From Giselle, to Jérôme Bel
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With Alina Cojocaru / Mélanie Hurel / Aurélie Dupont / Agnès Letestu
Laetitia Pujol / Manuel Legris / Benjamin Pech
José Martinez / Nicolas LeRiche
Rumours of the Paris Opéra season for the year 2004/2005, the first under the General Directorship of Gérard Mortier, have just appeared on the Internet.
Assuming those reports be accurate, and one has reason to believe they are, what lies in store for the ballet ?
Apart from Jerome Robbins’ Glass Pieces, and Harald Lander’s Etudes, not a single classical work is to be put up at the Opera Garnier, while at Bastille, a vast barn where one cannot see people’s face and eyes, there will be three "cast-of-thousands" Nureyev productions.
In September 2004, Jérôme Bel, author of "I like to Move It", will be rewarded with a commission at the Opéra Garnier .
Several theatrical artists of my acquaintance had got wind of this Bel business. At their suggestion, this writer undertook a bit of research. Little of the flotsam and jetsam caught in the nets can be reprinted here, at it is really ugly.
But a shock from time to time may be our Wake Up Call.
And might not the very recent past, viz. the year 2001, be a guide ?
"When the cast finally walked on stage, all nineteen of them, they stood silently only breaking into movement for the chorus of David Bowie’s Let’s Dance. During Erick "More" Morillo’s I like to move it one of the cast member drops his pants and ’swings free’ for the entire song. I was amazed that he, er, kept it going so fast, for so long. I guess a lot of rehearsing must have got him in shape."
- posted September 20th 2001 by "Marie" on CriticalDance, on a "performance" in Canada.
In plain English, a cock-up !
Now, I am trying to be jocular (given the subject, should one say Jockular ?), but one’s patience, and sense of humour, are wearing thin.
In his myriad interviews (for Jerôme Bel is a very, very well-connected young man, who turns up all over the world in subsidised theatre), we learn that Bel’s work is based on his study of Roland Barthes, and semiotics.
Whatever is semiotics, and what has it to do with the ballet ?
Everyone has heard Umberto Eco’s "semiotics is a discipline for studying everything which can be used in order to lie". He was not joking, nor is that sentence itself a lie - for a change.
Semiotics is an updated form of the sophism against which Socrates founded his Academy.
How Socrates dealt with this species of cockroach has been related by Plato in, for example, the "Hipias Minor", and "Charmydes". To the sophists, there is no reality, only perception. To control men, one need only guide along pre-ordained pathways, their perception of reality. One uses words, gestures and sounds to elicit a conditioned, symbolic and unreflecting response. That response is then "rationalised", so that it appear to be the product of pure reason.
In modern times, these techniques have been put to the service of the print and electronic media for purposes of social control, as we have just seen in the way two Western Governments sold the fraud of "embedded news reporting", whilst invading the sovereign nation of Iraq.
Now, Jerôme Bel’s shows all involve the use of the most banal forms of popular culture (pop music, pop dances), complete immobility (quite literally, the "dancers" often do not move at all), and extreme degrading forms of nudity, as we see above.
A layer of what is purportedly the Western intelligentsia attends such shows. Their actual purpose in attending is to see just how far people like Bel can go, and get away with it. It becomes a collective act of lowering, not just one’s trousers, but of all innate barriers in the mind, that would otherwise revolt at the idea of harming others by subjecting them to acts contrary to human dignity.
Does anyone not ask themselves, by what process young people can be broken down to do things such as Marie describes above ?
A certain faction encourages the perpetration of these acts publicly, in large theatres, so as to foster the emergence of a "collective unconscious", in actual fact, of collective irrationality.
A taste of blood.
Extreme violence lies just around the corner.
Does that all ring a bell ? Could it be coincidence that, like Rudolf von Laban before him, Jérôme Bel’s fame and fortune were launched when Philippe Decouflé brought him in to choreograph movement at the 1992 Albertville Olympics ?
I think stronger things than we can print here today. Others might wish to pursue the subject further.
The process that leads to this sort of character being invited to work with the Paris Opera Ballet may go some little way to explain why current productions of so-called classical dance invariably prove so unsatisfactory.
The Influentials do not believe in them.
