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Hoorah for Captain Spaulding, the African Explorer
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La Fille du Pharaon, Bolshoi Theatre,
at the Opéra Garnier (January 15th to 18th 2004)
Do y’all remember that glorious moment when a cast of thousands bursts into song, as Captain Spaulding, alias Groucho Marx, in one of his many incarnations as an African explorer, lopes into the hall in his inimitable man-meets-monkey way ? Well, for the past few days Captain Spaulding at the Palais Garnier has been our very own Pierre Lacotte, who has "reconstructed" (choreographed, actually) The Pharaoh’s Daughter, and designed - with no little talent - the sets and costumes as well.
After mulling this over for a few days, I shall perhaps get round to writing something a little more elaborate, but in the interval, beg, borrow or steal a ticket, because the thing is a SCREAM. We are all, I think, agreed, that the classical dance is not the funniest of art forms, and occasions to laugh - other than a cynical cackle - are few and far between.
The whole thing is mad, cracking mad, a sort of opium dream, and NO, it is NOT ART. It is neither profound, nor moving, nor does it remain with one in one’s thoughts. But it is damn good fun, and a very pretty thing too.
In one line, the story is about an archaeologist in situ, who has a vision of the Pharaoh’s daughter that transports him back to That Time, and That Place. In the 1860s, that was Marius Petipa’s pretext for putting hundreds of women, each more beautiful than the next, on stage at the Maryinski.
Lacotte’s sets and costumes, though simple, are lovely to look at, really, without being obtrusive, while the shivering cool of the Underwater Scene calls for a visit by Frank Andersen: the Grotto in Napoli Act II needs urgent retooling, and this is how.
Some in Paris have objected to the Bolshoi’s "inexpensive" stage furnishings and costumes. What’s wrong with that ? First, Russia is just emerging from a severe economic crisis, and people have better things to worry about than whether the tutus be real silk. Secondly, one comes to theatre to use one’s imagination. Here at Paris, we have a "Bayadère" where everything is proper silk brocade, gold and silver thread, while the sets cost an arm and leg. And it all gets in the way of the dancing ! Let people use their imagination ! Here we’ve got make-believe characters, in a make-believe Egypt, and what of it, if one can see straight through the Pyramids ?
Despite the Garnier stage small size, relative to that at Moscow, Pierre Lacotte’s blocking of the stage and his groupings, are legible, lively, and graceful. There is movement at all times, no dead angles, the corps de ballet never being left slumped glumly on one leg, or dozing off in a dark corner. While the soloists dance, the corps de ballet goes through its paces in the background.
Fascinating to see how the Russian corps de ballet moves. It is like a harpsichord - shift keyboard, and move to another timbre and shading, from coiled-spring energy to faint, mezzo-tint walking, running or dancing that can, where called for, be barely turned-out, perfectly fluid. But perfectly effective as theatre.
A choreographic conundrum
On the first-night, marking the première of this work in Western Europe, the casting ordeal we were subjected to was Svetlana Zakharova and Dmitri Belogolovstev as Aspicia and Lord Wilson/Taor. Five minutes into the ballet, one groaned inwardly "Get that woman off the stage !" as a reptilian foot and leg emerged out of the gloom like the head of the Loch Ness monster. Although Mlle. Zakharova attended the same school in Kiev as Mlle. Cojocaru, to say that Mlle. Zakharova’s dancing is, like that of her younger classmate, an outpouring of spiritual beauty, would be - let me be tactful here - something overstated. As for the poor lad who was apparently press-ganged, on account of his looks, into replacing the indisposed Serguei Filin, M. Belogolovtsev cannot get his feet round M. Lacotte’s choreography.
But the question is, can anyone ?
Over the years, one comes to realise that although M. Lacotte has composed some pretty variations and groupings for the woman, he seems to have it in for the man. May I explain ?
In the Bournonville Schools, there is one awful step, called The Dark Step. It is a nightmare, a seething, heaving mass of petite batterie without any "brightness" (such as pas courus, or even, hey, a quick jeté for light relief). It is done by men, because we ladies rush for the smelling salts even thinking about it. Now, the Dark Step is an experiment. A challenge. It is NOT meant to be beautiful, and it is NOT meant to be a model for choreography, although Auguste B. has put a version of the thing into Act I of the Conservatoire.
