December 2002 POB Concours
Consensus Politics, and the cult of mediocrity
31 December 2002
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Some general Observations on Trends in the POB Concours
The Concours System at the POB has degenerated into a Cult of Mediocrity. I am sorry to say that, as it is quite rude, but, being an outside observer who knows, on a personal level, none of the individuals involved, I may feel free in this respect.
As readers no doubt know, the System was instituted by Marie Taglioni in 1860, to protect dancers from the humiliating practices common in the 19th Century. The idea was that no-one would have to curry favour, or worse, with the ballet master, in order to be promoted.
That was 1860.
The Concours System no longer works. I say this as a member of the public, with forty or so years’ experience in the theatre, who sits in the auditorium, and WATCHES those ballets, night after night. Most of the POB people on that Jury do not look at the ballets. They dance in them. They do not see what we see, and when they do go down to watch, they are looking for technical flaws.
The public, poor things, looks for stagecraft, for strong mime, for musicality, for dance quality, for joy in dancing ! Instead, they get the flotsam and jetsam of what is left, after Consensus Politics has run amok through the ranks.
Each and every year, I make a point of comparing notes after the Concours, with several professionals who are not French, and have nothing to do with the POB, who either attend the Concours and/or are very familiar with the troupe’s performances. Every year, people exclaim WHAT ?! when they hear the results.
The fact that Miteki Kudo has simply given up appearing at the Concours, reflects most poorly on the proceedings.
Perhaps, in future decades, a new term will come into French usage: “pulling a Thibault on someone”, in reference to the extremely shoddy way that Emmanuel Thibault, that incomparable dancer, has been dealt with over the past few years. One will hear people say to X or Y, “Watch out buddy, they’re trying to pull a Thibault on you.” That will be a shorthand term, to mean that someone is attempting to promote a relative mediocrity over X or Y’s head.
The appointment two days ago of Mlle. Osta to the rank of étoile, although unrelated, at least ostensibly, to the Concours, is an appointment more for good and loyal service – which is simply not good enough - than for any earth-shattering ability. It is part and parcel of the same Consensus Mentality.
As an outsider, what do I see ? I see a troupe made up of first-rate dancers – more so among the men, that among the women. Tense, taut, clean dancing, well-policed, as the French say. Row upon row of fair faces and athletic figures. Anemic acting, stagecraft close to nil. Do I see strong personalities ? No. Am I thrilled to bits when the cast sheets come down, on tenterhooks to see X, Y or Z make his or her début in a role ? No. Do I ring friends and tell them to bolt over to France to see the new Cojocaru ? No. Do I find wild and exciting discoveries, do I learn something, each time X, Y or Z interprets a role ? No. Do I find that anyone amongst the premier danseurs or étoiles really has something to say ? Sadly, with the exception of Elisabeth Maurin, who is about to retire, and Manuel Legris, who has got another year or so left, no. Perhaps Mlle. Dupont might be expected to develop into an artist of substance, but, to one’s sorrow, a series of severe injuries has kept her from the stage ever-more frequently. The only young principal who has Something, is thus Laetitia Pujol.
Now, where are the people who have something to say ? Jadies and lentilmen, they are in the corps de ballet. There ARE strange and unusual personalities in the troupe who have somehow managed to slip through Claude Bessy’s very tight mesh. There are one or two fine musicians, such as Stéphane Phavorin. There is a little devil who holds an audience spellbound, Fanny Fiat. There are persons who radiate beauty and love, like Miteki Kudo. And there is one individual with absolutely transcendental dance quality, Emmanuel Thibault.
But these people are in the corps de ballet. The bad news, is that when they are on stage, the audience is not watching the principals.
Whether that fact presents itself to the Theatre’s Management, in the form of the problem it truly is, I do not know. But I would venture to suggest that it does shed an unflattering light on the Concours proceedings. And in the long run, we are not doing the art of ballet any particular favour.
None of the men or women I refer to above, is perfect. But no artist is all things to all men. Even Galina Ulanova did not have Everything !
In fine, the Concours system has outlived its usefulness. Let us stop shifting responsibility for the Opera’s future onto some vague, faceless, ever-changing Concours Jury, which is not answerable for its decisions. Let the Director of the Opera, currently Hugues Gall, and the Directeur de la Danse, stand quite alone, in taking the responsibility for appointments. They will be answerable, and that alone will serve to put a stop to the present trend towards clownishness, that is quite unfunny when one is on the receiving end.