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Flash View, 11-17: An American Dance Fan in Paris
Will the Real Dance Capitol of the World Please Stand Up?

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

Here in New York, we like to think of our city as the dance capitol of the world. That claim has sometimes been misunderstood by the dance community outside of Gotham. We're not saying that good dance and good dancing doesn't happen elsewhere. Rather, it's that by sheer numbers, if nothing else, this is the place to be, whether you're a dance fan who wants to see as much dance as possible, a dancer who wants as many opportunities as possible, a choreographer who wants the widest possible pool of talented dancers from which to choose, or, ahem, a dance critic who wants to write about the widest spectrum of dance. It's not even, per se, an argument for the primacy of New York City-based companies, even though most of our leading companies are based here. Because it is New York, and because of the assumed importance of that New York Times, Deborah Jowitt, or Clive Barnes review to a dance company's fortunes, even those good companies which are not based here eventually come through here, so we get to see it all. Having immersed myself in the scene in Paris for the last month, I'm not about to come back home and crap where I sleep. But I've returned to New York convinced that there are at least three ways in which Paris edges out NYC as a dance town.

Let's start with the small picture and move up.

Small because we'll start by talking about just one company: the Paris Opera Ballet. I was a little thrown off the scent by the first piece I saw this fall on the POB, Rudolf Nureyev's staging of Petipa's Orientalist ballet "Raymonda." Orientalist, for one, and sexist, for two, it was not performed with enough conviction to give it modern relevance or at least make it work as a museum piece, although the pantherine Kader Belarbi alone, as the "evil" sultan, was almost worth the price of admission. But a mixed program involving, particularly, Balanchine's "Apollo," Preljocaj's "Annonciation," and Robbins's "Suite of Dances" quickly made me realize "Raymonda" was an aberration. If there's one word that describes how these dancers approach their material, it's maturity. If there's another word, it's depth. Yet another is understanding -- understanding both intellectually, and in their bodies. "Apollo" had a warmth I hadn't felt in other companies' (New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre) dancing of it; "Annonciation" reminded of how dance can affect one when ballet virtuosity is combined with Grahamian psychological probing; and "Suite of Dances" was made instantly accessible by Manuel Legris, who gave the dance with a humanity that anyone could relate to.

My one question on that mixed program was the programming; a ballet by Lionel Hoche was one of the worse modern pieces I've ever seen, just so much pointless posturing and fruitless dashing about. But my doubts about the POB programming braintrust quickly dissipated after witnessing the all-William Forsythe program. In this country, ballet companies will sometimes program Forsythe's heavy metal "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated" to show they're hip and with it, yeah man, or maybe "The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude" because on its surface it resembles a classical ballet. But POB gave us a whole program, including two relatively new ballets Forsythe made on the company last year that are two of the most intellectually complex ballets I've seen since, well, since Balanchine.

All of this is done on a raked stage that makes more Herculean these dancers' achievement - and also makes it invariably more exciting to watch, as the dancers seem to be tumbling towards us the whole evening. And, it's all presented in the Garnier, more of a palace, really, than an opera house, with marble floors, numerous parlors that look out on the glittering Place de l'Opera, Olympian frescoes on the ceilings and a giant Marc Chagall fresco populated by the legends of opera and ballet encircling the requisite chandelier over the orchestra. And the theater itself is at the same time grand and intimate; you really do feel as though you are royalty, watching dance performed just for you and some other royalty.

But most of all, I think, we have to go back to the dancing. Spirit-wise, this corps definitely has those of American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet beat. Namely, they are happy to be there(an area where ABT usually comes up short for me, and where City Ballet can be iffy, although the company showed signs of improvement in this regard towards the end of last season. Only Dance Theatre of Harlem seems to hold up the spirit front among NYC-based ballet companies.). And its, well, stars are hungry. Etoile Agnes Letestu, who could coast on her physical beauty, very easy technique, and ready charm, wants to push, as seen in her dancing of Terpsichore in "Apollo" and on the Forsythe program. That Forsythe seemed a little less her metier than Balanchine made her only push harder. Etoile Nicholas Le Riche is on fire. And etoile Manuel Legris has eclipsed Damian Woetzel as my favorite suave dancer; he's cool, but he's not complacent. Among the premiers danseurs, the magnetic and compelling Delphine Moussin and the fiery Marie-Agnes Gillot show that the future is intact at POB. Even etoile Jean-Guillaume Bart, lacking for me in technique, was at least trying. (To read my Paris Opera Ballet reviews, just type Paris Opera Ballet into the search engine window on our Home page.)

The second aspect in which Paris may eclipse New York is in the sheer amount of dance going on at the mainstream level. While not an all-dance theater like New York's Joyce Theater, Theatre de la Ville is a bigger theater. In fact, even its smaller theater, Les Abbesses, seems about the same size as the Joyce. This is a theater, music, and dance presenter, but unlike multi-genre theaters in the U.S., dance is not the poor sister, but clearly the most prominent resident.

