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Letter from New York, 12-18: Seeing red
La Danse, as debased at L'Opéra and elevated by 'Red Shoes'

Moira Shearer in Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger's 1948 "The Red Shoes." (1948). Courtesy MGM.

By Harris Green
Copyright 2009 Harris Green

NEW YORK -- Those New Yorkers who immodestly presume they live in the Dance Capital of the World had, for a few weeks this fall at least, good reason to believe they were living in the Dance Movie Capital of the World. On November 4, the ever-reliable SoHo triplex Film Forum broke the long drought of motion pictures about ballet by presenting the U.S. theatrical premiere of Frederick Wiseman's 2-hour, 38-minute documentary, "La Danse: The Paris Opéra Ballet," then showing two days later a gloriously re-mastered print of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's beloved 1948 high-camp classic, "The Red Shoes." New Yorkers had been subsisting on such parched fare as Robert Altman's "The Company" (2003), which even Altman seemed to have lost interest in before it was finished, and Nicholas Hytner's "Center Stage" (2000), which sank under the dead weight of clichés. (Eight years passed before anyone risked a sequel, "Center Stage: Turn It Up," and that one went direct to DVD.) Stephen Daldry's "Billy Elliot" (2000) shouldn't count because it painted a truer picture of Mrs. Thatcher's England than it did of a dance class. Not surprisingly, Film Forum found itself besieged by capacity crowds for both 'Shoes,' which ended its scheduled two-week run on November 19, and "La Danse," which is in its sixth week as this report is filed, and has since opened in Los Angeles and Chicago.

Our ballet-challenged film reviewers spent much of their space hailing Wiseman for his 40-year career as an objective observer who never editorializes and scrupulously exercises his considerable power as film editor. He was duly hailed for these qualities in "La Danse," his 35th documentary (there have been two fiction films), but no movie reviewer I read prepared balletgoers for what Wiseman captures as his camera roams the corridors, stairwells, studios and stages of the Palais Garnier for 12 weeks (in the fall of 2007). Some of the world's most gifted and beautiful dancers are shown stuck in a predominantly Eurochic repertory that debases their artistry as heedlessly as it wastes their energy, yet the ever-objective Wiseman doesn't seem either bothered by or aware of it.

For a New Yorker, a year of POB's assiduously advanced, flavor-of-the-month fare would be as enervating as attending a City Ballet season devoted almost entirely to Diamond Project commissions. For a Parisian, apparently, such torment is the price one must pay to maintain the city's proud tradition as a riotous supporter of some of the great artists of the 20th century. Regardless of how far short of their genius their 21st century successors may come and regardless of how tedious, painful and degrading it may be to man the barricades on their behalf, the tradition must prevail. For a Parisian -- or at least the Parisian cultural establishment that decides what gets programmed and who does the programming -- such torment is considered the price that must be paid to maintain the city's proud tradition set by some of the great artists of the 20th century (most of whom in dance were Russian). At this stage, any drop in ticket sales may be made up by tourists who don't care what they are seeing, as long as it's at the POB. (In New York City, indiscriminate tourists are performing the same service for Broadway musicals that deserve to have folded years ago.)

The Paris Opéra's dance director, Brigitte Lefevre, championed the cause of the new so ardently that then-general director Hughes Gall publicly reprimanded her for scanting classical ballet. For the three months covered by "La Danse," however, the score is: Eurochic 5, Classics 2. Lefevre is exercising her authority with unyielding insistence when we first see her. Implacable as Madame Defarge, she is informing choreographer Emanuel Gat in her rapid-fire French ("Non, non, non, non!") that he cannot possibly be permitted to monitor classes and select -- fierce pantomime of plucking -- the dancers he wishes to use in his new ballet. He must abide by "the hierarchy": Tell her what he wants and she will tell him whom he may use.

Probably Nureyev's greatest reform during his stormy tenure as the Opéra's dance director (1983-89) was his disdain for the hierarchical system of promotion as a step-by-step ascent through the ranks; instead, he accelerated the rise of such gifted young dancers as Sylvie Guillem and Patrick Dupond by casting them on the basis of talent, not seniority. Now hierarchy is apparently back in force. Gat, maintaining a wan smile of growing resignation, says he doesn't yet know what dancers he wants for his ballet because he draws his inspiration from those who interest him once he sees them. ("Non, non, non, non!") Gat's subsequent disappearance from the film leaves the nagging suspicion that he just may have been guillotined.

To her credit, Lefevre gave Wiseman unlimited access to herself and everyone else. Apparently she grew so accustomed to his veteran cameraman John Davey's omnipresence that at a meeting with a delegation of company members, she candidly admits why POB must maintain an insistently venturesome repertory: The company's image -- along with her own, she does not bother to add -- depends on offering what appears to be progressive, defiantly unclassical fare. Then she reveals her regret and dismay that few younger dancers are taking the classes she's added to teach the special techniques such trailblazing requires. Can a typically Gallic counter-revolutionary spirit be smoldering in the gilded confines of the Garnier? If so, it can't come any too soon to suit me.