But M. Lacotte, as I’ve said, has it in for the gentlemen. Many of his variations seem to be based on the "sock it to’em" concept behind The Dark Step. Pile on the obstacles, let’em pump for oxygen, let’em bound and rebound ! And to hell with Beauty, eh !
Then in walks some poor matinée idol, six and a half foot tall, who can dance, sort of, and who looks terrific in colour photography. But he can’t jump and he can’t beat. M. Lacotte shews him the steps. The lad turns green - "What, have I to do this, to draw my wage ?"
At the latest Internal Promotion Concours at the Paris Opera, one of James’ variations from Lacotte’s Sylphide was the imposed variation at quadrille rank. Shall we guess what happened ?
Anyway, the men’s variations are killers, brisés of every shape and size including en tournant, horrendously complicated sissonnes I don’t even know the cotton pickin’ name for (cotton pickin’, cus we’re in Egypt, baby), and it might all be a hey-ho ! and do-able, were those torments prised like jewels in golden fretwork, rather than being scrumpled up on top of one another without a beam of moonlight, a ray of sun, or even a light grey cloud, to set them off properly. To say that even the Danish étoile Thomas Lund, or that pearl of the Paris Opera Emmanuel Thibault, might find it impossible to make those variations look like music and poetry, says it all.
The reason why Bournonville’s enchaînements are so masterful, despite their appalling difficulty, is that he starts with a MUSICAL concept, and has the steps articulate around that, with pauses, silences, in short, breathing space. Without that, one cannot take in the myriad changes of direction like clouds scudding across the sky, the alternately delicate, or vigorous, shading lent the « painting » by the full engagement of the torso.
So, dear friends, M. Lacotte has GOT to make up his mind. Either we are in the old French school, or we ain’t. T’is one, or t’other. In the old French school, plastique was of the essence. Whether in the air, or on the ground, the dancer has got to be allowed time to create a shape that looks like something other than a very wet, muddy dog on a winter’s day. The dancer cannot do that, if he be given seventeen horrendous bits of petite batterie to do, interspersed with some monstrously large jeté, or, God forbid, a manège, all in the space of one minute and thirteen seconds, the torso wracked helplessly in the effort.
Messrs. Medvedev, Godovski and Gudanov put in a valiant effort, and anyone who thinks these men are "not good enough", should try dancing those variations himself.
Another such instance: the Fishermaid’s variation in Act II, with taxing petite batterie and jumps such as call for a softer pointe shoe. So far, so good. But, can we leave well enough alone ? No, we cannot ! M. Lacotte has gone ahead and written in bravura pointe work that would have been almost impossible to perform in the 1860s ! The combination of the jumps, the petite batterie and this type of pointe work is a non sequitur ! To make matters worse, many Russian dancers today still wear the narrow-platform, low-vamp shoe that to the eye, gives a tapered line. Pretty as it is, the shoe is unstable and far from ideal orthopaedically. In variations with bravura pointe work, one will accordingly tend to opt for a hard shank to get the stability. Then try to jump and grip the floor with that shank ! And so, at least on the nights we saw Ekaterina Shipulina, she rowed through choppy waters, taking the shock on landing straight down the spine.
Secondly, there is such a thing as style. What’s the point of making some Russian chap to whom these complex steps are the Great Unknown, stagger through a variation, and then allow him suddenly to raise the arms to ear level in entrechat, like a 1970’s version of the Bluebird ? Why go to the trouble of doing all this reconstruction on scores and manuscripts, and then allow the female soloists to expose everything but the digestive tract, as one wag has just put it, flinging that goddam leg about at ear level ?
Again, M. Lacotte has us alternate pas de deux in the old French style, where the man and the woman both dance, with acrobatic Goleizovsky-style partnering, where the woman’s only "step", is essentially développé.
By the way, could someone tactfully take M. Lacotte aside, and explain that when the man shall dance in a kilt, or as here, in Egyptian loin cloth, let us avoid manège, tour en l’air and pirouette ?