Lions, tigers and panthers in the Grotte Chauvet
The artists of the ballet were subjected to a full month of Giselle in July 2003, and now, yet another month.
Hours of rehearsal lie behind each minute of performance.
No matter how good the score - and even the "Missa Solemnis" might cloy if listened to four hours a day for months on end - there is a limit to what the orchestra and the dancers can be expected to take. They are sick of the score, and it shews.
Hoarded away in pokey old cupboards, the Paris Opera has a large classical repertoire. Many of those who danced all the ballets since the War, are alive and kicking. Why are those people not called in to put them up ?
What’s more, the Opera possesses a large collection of scores from the last two centuries, some annotated with the steps, as well as thick packets of libretti. Why is no-one working on reconstructing these pieces for the Opera stage ?
Some will brightly object that selling the house out for Giselle serves to finance a Good Deed: commissions by men such as Jerôme Bel.
But one can sell out the house with any classical work. Provided the choreography be good.
Our intractable problem here, is that a ballet company is made up of real, living human beings. These are not painted plaster dummies, but men and women with a very good brain. They went to school and studied for ten years, working harder than most of us can imagine, to become a classical dancer.
For this ?
The lions, tigers and panthers of the Grotte Chauvet are thirty thousand years old, and we know with certainty that it is art. So will the steps of classical dance exist in thirty thousand years.
But Jérôme Bel’s Move It, will not be with us in thirty thousand years. Shall we give thanks, now ?
And must we put up with thirty or so performances of Giselle, to cover his fee ?
A football stadium Giselle
After three weeks with the rather more buoyant Bolshoi Ballet, that had been guesting on the Opera Garnier stage for three weeks in January, the first shock was sighting the glum faces in the Paris corps de ballet.
The second, was realising that this production of Giselle does NOT grow upon one with repeated viewing.
Act One jars harshly on the nerves, notably in the way the mime has been dealt with and cast.
Trick out the youngest corps de ballet members in heavy costume, and send’em down onto the stage as Bathilde’s courtly suite, clueless. It can’t work ! One can have two or three teenagers mingle with the crowd, but not an entire suite ! Let the professors come down onto the stage, and play the noble huntsmen.
And let the teenagers carry a spear, or something, and watch.
As for the dancing peasants, well, their mime is all too peasant-like for the theatre - any theatre. Apart from M. Emmanuel Thibault, who brings the utmost artistic tension to every role, and M. Simone Valastro (the beautiful mime and dancing of the aforesaid gentlemen have kept the show on the road every night), no-one seems to know how to carry oneself when not actually leaping about.
A dullish panorama, painted by slumped torsos, relaxed facial muscles, unfocussed eyes, cramped little arm gestures, and awkward expressions. Help !
Or at least, help would be needed, had Management taken the view that the Paris Opera Ballet is still a classical company.
That a man of the stature of Emmanuel Thibault be kept milling about in the corps de ballet, is part and parcel - but hush ! let us not work ourselves up into undignified choler ! To understand what this artist stands for in the company, and without presuming to compare anyone at all to Wilhelm Furtwängler, bear with the reasoning in these lines from Max von Schillings, who taught Furtwängler composition a century ago almost to the day:
"der Sohn des hiesigen bekannten Archäologen ... ist ein ganz merkwürdiges Talent. Eigenartig weltabgewandt aufgewachsen und in der Erziehung ganz sich selbst überlassen, hat er sich in einer (...) erstaunlichen Art und Weise in die Empfindungswelt und Stilarten des letzten Beethoven hineingebohrt. Die Entwicklung, die die Musik seit Beethoven durchgemacht hat, ist fast ganz ohne Einfluss auf ihn geblieben...."
In other words, left entirely to his own devices, Furtwängler, a century after Beethoven, had picked up the thread of the latter’s thought, as though a century were but an instant. Why is that of concern to us ? In the early part of the 19th Century, it was the ideas of Haydn and Beethoven that led to experiments in technique, whereby the ballet broke with mere divertissement, to become an art form.
It could happen again, but not if we carry on hiding our light under a bushel, placing people like this man, who actually knows what the whole thing is about, into the eleventh row fifth from the left beside a cardboard tree.