On tap this year at the main space Theatre de la Ville (a.k.a. the Sarah Bernhardt): Jan Lauwers/Ballet Frankfurt, Francois Verret, Jan Fabre, Wim Vandekeybus, Edouard Lock/La La La Human Steps, Bernardo Montet, Sankai Juku, Jerome Bel, Rui Horta, Mathilde Monnier, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Sasha Waltz, Ea Sola, Vera Mantero, Robyn Orlin, Olga Mesa, Alain Buffard, Xavier Le Roy, Herve Robbe, Paco Decina, and Pina Bausch. At the smaller Abbesses: Gilles Jobin, La Ribot, Lynda Gaudreau, Jerome Bel, Kazuo Ohno, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Vandekeybus again, Samuel Louwyck, Christophe Haleb, Guesh Patti, Salia Sanou, and Daniel Larrieu.

In just the four weeks I was in Paris, in addition to the dance I was able to see, there was "The Air in Paris," a new musical featuring Patrick Dupond; a review with Zizi Jeanmaire, choreographed by Roland Petit; an Andalusian dance festival; a hip-hop festival; a premiere by Zingaro, the horse dance troupe; an opera based on Stravinsky's "Story of a Soldier," with choreography by Donald Byrd; and the Concourse de la Danse. Also in season, in the suburbs, was Preljocaj's own company.

If there's one deficit in this scene, it's the omission of American companies and American-based dance forms. (For more on this subject, see David Parker's Flash View, 11-16, An American Choreographer Abroad.) As you may have noticed in the list of the de la Ville season, there are no U.S. companies. I met a dancer, Kim-Lien Desault, who is working with a Paris-based dance association which is promoting contact and other improv-based dance, with a focus on bringing American exponents of these forms there. (Pooh Kay was in the house last month.) But it's tough going, because they're trying to do it with no state funding.

Ah, there's the rub. I wasn't there long enough to know for sure -- I may have been just scratching the surface. But my instant impression, anyway, is that the one area where New York has Paris beat is that it seems to be a more friendly environment for up-and-coming, street-level choreographers. You laugh! Yes, I know it's hard to get funded here, but at least young choreographers can usually find some stellar dancers to give their work, and can scrape together enough funds to give an annual or semi-annual season at the Cunningham studio or another relatively low-rent theater. Not to mention, of course, that they have a decent shot at being presented at three established theaters -- Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church, P.S. 122, and Dance Theater Workshop. The impression I got is that Paris just doesn't have these opportunities, and that if you're not in the State funding loop, it's difficult.

But -- and this may really surprise you -- if there's one respect in which Paris seems, on first impression, to surpass New York as a dance town, it's in the way dance is regarded by the population in general. At the Lynda Gaudreau concert, for example, where what was being presented was an intellectually rigorous style of the sort usually presented at Danspace Project, and usually attended by, well, dancers, choreographers, and maybe a few die-hard dance fans who aren't dancers, I saw only a handful of what appeared to be dancers. And the age of the crowd was more along the lines of what you might see at a ballet performance here -- 50 might have been the median. In other words, this was not just dancers watching dancers. And judging from their serious expressions, chins in palms, no one was bored -- they were all regarding this seriously, the way they might study an abstract painting or dense tome. (For more on Lynda Gaudreau, see Flash Review 1, 10-30: Isadora's Children.)

I also saw this elevated profile among the general population in the very fact that there WAS an exhibition on Vaslav Nijinsky at the Orsay, about as mainstream a museum as you can find. That exhibition, as noted in my Flash Review 1, 10-25: Where's Ida Rubinstein?, wasn't perfect. But think about it: When was the last time we saw a major dance exhibition at any of our local museums?

And finally, the reverence for dance among the general Parisian population was apparent in the bookstores. If you're a dance fan or dancer, you know the drill whenever you ask for the dance section at a bookstore. You're usually pointed to a meager shelf at the bottom of the music section, where you'll find copies of the Paul Taylor autobiography, several Agnes de Mille books, maybe a Graham biography, a couple of coffee table volumes, and perhaps the errant Gelsey Kirkland. Go to a supposed theater books specialist, and it's almost worse; the dance "section" seems almost a begrudging after-thought, put together with little care or research.

In Paris, well, first of all, even at the non-specialist stores, I found some gems. Among the books crammed into my suitcase was a large coffee tabler, Ornella Volta's "Satie et La Danse," full of lavish illustrations of everything from the Ballets Russes' "Parade" to Moses Pendleton to Merce. This I picked up for about $10 at a discount bookshop near the Sorbonne. Another shop I happened upon had among its treasures an entire book devoted to Preljocaj's version of "Parade."

But the king was, well, the bookshop located on the street named after the emperor, Librairie Bonaparte - Spectacles, located at 31, Rue Bonaparte, formerly home of the Salon des Cent memorialized in a famous Toulouse-Lautrec poster.

There I found a Paris Opera Ballet book from 1951; a special dance issue of Le Figaro magazine from 1930, with essays by Andre Levinson and others; a biography of Ida Rubinstein; a copy of the relatively recent William Forsythe CD Rom; a mess o' books and monographs on Pina Bausch; a coffee tabler on Diaghilev's short-lived but influential magazine The World of Art; a book of Paul Colin lithographs of Josephine Baker and the Review Negre from 1927; and a Simone Forti handbook, among others.

In short, while Paris may not threaten to surpass New York as a Mecca for dancers, if being a dance capital also means being a town that lives and breathes dance, not just among the dance community, then the City of Light seems to come closer to the mark than the Big Apple.

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