We are told that the Bolshoi has the strongest corps de ballet of men on the planet. Unfortunately, owing to the Lacottian blinkers blinding him to this particular half of the human species, the gentlemen have little to do. I mean, if we can be modern by doing away with roughly 90 minutes of Pugni’s score, as well as most of the mime, let us be truly modern, and let the men to dance, rather than just waving a fan or a pair of light cymbals about. There is not enough for a modern corps de ballet to do, and one can all-too-plainly see the gentlemen politely attempting to prevent the public’s realising how bored they are. Bit unfair, given the fact that the play lasts a full three hours, no ?
The ladies however, are a delight ! Ye Gods ! They are witty, musical, feather-light... I could go on, and on. After eight or nine years in Paris, one forgets that there are women in the profession who are allowed to go down and dance without radiating angst.
Unfortunately, this writer was standing, and very far from the stage, but for what one could see, the dancing by the feminine soloists in the pas d’action, and in the Nile Scene, was richly detailed and very strong indeed, particularly the wonderful Anastasia Yatsenko, about whom one could rattle on fondly for hours ! Indeed, thinking a back a fortnight now to the performances, Mlle. Yatsenko, though in a very, very different way, strikes one as impressive as Mlle. Alexandrova. Contrary to what we have been led to believe about the Russians, her footwork was crisp and buoyant, the batterie jewel-like, and, withal, a thousand nuances in the torso. That is what makes the dance, that is what makes it interesting, and that is why people come back.
Mlle. Yatsenko is a textbook example of how one uses port de bras, to play with the music. For example, in the pas d’action, she has pas de chat with the arms en couronne. She will hold the couronne just long enough to give its full elliptical value and precise musical accent, and then take it down, to move into another lovely port de bras.
Looking down from above at the fascinating declivity, the play of light and shadow over the incline of the head, the nape of the neck, and the back, and the ever-changing angles all this forms with the leg, I found myself for the first time in YEARS, at a quintet rehearsal the next night, listening to the adagio of a Mozart oboe quintet, and imagining step combinations. Because the dancing of the woman here at Paris is so tense, so stiff in the torso, that one’s imagination has quite shrivelled up, in terms of inventing things.
In the same musical vein (and what a contrast to our own ladies here at Paris), might one point to the three odalisques in Act I, Scene I, who, as they turn, use the arms to mark rubato: carry the port de bras fully through the torso to the fingertip, mark it, and only then, move on ? It’s a fraction of an instant, but how delightful a fraction !
On to that monument of a woman, Maria Alexandrova, whose reputation has preceded her.
Though it be somewhat imprudent to advance oneself in print about an artist whom one has seen but thrice (in the French National Theatre, this writer watched the work of certain individuals for five or so years, before presuming to write a single word), one would not wish to short-change Maria Alexandrova’s accomplishment.
Whether she be a great artist, one would not venture to say after seeing her dance only in the roles of Ramse (January 15th) , and then as Aspicia (January 18th) and the Classical Dancer on January 23rd. Judging by those nights, this would certainly appear to be one of the planet’s great female technicians, a race that has almost disappeared since the days of Nadia Nerina, owing to a thirty-year craze for extreme slenderness and picking up the leg.
I could not help wondering whether this were not how Agrippina Vaganova would have danced Aspicia ? There is nothing like this amongst the ladies in the French theatre, and few like her in the world.
Maria Alexandrova has the authority and the inner strength of a man, in the elegant shape of a woman. Possessed as well, of the many-sided and variegated technique of a man, she never shews her strength. Look at the finely-muscled flanks and arms, and the drum-like centre, to see where those astonishing jumps, landing in the most difficult positions and soundlessly, come from ! Thrust like a spear into the ground on pointe, her dry and nervous foot is a calibrated instrument, moving across the floor like the hands of a machine-tool operator.
Is this writer especially partial to so vigorous a style of dancing ? No, I am not. But one has got to draw a firm distinction between one’s own subjective preferences, and what is objectively GOOD. Anyone who takes technique, in the deepest sense of the word, as seriously as this lady does, has got to be taken pretty damn seriously.