Be that as it may, notable exceptions to the general mime debacle, in the role of the Wilfried the Page: Messrs. Christophe Duquenne and the young Sébastien Bertaud. An ungrateful part perhaps, but they made something graceful of it.
In the role of Hilarion, Yann Bridard (ignore that), Stéphane Elizabé and Karl Paquette. The latter is labouring under the disadvantage of being a great beauty, and that makes it hard - at least for this writer - to take him seriously. However, M. Paquette can, from time to time, come up with a surprise, and his Hilarion was quite vivid, even shewing a flash of invention. Our leading Hilarion remains Stéphane Elizabé, who has the theatrical intelligence to avoid what has been called "a debilitating sense of irony", one that would turn the role into a comic-strip character like Mlle. Agnès Letestu’s Giselle.
In the 19th Century, Act One belonged to Hilarion ! It was - and should be - a major role.
As for instructing choreography, M. Bart (or his assistants ?), know one dynamic alone - FORTISSIMO. Might one not keep fortissimo up one’s sleeve for a five-alarm emergency ?
Ask a foolish question, get a foolish answer ! Alarm sirens fill the air, as the corps de ballet tears into every step as though dancing a frenzied solo. One cannot effectively marshal thirty or so people in that mode, and so we part company with the music - regularly. Thanks to jetés large as a shark’s mawl, the men on the outer spoke of the Great Wheel in Act One (scene of the Harvest Queen) are flung about like ragdolls.
Should one blame the corps de ballet ? No, no and no. They have been instructed, carefully instructed, to do this.
The theatre was packed to the rafters for all three performances by Alina Cojocaru, the Romanian star of Covent Garden, invited to dance Giselle at Paris this month with Manuel Legris as Albrecht.
That is what the Vestris editors wrote in July 2002.
"Ross Stretton has in his hands the future of a person who, by normal standards, would be termed a genius. The girl needs help with certain aspects of her technique, or her career may be cut off by injury. Let him take care that considerations of business and international prestige do not lead to yet another singular talent being burnt out by the age of 25. The ballet world has seen more than enough of that in recent years."
Less than two years later, one observes, with some bitterness, that Alina Cojocaru needs to rest. Her feet have given way, her technique is slipping badly, while the overall impression is one of a girl exhausted both in mind and body.
Over the past few years, it has been quite wrong on the part of the Royal Ballet, to allow her to go down, say, as Tatiana on the one night and Olga on the next, and quite wrong too, to brush aside other very able women to make way for a child who has much to learn still.
One declines to say more, because Miss Cojocaru appears to be in such fragile condition, that it would be unfair.
The other notable interpretations on this run have been that of Mélanie Hurel, and Aurélie Dupont.
On February 7th, Mélanie Hurel, première danseuse, made her début in the role with Benjmain Pech as Albrecht. Her outstanding work in Serenade this past autumn had been a harbinger of things to come.
Mlle. Hurel is a small woman, pale, and of undistinguished appearance. Accordingly, she cannot rely on external merits to make her points. But make them she does ! This writer was unfortunately standing, and too far from the stage to see the finer details of her mime in Act One. Act Two broke new ground, recalling, in its irresistible proof of immortality, Elisabeth Maurin.
Up at five o’clock in the morning several days in a row to think about that performance.
As Albrecht, a notable quality in the sensitive M. Pech, is that he does not disrupt his partner’s mental processes, but lets them get on with it. And get on with it, they do !
Making her début as Myrtha on the same evening as Mlle. Hurel, Nathalie Aubin, to one’s great regret, twisted her foot on stage and was unable to finish the Act.
After eighteen months’ absence due to a severe injury, Aurélie Dupont has returned to the stage with a powerful technique, rarely seen in the woman at present. The deep muscular groups fully mobilised, batterie as neat as a man’s, rond de jambe sauté like fretwork, balloné a foot from the ground, port de bras taken from the waist, not from the arm. In the mime and the ports de bras, she responds to ALL the music, leaving behind no "unheard, discarded" notes, each and every gesture fully supported on the phrase.
From an objective technical standpoint, Mlle. Dupont has become, bar none, the leading ballerina in the company. From a purely subjective standpoint, I am not partial to Mlle. Dupont’s dancing, as one senses that she is, at all times, aware of how lovely she looks, but one would be a cad and a fool not to admire and respect such labour nonetheless.
