Dance Companies Save Money
featured photo

Go back to Flash Reviews
Go Home

Flash Review 2, 7-24: Celebrity Dance Match, II: Balanchine vs. Forsythe
Paris Opera Ballet Places Them Mano e Mano

By Tara Zahra
Copyright 2000 Tara Zahra

VIENNA -- I have seen plenty of Balanchine in my time, and quite a bit of William Forsythe. But through the juxtaposition of the two at the Vienna State Opera House Saturday, brilliantly executed by the Paris Opera Ballet, I learned a few things about both. Balanchine and Forsythe exposed each other, through a conversation full of rebellions and homages and calm replies. And yet it could not be considered an argument, because in the end the range of works presented affirmed the fungible potential of classical technique -- to express the spirit of a time, to be used as the language for an argument or an agreement, to swing from high culture to low, even when the choreography is ostensibly only "about" choreography, music, and technique itself.

I'm not sure what I could possibly say about "Concerto Barocco" that hasn't been said before, but for me what stood out, and became most relevant as the night went on, was its sunny brilliance, its insistence that the world is beautiful and that dancers hopping on pointe for seemingly endless amounts of time do so breezily and happily. Balanchine's affirmation of the beauty of simple lines and steps, executed perfectly, keeps us transfixed from start to finish. Even in the first moment, the simple presentation of orderly rows of dancers standing perfectly still in their leotards was enough to take my breath away. In the second movement it was the extensions, folding and unfolding with just the right amount of softness at the end of a sharp line, the pendulum lift, in which the ballerina's legs scissor back and forth as she is carried across the stage and then deposited into a deep penche. And in the third movement, I could only be amazed that a simple sequence of piques and fondues could be so exciting.

The dancers were perfect, particularly corps member Nathalie Aubin, who as a soloist managed to break through the rule of form to communicate with the other dancers on stage -- just the right mixture of playfulness and explosiveness without trying too hard. But I should say that in all honesty my first impression of "Concerto Barocco" was that it could be danced by children -- that it belongs to the choreographer and above all to Bach, and not to the dancers, who merely needed to appear on stage with perfect technique and perfect bodies to execute the vision.

Forsythe proved me wrong, by showing, an hour later, in "The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude," how thin the line is between Balanchine's visions of perfection and beauty and a technical bravura that is tastelessly loud and garish -- how much skill it takes to dance innocence in white without becoming a parody of yourself. Forsythe's "Vertiginous Thrill" is not itself quite a parody, but rather a deliberately staged playful adolescence, a demonstration of what happens when dancers rebel and assert themselves too boldly in a world governed by primary colors and simplicity and patterns. The male dancers wear bright purple velvet tunics without backs, the women ridiculously stiff lime green tutus, mimicking GB's blinding light, but coloring in its purity. Suddenly even the echappes seem too big, wrists flap all over the place, those hops don't look at all painless, piques and fondues disturb rather than calm, the whole thing seems frantic. But the piece's success above all rested on the execution by dancers Clairemarie Osta, Emilie Cozette, Ghyslaine Reichert, Herve Courtain, and Stephane Phavorin. They exercised just enough control, and danced with just enough understatement and subtlety, that I was not quite sure if the audience got the joke -- which might have been on them in the end. Granted, it was an audience particularly heavy on clingy couples, American tourists, and Viennese society folk wearing all of their jewels. And maybe I am not giving them enough credit. But the polite applause for moments of particularly overstated and almost comical gymnastics suggested that the whole thing slipped over at least a few heads.

The second Forsythe piece, "Woundwork 1," performed immediately after "Concerto Barocco," also engaged with Balanchine's insistence on the ballerina's perfection and beauty. The music was ugly, the stage was dark, we seemed suddenly to have been transported to a Tunnel World underground "Concerto Barocco." All the more so because the technical elements were once again so familiar -- dancers (at least at the outset) still moving through pose to pose, hyperextending elbows and knees along the way, coming home to perfect 5th positions. But increasingly the pattern making was disrupted by intentional ugliness -- knees turned in, bodies tangled, lines unclean. At times though, these distortions only proved Balanchine's point, and I am not sure they were meant to do otherwise. A perfect developpe aborted halfway is still beautiful for its potential, all the more beautiful because you can see that the dancers' technique is flawless even in moments of transition, when it is most easy to cheat or give in to sloppiness and exhaustion. And in the end I felt a little tired of the cacophony, immune to the dysfunction, ready to go back to Balanchine's blissful world.

The "Rubies" section of "Jewels" (titled here Capriccio) was the final piece of the evening, and was an excellently chosen reply to Forsythe's commentary. For if Forsythe insists on the ability of ballet to slip into the realm of the gaudy and dysfunctional, "Rubies" seems to argue that even when you dress ballerinas like Vegas stars and give them Broadway steps, they belong to an elegant world in spite of themselves. By incorporating aspects of "low" culture into his own choreography, Balanchine thus ironically reaffirms the divide between high and low. "Rubies" is certainly playful, even fun. But its carefully controlled transgressions against norms of modesty and taste merely remind us that a ballerina cannot really be frivolous, inviting us to poke fun at the frivolity of the chorus line. And Saturday I saw a true ballerina -- Aurelie Dupont, whose energy and technical brilliance could not in the least be cheapened by the glitz of rubies. I am not sure I have ever seen a dancer turn faster or with more self-assurance than Dupont, who was full of surprises in an evening when technical brilliance was the norm -- one double (or maybe triple) turn in developpe second still stands out in my mind.

In the end, the conversation between Forsythe and Balanchine was provocative, enlightening, and certainly visually exciting, but I wondered where we go from here. Must we have this conversation over whether ballet belongs to "high" or "low" culture, whether it is only about beauty or can be about ugly things too? I think Forsythe's spirit will probably triumph, while taking nothing from Balanchine's brilliance. But after adolescence, what next? What will ballet do next with its freedom to disturb us?

Go back to Flash Reviews
Go Home