We are not talking nine pirouettes here or arabesque penché at 197 degrees, we are talking REAL technique: aplomb, balance, ballon, batterie... The woman’s foot alone is a sight for sore eyes - beautifully pulled up at all times, not excessively turned out, as magnificently articulated as a panther’s, even at rest !
Although her personality is, plainly, one of the most forceful on the world’s stage today, there is nothing vile or cheap about her dance. It is extremely challenging, personally, which is not the same as being a shrieking banshee.
In this Balanchine-ruled Age of Misogyny, attended by its wan handmaidens Anorexia and Hyperextension (who ever was the prankster who first put about the hoax that that fellow liked women ?), it has become virtually impossible for the ladies to dance at all, without complete reliance on Pilates to shore up the shuddering edifice.
Thus, Mlle. Alexandrova, scarcely 26 or 27 years old, is already an absolute phenomenon.
That being said, the lady’s partnering, at least on the nights I saw her, was on the poorish side - from what I could see, the glitches in the Act I adagio were her responsibility, not that of M. Skvortsov, while her plastique in all manner of arabesque and attitude is not irreproachable, perhaps because she finds those poses "not challenging enough", frothing as she is to get on to the "hard bits".
And, although she can dance Nadezhda Gracheva - or just about anyone else, actually - into the ground, her mime and acting skills fall short of the latter ballerina, who also happens to be a sensitive and poetic partner. In Amazon guise, Aspicia, out hunting with bow and arrow, meets Taor and is struck by love’s arrow herself. With Nadezhda Gracheva, bewitched and bewitching ! With that Amazon Maria Alexandrova, the expression of fear on Taor’s face reads: "if this is Sunday, it must be Paris, and the woman must be Claude Bessy !" Did M. Skvortsov actually recoil slightly, as I thought, at that awesome sight ?
However, M. Ruslan Skvortsov, who danced Taor on January 16th and 18th, to the Aspicia of Mlles. Gracheva and Alexandrova respectively, is a dancer with the same sort of quiet authority as Igor Kolb over at the Maryinski, and one who, without being flash or brutal, will not allow the ladies to wash the floor with him. Taor’s variations are extremely difficult, indeed almost impossible to pull off with beauty, but he came very, very close to it.
When one is cast in a danseur noble rôle, to suddenly switch and be amusing as well, is quite technical really, in terms of deploying one’s facial musculature, and shedding the eye’s light, such as playing hide-and-seek with the great ape, gorilla, giant chimp, or whatever the beast was (and a very good dancer that beast was too !). The partnering with Nadezhda Gracheva was a marvel, the mime beautifully supported. The final, parting tableau behind the gauze is all mime, and it was extraordinary - when done by Skvortsov and Gracheva.
Mlle. Gracheva is the typical example of a brilliant woman, who body has been chopped up on the altar of high extensions. As readers well know, the prime requisite for a female dancer today, is to be able to pick up the leg, and in Russia moreover, one is - regrettably - "streamed" for promotion to principal from an early age. Probably someone realised that Mlle. Gracheva was very gifted, but that her body does not really have the ability to pick up the leg AND rotate, so they forced it, in order to keep her. As she extends the leg to some absurd height, watch closely - the leg begins to rotate back inwards, front, back or side. How can we go on doing this to people ?
That being said, her interpretation of Aspicia was by far the most persuasive of the three, the finest in mime detail, and very feminine.
Since 1989, when the West recklessly imposed Shock Therapy on Russia, the suffering in that nation has been terrible. It has taken real courage, and patriotism, to remain in the company, rather than flee to the West and its wages. People have had little to eat, shabby clothing, cold apartments, low wages, and worse. And yet, they radiate a fervid commitment, a cultural level, and a joie de vivre lacking in the French National Theatre, with one or two egregious exceptions that diplomacy forbids one to over-emphasise here.
How do the Russian professors get this out of their men and women, in what has been, until very recently, such an oppressive economic environment ? It is has to do with the deep knowledge those professors have of many things other than the ballet, how they work with the music, how they study painting and sculpture, how they read poetry, and how they get those studies across to their pupils, who then, paintbrush to the painter, bring all that to the dance.