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Faint Thunder
January 2004

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Ivan the Terrible
Opéra Bastille (December 12th 2003 to January 7th 2004)

We are in Paris, at the Opera Bastille, and the night’s play is Ivan the Terrible, a ballet by Yuri Grigorovich created in 1975 for the Bolshoi, and first danced by the Paris Opera in 1976. Aram Stassevitch, who had conducted Prokofiev’s score for the Eisenstein film Ivan the Terrible in 1944, first suggested to Grigorovich that he adapt the film to the stage. After the conductor’s death, Mikhail Chulaki took over, and arranged ballet music from the Prokofiev score for that film, to which he added passages taken from the music for Alexander Nevsky.

The opening-night cast at Paris, filmed for television in late December 2003, was Nicolas LeRiche, Eleonora Abbagnato, Karl Paquette, in the roles of Ivan, the Czarina and Prince Andrew Kurbski respectively, the second cast being José Martinez, Delphine Moussin and Hervé Moreau.


Ivan IV known as « Grozny » (perhaps best translated as The Thunderclap), first Czar of Muscovy, is a magnificent subject for the ballet, and one that would undoubtedly have been warmly endorsed by Noverre in his famous Letters, when he wrote in Letter VII:

« le maître de ballet doit sacrifier tous ses loisirs à l’étude de l’histoire et de la mythologie » (the ballet master must sacrifice all his leisure to the study of history and mythology).

Had Noverre watched M. Grigorovich’s production of Ivan the Terrible on at the Opera Bastille, fond enthusiasm would, one suspects, have turned rather quickly to dismay.

Ivan IV and Louis XI

Dispute rages to this day over the figure of Ivan IV in Russian history.

Ivan came to the throne of Muscovy one century after Louis XI ruled France (1461-1483). Without a State to defend the individual from powerful private interests, there is no such thing as the sanctity of life, and had Louis XI not crushed the barons, there would be no France today.

On Ivan IV’s accession at the age of sixteen, those notions, though distorted, were straightaway acted upon, Louis XI being almost certainly the model on which the then-Duke’s advisors patterned themselves. Sunny France is not, however, the gloomy vastness of Russia, and the obstacles the reformers faced were not precisely on the same scale.

In 1547, Ivan (ruled 1546-1584), was crowned Czar, and thereupon launched wave upon thundering wave of reform.

First, to promote the spread of knowledge, the printing press was introduced, a century after Gutenberg’s breakthrough in the West.

Second, in 1550, the Government promulgated the Sudebnik, a new Code of Law that introduced some coherency to legal standards and procedures.

Third, in 1551, the Government convened the Stoglav (Hundred Chapters) Church Council, to restrict, inter alia, the Church’s feudal prerogatives.

Fourth, the Government created the nucleus of a standing army, the streltsi, armed with modern weaponry, viz. muskets, to get round the State’s dependency on private bon-vouloir in the feudal cavalry.

Fifth, the Government created a chancery system, required to keep formal written record of Government activity. This was an embryonic form of the modern civil service.

Sixth, the Government altered rule in the provinces: rather than the aristocratic Governors, the local elders had henceforth to report directly to the Czar, and to lead, themselves personally, the war against highwaymen and banditry, that had undermined all State authority.

If you find the aforesaid reforms « autocratic », try living in a country under the rule of Boyars, highwaymen, and their modern-day epigones.

Through an Assembly, probably first convened around 1549, known as the Zemskii Sobor, and that vaguely resembles the French notion of Etats généraux, the Government manoeuvred to shift the balance of power away from the Boyars, into the hands of the merchant class.

Kazan was conquered in 1552, Astrakhan in 1556, and Siberia, in 1583. Whether for good or evil, this imperial strategy of expansion cannot be discussed here.

Fallen Angels

What has made Ivan IV a tragic figure, is that he himself fell prey to demons. That is why his case has been studied closely by all Russian thinkers. How shall one rule the unruly for the public good, without crushing the individual soul and breaking the people’s spirit ? How shall one rule, when one cannot rule oneself ?

There can be little doubt but that Ivan used of fiendish cruelty.

At one point, ringed about by enemies, Ivan toyed with the idea of fleeing to England, and indeed, procured for himself a safe-conduct to that island. Suddenly, in 1565, he announced that a vast central area, the Oprichnina, would henceforth lie under his direct control, and be administered by a Guard, drafted into service as a counterfoil to the Boyars, and known as the Oprichnik. Outwith the Oprichnina, lay the Zemshchina, to be run by the Council of Boyars.

An ill-judged move. Muscovy broke down into anarchy under two governments, two armies, and two territories, one ruled by the Czar, the other, by the Boyars. Within the Oprichnina, the black-clad Oprichnik, fallen angels as Hieronymus Bosch has depicted them, loosed mayhem, as attested by many sources. Novgorod was wrecked, the countryside plundered, and so many peasants fled their lands, that an Ukaz was issued restraining their movements. This eventually led to their being tied to the land in serfdom.

