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Flash Review, 5-28: Spectres
The Ballet Russians are coming back to Chatelet! On film.

By Catherine Monnig Levine
Copyright 2009 Catherine Monnig Levine

PARIS -- I have a new favorite theater here. It's the Theatre du Chatelet, where 100 years ago this month, the Ballets Russes, under the direction of Serge Diaghilev, presented its first performances.

This intimate, elegant theater, built in the style of the Italian-Renaissance, has a horseshoe shaped interior with four balconies rising high, enveloping the stage. Angels danced on the ceiling that evening in May 1909, as they do today, surrounding an ornate, domed crystal arcade. What I love the most about this performance space is the contrast between the seats of plush, red velvet and the barren wooden floors. This seems to me very 19th century. And unlike our theaters in the U.S., where melodic chimes beckon you into the house shortly before curtain, this theater's 5-minute warning bell rings out sharply, in a no nonsense way, as though recess is over and it is time to get on with it.

In May of 1909, the Ballets Russes performed at the Theatre du Chatelet and breathed new life into the world of ballet. Through collaborations with some of the greatest choreographers, performers, librettists, visual artists and composers of all time, the company would continue to create excitement for the next 20 years. Diaghilev set out to create innovative work, using artists from different media to form a new kind of artistic whole. He brought dancers such as Vaslav Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova to Paris for the first time. These dancers, who were trained in Imperial Russia, had a technical mastery and passion in performance that awakened audiences in Paris and rejuvenated a declining dance scene. Other dancers and choreographers like Michel Fokine, Leonide Massine and George Balanchine also came into the fold. In those days, a ballet was created starting with the story and music, and then came the rest. Composers who worked with the Ballets Russes included Rimsky-Korsakov, Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Erik Satie and Francis Poulenc. Diaghilev broke away from using theatrical decorators and instead invited artists like Leon Bakst, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso to design not only sets and costumes, but curtains, programs and posters.

For that evening 100 years ago, the Ballets Russes opened to a packed house filled with members of society and important artists. Isadora Duncan -- an influence on Fokine -- was among them. The audience response to the performance was electrifying. As Deborah Jowitt mentioned in the February 2009 issue of Dance Magazine, an observer remarked that you would have thought the spectators' seats were on fire.

Through the creation of often passionate, spiritual and exotic works, the Ballets Russes shaped one of the most charged and controversial periods in dance history. Nijinsky's "Rite of Spring" provoked riots in the audience for its use of turned-in feet and hunched torsos. It is now viewed, in its departure from standard ballet vocabulary, as a forerunner of the modern dance movement. His "L'Apres Midi d'un Faune" was considered scandalous for its use of new dance imagery and its eroticism. The Ballets Russes continued to rock the world of dance with provocative new works and performances until Diaghilev's death in 1929.

By high contrast to the glamor and excitement of that first performance in 1909, the Theatre du Chatelet's subdued celebration of the centennial of the Ballets Russes consisted of two free programs of films dedicated to the works and artists of the company. The evenings were collaborations between the Theatre du Chatelet and the Cinematheque de la Danse. The first program, seen April 28, paid tribute to Nijinsky. And who best to show examples of Nijinsky's choreography and performance in a way that most closely exemplified a live presentation? The French hosts chose the Joffrey Ballet to display these works, as captured by the U.S.'s Public Broadcasting System for its Dance In America - Great Performances series in 1981.

The Joffrey Ballet has contributed greatly to the recreation and preservation of works by the Ballets Russes. Years after the reign of Diaghilev, Robert Joffrey sought to recapture some of the spirit of the Ballets Russes in his quest for innovation and experimentation for his own company. Joffrey commissioned Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer to meticulously reconstruct "Rite of Spring" from photos, notes and interviews. Years of research culminated in a performance of the piece by the Joffrey in 1987 and in subsequent seasons. But for this evening's film at the Theatre du Chatelet, we saw Rudolf Nureyev join the Joffrey to perform three other works from the Ballets Russes repertoire: Fokine's "Petrouchka" and "Le Spectre de La Rose" and Nijinsky's "L'Apres Midi d'un Faune," with Nureyev and Joffrey adding commentary. This lavish and colorful film production, directed by Emile Ardolino, was a treat for the eyes and ears. For "Petrouchka," Ardolino worked camera angles skillfully to capture crowd scenes and corps dancing along with the three puppets, danced by Nureyev, Denise Jackson, and Christian Holder. Following this, in "Spectre de La Rose," we watched a slightly aging Nureyev dance, not at his technical peak, although this did not take much away from the enjoyment of the ballet. Slightly dropping his weight on landings from jumps, of which there were many, Nureyev more than made up for this with his smooth blending of pirouettes and attitude turns and the most beautiful and delicate use of hands I have ever seen. It just goes to show you that dance is not all about powerhouse physicality. The film ended with "L'Apres Midi d'un Faune," ground-breaking for the time with its use of two-dimensional movement, parallel feet and leg positions, and that orgasmic ending.

For the second evening, Chatelet showed a taped interview in French with Boris Kochno, secretary to Serge Diaghilev and librettist for such ballets as Nijinska's "Les Facheux," Massine's "Zephyre et Flore," and Balanchine's "Prodigal Son." Kochno met Diaghilev when he was 17 and worked with him until his death. He then went on to partner with George Balanchine and form the company Les Ballets 1933. After his short-lived experience with this troupe, Balanchine left for the United States, where he rejected the collaborative model conceived by Diaghilev, and made himself, the choreographer, the one driving force behind his dances. The evening at Chatelet also included another presentation of "L'Apres-midi d'un Faune," using still period photographs and drawings with music by Debussy, directed by John Mueller in 1973, and a montage of Pavlova with excerpts from films including "The Californian Poppy," "Die Puppenfee," "Don Quixote," "Danse Grecque" and Pavlova's "Mort de Cygne," which Fokine choreographed for her in 1907.

My editor, Paul Ben-Itzak, had pointed out to me what a shame it was that the Theatre du Chatelet, the birthplace of the entire Diaghilev era, had done so little to commemorate such a significant and historical occasion for its theater and the world of dance and art. Almost as an afterthought, it seemed, someone behind the scenes had decided to throw an event together consisting of only a few films. Sadly, I must agree. Even though the Theatre du Chatelet is now my favorite theater in Paris, much more could have been done to honor the theater's history along with that of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.

As a point of comparison I decided to check other venues in Paris and environs, as well as around the world to see who was paying special recognition to this centennial event. Upcoming events over the next year include, but are not limited to, a tribute by the English National Ballet at Sadler's Wells in London, June 16 - 20; a Russian-produced Saisons Russes at the Theatre Champs d'Elysees -- birthplace of "Rite of Spring" -- also next month; and numerous other tributes in the Paris area next season, notably a whole series of exhibitions, films, and performances at the Centre National de la Danse in Pantin.

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