The first choreographer we see at work is Wayne McGregor, currently the resident dancemaker of the Royal Ballet (and one of the seven scheduled to contribute to New York City Ballet's Spring 2010 season). Eschewing technical terms to describe the often violent, entwined poses he wants -- trust me, "steps" does not begin to describe the results -- McGregor combines demonstrations with a running commentary in a Cockney accent peppered with enigmatic Hottentot-like clicks in lieu of counts. Balanchine used to mystify dancers in rehearsal with the command, "Do it like Fred Astaire." McGregor could have saved time by urging his dancers, "Do it like Twyla!" or "Do it like Forsythe!" When the cast is seen onstage in their sleek Vicki Mortimer biker-wear, throwing themselves into violent pas de deux and undergoing the twitchies to the nonmusic of Joby Talbot and Deru, they trigger a bout of deja vu that verges on vertigo.

Mats Ek's "The House of Bernarda," seen in performance only, causes a fleeting sense of disorientation. Wiseman must surely have made a wrong turn, wound up in Belgium and returned with utterly mad footage of a Wim Vandekeybus troupe in full cry. Young women gathered about a ponderous black table howl at the moon in larynx-tearing screams, collapsing to the floor in heaps or chasing one another about to what seems like incongruously restrained traditional music for the Spanish guitar (played by Narcisso Yepes).

But, no. Wiseman can only have been at the Paris Opéra Ballet. What other company would waste Marie-Agnes Gillot, a world-class ballerina, on a role like the woman who feeds her sisters in 'House' by either shoving the food down their throats or by shoving their faces in the food? Later, when we see Gillot performing a relentless series of fouettés in Pierre Lacotte's staging of "Paquita," she doesn?t always remain in the same spot but her seamless virtuosity is a heartening reminder that such dancing is still welcome at the Palais Garnier.

"Paquita," one of the two classical ballets Wiseman observes in preparation and performance, is essentially a candy box of crumbling bonbons, the sort of fare no self-respecting company would produce without programming half a dozen worthier classics as compensation. Filmed in rehearsal, however, it affords us the opportunity to eavesdrop on Lacotte and his wife, former étoile Ghislaine Thesmar. The camera drifts away from the ballerina they are observing to focus on these two old pros, ensconced against the wall of the classroom, as they dish away about the footwork of the hard-working dancer before them, the various styles of footwork (Balanchine's spurning the Russian heels-to-the-floor method meets with Lacotte's approval), the singular traits of colleagues past ("She had a big butt"), Suzanne Farrell (her flaws -- unspecified -- are said to have inspired a new style of dancing). Cinematographer Davey, who somehow avoids being glimpsed even once in any classroom mirror, may have been standing still and using a zoom lens. The Lacottes are surely body miked. This vignette is decidedly on a tabloid level of revelation, but it's more fun than the vistas of mansard roofs and depopulated hallways that anyone but a fervent Wiseman admirer would consider excessive filler. For the faithful, his shot of a workman tending an apiary on the Garnier roof symbolizes the hive of activity buzzing underneath.

The dances are not as amusing under scrutiny. Angelin Preljocaj's "The Song of Medea" does boast a pas de deux that can pass as choreography, as opposed to the usual roughhousing in keeping with the inevitable synthesized accompaniment. Two hearings didn't imprint Mauro Lanza's score on my mind, but Wilfried Romoli as Jason and particularly Alice Renanvand as "The Seductress," a sultry Medea rival, generate genuine heat through intricate partnering. When it comes to infanticide, however, there's nothing quite like post-modernism. As Medea, Delphine Moussin did not need to have spent years at the barre to dispatch her children by smearing a little boy and girl with red goop scooped out of galvanized pails, clapping the buckets over the kids' heads and stretching them out on the stage; however, knowing how to move probably did come in handy when Moussin had to make her way over to designer Thierry Leproust's warped specimen of gigantic driftwood that counted as scenery.

Sasha Waltz had equally Spartan décor to work with for her pas de deux, "Romeo and Juliet," but since she's listed as co-designer with Thomas Schenk, minimalism must have suited her just fine: A giant slab lies flat upon the stage, attached to a steel cable hanging from the flyspace. It's also apparently attached on one side to the floorboards (like a hinge), for when pulled up by said cable, the slab forms a 45-degree angle to the stage. Now do I need to tell you this bleak slanted expanse qualifies as The Balcony at POB? It's lying flat when we look in on Aurélie Dupont and Hervé Moreau in a star-crossed grapple, but eventually it is hauled up, with Dupont perched atop it, after she has finished with Moreau by affectionately kicking his arms as he sprawls on the floor. Will Waltz make a belated concession to romance by having the lovers strike the traditional heart-breaking pose of separation, each reaching unsuccessfully out to the other?

No, they are Sasha Waltz lovers, so Juliet extends her dirty foot to be kissed. I like to think this intimacy was too much for Wiseman, the film editor, for before Romeo can reach the beloved's extremity, we are abruptly shown shots of dancers in the wings, the lights overhead -- anything but Waltz's gamy choreography. By the way, she set this grapple to the scene d'amour from Berlioz's "Romeo and Juliet," which Arturo Toscanini told the late critic B. H. Haggin "is most beautiful music ever written." No less than Valery Gergiev, cultural czar of St. Petersburg, was assigned to conduct it.