In 1572, the Oprichnina was abolished.

Although written records are scarce, Ivan IV is believed to have had seven wives, murdering several, and also slew in choler his own son Dmitrii.

Now, M. Grigorovich knows far more than the bare-bones outline above, and is undoubtedly very familiar with Alexander Pushkin’s views on the historical issues at stake.

Outline for a libretto, as Noverre would have it

Rather than rely upon Eisenstein’s film of Ivan’s life (and a padded-out musical score that has been turned into a percussive uproar), our choreographer could have painted a thought-provoking gallery with, perhaps, some of the following scenes, in line with Noverre’s theories:

  • the personality of the Czar’s advisors, their meetings with envoys from the West,
  • the personality, and struggle with the Church leaders,
  • the faction-leaders amongst the Boyars,
  • the chiefs of the merchant class, their hatred of the Boyars,
  • the reaction of the Muscovite people to the initial wave of reforms, turning to horror at the creation of the Oprichnina,
  • the Tartar camp, their leaders, the purported savagery of their customs,
  • the highwaymen’s lair, the character of those rogues,
  • the Czar’s mad relatives, the traitors amongst them,
  • Ivan’s closest advisor Andrew Kurbsky (who fled to Poland in 1564, and is entirely misrepresented in this ballet),
  • the backwardness and wild irrationality of old Russian customs, tainting the Czar himself and thwarting his efforts at reform.

As one can readily see, all this would have provided the Paris Opera Ballet, one of the world’s few truly great ensembles, with no less than twenty major roles. A wealth of personages, steps, shading, and different uses of the music.

In this very theatre, we have well over twenty gifted people who can portray such things. If they be given the chance !

None of the above « affects » are so complex that they cannot be painted, or at least vividly suggested, in a ballet. None are to be found in Grigorovich’s work. Bewildered and bedevilled, or, to make a clumsy play on words with the ballet’s ubiquitous bell-ringers - sonné, I pulled out Noverre’s trusty ol’letters, and found much there of amusement and instruction.


Noverre, Letter XXII (De l’accord du Geste avec la pensée)

« il est moralement impossible de mettre de l’âme, de la vérité, et de l’expression dans les mouvements, lorsque le corps est sans cesse ébranlé par des secousses violentes et réitérées et que l’esprit n’est exactement occupé qu’à le préserver des accidents et des chutes qui le menacent à chaque instant. »

("to find the moral strength to inject soul, truth, and expression into one’s movements is utterly impossible, if the body be constantly shaken by violent and repeated effort, and if the mind be devoted perforce, entirely to forestalling the accidents and falls that threaten to occur at every moment").

The giddying steps Grigorovich has choreographed for his soloists, where the head spins and the bones ache, are a text-book illustration of Noverre’s point above. As are many of the men’s ensembles: to give but one example, that moment in Act I, where the Russian warriors execute five times over the same lumpen step. Do you take an expression of warlike savagery with your tea, or just a drop of milk ?

Blighted by voyeurism, the pas de deux between the Czar and Anastasia rely on lifts that are disagreeably acrobatic, even perilous. In Anastasia, the tension created by those lifts as she appears from the dead, erases all poetry and mystery from what is intended to be hallucinatory.


Noverre, Letter XX

« Cette représentation fit une telle impression sur une partie du peuple, qu’en voyant les Danaïdes, les spectres, la mort et les parques, elle prit la fuite. »

("this performance so strongly affected a section of the public, that, upon catching sight of the Danaids, the spectres, death, and the Fates, they rose up and fled the theatre".)

No-one, so far as I could tell over half-a-dozen performances, has felt anything but puzzled amusement at the choreography, and collegial sympathy for the corps de ballet.

Nor have I seen anyone flee terrified from the Bastille Theatre, despite that Theatre’s ominous name, and the presence onstage of bronze-clad warriors and any number of scythe-and-axe wielding Angels of Death.


Noverre, Letter XVIII

« Si nos maîtres de ballets étaient des auteurs ingénieux, si nos danseurs étaient excellents comédiens, où serait la difficulté de diviser la danse par emploi ? »

("were our ballet masters clever composers, and our dancers skilful actors, what could prevent our assigning suitable emploi to each and all ?")

On that Janus Head that is theatrical dance, the one side is Beauty, and the other, Expressiveness. Character dancers turn the coin towards the sun of expressiveness, and classical dancers, towards the more far-off and abstract constellations of Beauty.

The proponents of the two styles, are not interchangeable.

The Russian Theatres have kept on the rolls many character dancers. These people are possessed of a definite physical conformation and muscle-type, great skill in the relevant forms of national and character dances, and mastery of a dynamic mime style as well. Movement tends to fold and unfold laterally towards the centre, the floor may sometimes be used as a drum, while the tracing of geometrical shapes reaching out into vaster space, is a lesser concern than it is to the classical dancer.

