction. For this ballet to work, the dancers need to play as if possessed by a force simultaneously beyond and within them. Ideally every corps should be able to dance as if possessed by one force, but this ain't always the case any more -- especially in our leading New York companies. (Whether or not they'd be able to get down and dirty or loosen their spines, it's that absence of technical and spiritual cohesion which would prevent New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theatre from doing this work.) But the Paris Opera Ballet, like the old Joffrey, understands what it really means to be a corps.

The other strength any ballet to this music demands is pinpoint musicality. From the small moments like the beginning focused on one dancer who recoils when she awakes to find her blanket reddened and the downstage grasping between Abbagnato and Romoli (and her trembling), to the large-scale diagonal cascading down the raked stage by the corps, this cast never lags behind the music. They are up to it, in both its big and minute moments. And this choreographer -- well, as Pina primer, this ballet is evidence that at the root of this tanz-theater master is a dancer and choreographer.

The same pliability of muscles and joints that serves the POB dancers so well in "Le Sacre du Printemps," not to mention their flare for drama, only get in the way in their reading of Balanchine's 1972 "Violin Concerto," at least in the cast I saw Friday. If you've seen this ballet on NYCB, or for that matter San Francisco Ballet or Pacific Northwest Ballet, what you probably remember most is the shapes and angles relished by the dancers. These more or less turned to jelly in the limbs of Marie-Agnes Gillot, Delphine Moussin, Jean-Guillaume Bart and Stephane Phavorin.

The quality I normally like most in Moussin -- her supple torso and the easy liquidity of her limbs -- didn't serve her well here. Few positions were held and many were blurred. Triangles were replaced by ripples. Gillot normally has an easier time being brittle and jagged, or at least arch, but she seemed to flounder here. Rather than using her size (the gal is big, in a good way) to wow and dominate us, she seemed to be aiming to shrink herself into Moussin's impression of the choreography, and it didn't work.

Now, interestingly, the most memorable interpreter of the role Gillot played (this is the one where at one point she stands on pointe and splays her arms up, cutting the figure of an x, flexing her arches) I've seen is Muriel Maffre -- also French, and also big. The difference I think is that Maffre was working in the context of San Francisco Ballet, which, under the direction of ex-NYCB principal Helgi Tomasson, cuts a particularlly Balanchinean figure. (At times, even moreso than Balanchine's own company!) The same goes for Maffre's partner, the Russian dancer Yuri Possokhov; I can still remember the way that man swings -- he may be swervy, but he's still making shapes.

I also don't think Possokhov and Maffre, nor the other dancers I've seen give this ballet with American companies, were so goldarned smiley in the final section. The jauntiness in this passage for the four principals and corps is contained and should be expressed in the movement, not their faces. The POB dancers interpreting this ballet Friday seemed to be going for the "happy-go-lucky, carefree" American sensibility, particularly in their constant grins. Sure, we're that, but we're also about angles and architecture. If the French are soft, we're hard -- I'm not using either term as a pejorative. They swim, we strive. Stravinsky, too, jags and builds. If seeing the Paris Opera Ballet (as staged by Karin von Aroldingen) interpret this ballet taught me anything, it is the very Americanism of George Balanchine. He may have been born in Russia, and given his first ballets in Paris with the Ballets Russes, but by 1972 Balanchine had become our all-American dancemaker, like those tall buildings reaching for the sky.

Douglas Dunn, albeit working in the often more-somber post-Modern Dance milieu, is nothing if not jaunty. In dancing his "Pulcinella," created for the POB in 1980, the POB cast Friday admirably and rightly evoked our carefree nature. In new pastel and dare I say sexy costumes by Olivier Beriot, they trolloped across the stage in various groupings and in stand-out sunny solos and duets by, among others, Celine Talon. Dunn works with them on pointe, and that works; a little less believable is that in contrast to the weathered crew in "Sacre," they're all so pretty and shiney. Pedestrians they're not. But here I have to confess that, er -- maybe because of the music, which though by Stravinsky was by Stravinsky after Pergolese? -- I dozed in the middle section. So don't take my word as the final one here.

Do take these words away with you: Even before seeing the actual performance, I thought: Why aren't our homegrown New York ballet companies performing the work of that quintessential New York choreographer Douglas Dunn? Why instead of being fed the dim lustre of so-called 'diamonds' aren't our New York ballet companies truly stretching the boundaries of their dancers and audiences with works like Pina Bausch's "Le Sacre du Printemps," or even Mats Ek's "Giselle"? I want to tell you something: That audience at the POB Friday was exactly the young hip demographic our New York ballet companies claim they are trying to reach out to. You don't do that by courting them with dippie yuppie let's-all-go-to-the-ballet parties originated by the development department. You do that by bringing them exciting work that at least acknowledges that the twentieth century took place. The answer isn't creating a choreography laboratory for 20-year-old New York City Ballet dancers to develope their chops. The answer is being open to what's already out here, from Mats Ek, from Pina Bausch. WHY ARE OUR NEW YORK BALLET COMPANIES SO CLOSED TO THIS? HOW CAN THEY CONTINUE TO PRETEND MATS EK, MAGUY MARIN, AND PINA BAUSCH NEVER HAPPENED? (ABT may have done Ek at some point, but not recently.)

I want to tell you something else: Normally, they don't give standing Os at the Garnier, preferring that European rhythmic clapping thing. The first time I tried to give a standing O, after Aurelie Dupont's moving performance in Ek's "Giselle," I was shouted down by the woman behind me, who said I was blocking her daughter's view. By the end of Friday's performance, we were all standing. This is what dance is. This is why dance is. All the marketing studies about how to draw young people to the ballet? It's not that hard. Give them art that hits them where they live, squarely in the pelvis. (Or, "Throw the dirt on the stage, and they will come.")

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