Do not comment uncharitably on M. LeRiche’s Albrecht: he has been on every night in every ballet since the season opened, several étoiles being off indisposed. The fellow is on the verge of exhaustion, and one hopes that Management will give him a break, and let others to dance, lest he suffer some harm.
Peasant pas de deux
Whether the standard of classical dancing in this company be quite as high as we are meant to believe, I am not altogether sure, as there appears to have been some problem in finding men able and willing to dance this pas de deux. But, at the end of the day, it surely has more to do with the Bart/Polyakov choreography, excruciating for the man, tight and choppy for the woman.
It has been cast, I believe, by taking the three or so men who can navigate its hurdles, and the six or seven women, tossing their names into wicker paniers, and drawing lots.
Never has one seen pairs so ill-assorted !
The women are instructed to take the steps over-large, and as their variations move ramrod-straight down the diagonal, choreographic excitement is sadly wanting.
As for the men’s variations, the thing cannot be done.
What is the point to bunching up, in a single variation, every possible difficulty, and then sending people out to prove themselves ? These men do not need to prove themselves. They are amongst the leading dancers in the world. The Opera Stage is not the Concours de Lausanne !
Let me explain.
In the Bournonville Schools, there is much brain-taxing choreography. Indeed, there are step combinations, notably in the Wednesday School, that are not do-able. At least, do not try to do them on stage in front of an audience !
Bournonville, or rather Hans Beck, his pupil who noted down the Schools, saw value in those enchaînements for six or seven virtuosi, testing themselves in the classroom. What is an obstacle course in class, becomes a reserve of energy in performance.
For the stage, Bournonville never choreographed anything that difficult.
Why ? Well, first, because the dancer has to deal with the heat, glaring lights, heavy costume, and, lest we forget, 1,900 people all glowering down at one at once.
More to the point, what must emerge, as Lis Jeppesen has put it, is beauty and love. The dancer goes down onto the stage to convey to his public ideas about the music, and through mastery of the self, an idea of freedom and joy. To many people in the public, that evening may well be the first, perhaps the sole occasion, in their life that they see a human being incarnate such ideas.
And so the artist is not going down there to prove to his teacher that he can turn, or survive the manège, or something !
The problem with Nureyev’s choreography, or that of Patrice Bart for that matter, is that the difficulties are essentially all physical. The question is always, will one miff it ? Will one run out of oxygen ? Can one take several huge steps lacking all nuance or shading, and then launch into those grandes cabrioles as large as M. Bart would seem to want them, and still make it through the manège ? Will one lose height in the second variation on that endless row of jeté passé ? And so on.
The role played by connecting steps in Bournonville is critical, and should be studied by all choreographers.
Overall, the idea is that the connecting step is a true step, so that the body is held on alert in a dancing position throughout the variation, rather than slumping into a walk or run onto the diagonal, only to be revved up for the next bravura episode.
Significant, too, the fact that Bournonville will not generally end a bravura variation with some terrifying hurdle. He builds down ! Why ?
Ending in nine pirouettes, or a double tour en l’air, or whatever, is a circus feat, that creates anxiety amongst the public. Who would see a beautifully-executed variation marred, by coming a cropper at the last instant ? Circus feats push the public out onto the street. What Bournonville intends is to give the public an insight into the artist’s mind. They must be led to think about what they have just seen. So he builds down.
Secondly, as the score does tend to indicate, one does not shriek or pound the whole time. There must be ever-shifting emphasis in steps small, middling and large, piano, mezzopiano, mezzoforte, forte... A thousand ways. Let it not be all much of a muchness.
So here we have Benjamin Pech, Christophe Duquenne, Mallory Gaudion (amazing, what the lad did here) and Emmanuel Thibault being sent down to "prove themselves". They have nothing to prove ! What is needful, are sweeping changes in the choreography for Act One.
Finally, allow me to point out in the corps de ballet, the outstanding work put in by Mlles. Fuji and Parcen throughout the run. As a non-professional, I may be wrong, but might I suggest that Mlle. Sofia Parcen, a Hungarian-trained dancer who has been with the troupe for five or six years, has developed a technique and artistry that would allow her to be cast in far more challenging roles ?