And the Russians have trained to be effective in these very dances, without suffering injury.

Dancers of the « heavier » physical type are currently discouraged from even approaching the Paris Opera School (many have gone into modern dance, actually), while the troupe’s current repertoire, dominated by a striving for visual effect, has no call for such men and women, nor are any to be found in the company today. Then, when it comes to putting up a ballet like this, or any major narrative piece really, one is faced with a « choir » entirely comprised of sopranos, mezzos, tenors, and light baritones. Not an alto, a bass-baritone or a bass within earshot.

Now, the Paris corps de ballet has done an astonishingly good job, and they are dancing themselves into the ground, but should one really require that Axel Schiotz sing the repertory of Chaliapin ?

Speaking of music, this « score », if that is the word, cobbled from 377 disparate bits of Prokofiev, really is beneath everything. Put yourself in the dancers’ place, and imagine stumbling through that Victory Celebration in the ballroom ! The steps and style say one thing, the « music » another, and the urge to topple over - aided by erratic tempi from the pit - becomes almost irresistible.


Noverre, Letter XVII

« Rien n’est si singulier que de voir à l’Opéra une troupe de guerriers qui viennent de combattre, de disputer, et de remporter la victoire. Traînent-ils après eux l’horreur du carnage ? Leur physionomie paraît-elle animée ? Leurs regards sont-ils encore terribles ? Leurs cheveux sont-ils épars ? Non, Monsieur, rien de tout cela ! Ils sont parés avec le dernier scrupule.... »

("there is nothing odder than to encounter on stage at the Opera, a host of warriors returned from battle, who have just waged war, and carried off a victory. Do they bear the horror of the slaughter still upon them ? Is their countenance vivid ? Does their gaze yet flash dread fire ? Are their locks in disarray ? No, gentlemen ! Their attire is elegantly ordered...")

Noverre’s ghost must have been at the Bastille these days ! While M. Grigorovich’s battle scenes, laid out, against all Noverre’s advice in tidy and strictly symmetrical lines, contain a good deal of the involuntarily comic.


Noverre, Letter XV

« Faîtes danser vos figurants et vos figurantes, mais qu’ils parlent et qu’ils peignent en dansant ; qu’ils soient pantomimes, et que les passions les métamorphosent à chaque instant. »

("let the actors of the corps de ballet to dance, but as they dance, they shall, as it were, speak and paint; let them mime, and at all times, the passions shall compose their metamorphoses")

M. Grigorovich has given us but three characters in this ballet, viz., the Czar, the Czarina, and Prince Andrew Kurbski.

The rest of the corps de ballet, in their hundreds, is but a cipher, living stage-furniture, moving in an anonymous mass, performing, though admirably, the same anonymous steps.

For a purportedly anti-feudal ballet, I find it feudal, really.


As for the casts, one must bow down to M. José Martinez, who has taken on the rôle of Ivan with care and devotion.

Despite the crass steps and Heavy-Metal score, M. Martinez has gone well beyond the call of duty in his sensitive, melancholic portrayal, and his dancing, as one has come to expect, is of razor-like precision, and to standards that shew great respect for the public. Far less persuasive, M. LeRiche flung himself at the photo-finish of every variation, in a flash-and-dash style that one cannot imagine his predecessors, Messrs. Guizerix and Atanassof, ever having favoured. Delphine Moussin was impeccable in the dreary rôle of Anastasia.

As Prince Andrew Kurbski, M. Paquette, though not overly effectual, made a stronger impression nonetheless than M. Moreau, the latter being (rather like Mlle. Abbagnato as Anastasia) in a fey and self-absorbed mood.

« One doesn’t put racehorses, beautiful horses, to draw a beer-cart »

Those words of Hans Brenaa come to mind on noting what M. Grigorovich has done to the corps de ballet.

It cannot fail to strike one as somewhat undignified, to find classical dancers such as Hervé Courtain or Stéphane Elizabé tangled up in ropes, and swinging from the rafters on the Kremlin bells in a mess of graceless steps, and unflattering costume to boot.

In the Tiger’s Clutches

On learning that an artist whose work has ever been guided by a tender concern for humanity, would be cast as a Tartar in Act I, and in Act II as an Oprichnik, viz., Emmanuel Thibault, one wondered how that luminous gaze might be bent to one of ferocity, and his features, composed to those of a near-barbarian. But he has done it. Even when standing dead-still, the man is become a bolt of black lightning. A tiger defending its young would, no doubt, be more amenable to polite conversation.

So, if you would look to being terrified out of your wits - and perhaps fleeing the Bastille shrieking as Noverre thoughtfully proposes - you might want to see that, before the run ends on January 7th.

Otherwise, M. Grigorovich has served us up with a ballet that qualifies, quite simply, as coarse entertainment.

Dear friends, pray spare a thought for the ladies in the corps de ballet on December 31st. Their dancing is beyond all reproach, but it’s a helluva way to spend New Year’s Eve.

K.L. Kanter