I thought Wiseman had averted his lens from Pina Bausch's "Orpheus and Eurydice," which had been promised in the one-page flyer Film Forum distributed in the lobby, because I recalled seeing no couple bouncing off walls or dancing on dirt. Too late I learned from Film Forum's 14-page press release that only Yann Bridard would perform (and only for a fleeting glimpse, at that). For my oversight, apologies are due Bridard and Bausch and especially Gluck, whose music I should have recognized, no matter how little of it I heard.

Isabelle Ciaravola, foreground, and the Paris Opéra Ballet in Rudolf Nureyev's version of Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker," a scene from Frederick Wiseman's "La Danse: The Paris Opéra Ballet." Courtesy Zipporah Films.

Nureyev's "The Nutcracker," made for the Royal Swedish Ballet in 1967, provides another example of Wiseman apparently flinching from choreography that abuses great music while distorting a beloved classic. He doesn't spare us shots of an overpopulated corps of Snowflakes, grotesquely costumed, forming a mean-looking V-shaped wedge in rehearsal, as if in attack mode, but apparently there's only so much he can take of the frenetic pas de deux Nureyev thought necessary for the change of scene from the living room to the snow-laden forest in Act I. Balanchine wisely trusted the shifting scenery of designers Horace Armistead (at City Center) and Rouben Ter-Arutunian (Lincoln Center) to do full justice to Tchaikovsky at this point. Nureyev, who cast no children in his 'Nutcracker' and never knew when to stop, sets Clara and the Prince (danced here by Laetitia Pujol and Nicolas Le Riche) to doing as many chainé turns and lifts and grand jetés as possible. Again this appears to be too much for editor Wiseman. As the lovely music continues, he cuts away to check out the dancers in the wings, the lights overhead -- anything but the violence being done to a beloved ballet.

Wiseman's first documentary, "Titicut Follies" (1967), was a horrifying 84-minute exposure of inhumane conditions prevailing at the State Prison for the Criminally Insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. The public outcry was so great the governor fired the director. Reaction to "La Danse" will not be equally salubrious, unfortunately. Pernicious artistic decisions at POB have never been concealed but flaunted.

Seeing 'Red' again

Moira Shearer in Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger's 1948 "The Red Shoes." (1948). By kind permission of ITV Global Entertainment.

Moira Shearer's hair and eyes look as stunning as ever in the lovingly re-mastered print of "The Red Shoes," which gives Jack Cardiff's lush cinematography, the truly great artistic achievement in this movie, its full due. One hardy connoisseur who had found "La Danse" tedious and disconcerting freely admitted she had seen 'Shoes' three times during this two-week run. Ever analytical, I resisted its spell at my first viewing well over 50 years ago after watching Vicky (Shearer) "don" the eponymous footwear onstage, during -- let me repeat, during -- a performance of the ballet: Without bothering to remove her toe shoes, she leaps up and lands miraculously in the free-standing pair The Shoemaker (Leonide Massine) had somehow stood up pointes down and off she twirls.

I know, I know, this ballet sequence is supposed to alternate Vicky's fantasies with reality. My point is that reality never stood a chance. To further spoil the fun for Powell and Pressburger's enchanted fans, I remind them that in the scene months later, when the fatal spell actually does kick in to send Vicky hurtling to her death, she is already wearing the diabolic pair in her dressing room before the performance. We all can agree, however, that Anton Walbrook as Lermontov, the Jealous Impressario, imbues what could be an ambulatory cliché with wit and emotion, subtlety and force. Walbrook's anguished pronunciation of "The Red Shoes" in his curtain speech after Vicky's accursed death is the one sequence I always treasure.

Some wrenchings of reality do have a certain charm. Orchestra musicians show up for an impromptu 8:30 a.m. rehearsal in jackets and ties. Company members stop by an artistic director's office to bid him good night after a performance. (Did you know a director of a touring company can get his own office in any theater -- including the Palais Garnier?) Elaborate ballets and even an opera are created in record time, when required by the plot. Apparently the fairy tale influence of Hans Christian Andersen, whom the credits conscientiously list among the writers, was all persuasive.

Shearer, who preferred to be remembered as a writer about ballet, said, "The dancing isn't very good in that film, you know." She's much too hard on herself and, of course, the irrepressible Massine. (Robert Helpmann, who actually choreographed the eponymous ballet, was equally creepy as an actor and a dancer.) The major impact of "The Red Shoes" was not artistic but cultural. By playing in New York City for months before the Sadler's Wells Ballet made its historic 1949 debut, it surely contributed to that company's box office triumph and possibly to its eventual metamorphosis into the Royal Ballet. In 1951, MGM's "The Great Caruso" developed Americans' appetite for opera by serving it up rousingly sung in bite-sized Technicolored chunks. Jussi Bjorling and Placido Domingo are my idea of great tenors, but Mario Lanza was a good man to have on the job then. At this time, when budgets for art and music classes in public schools are the first to get the axe, similar movies about ballet and opera and great music in all its forms would do far more good than harm to our precious endangered culture.

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