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Opéra Bastille (Matinée, Sunday May 18th 2003)
Embastillé is a French word that means Penned up in the Bastille.
On July 14th 1789, the Bastille held six madmen, not a soul more. On May 18th two hundred and fourteen years later, we were roughly 2,300 madmen penned up in the Bastille. By Maurice Béjart, or Uncle Mau, to some.
Bournonville, in his preface to the Etudes chorégraphiques, wrote that the artist should “respect the theatre as one of the most glorious manifestations of the intellectual life of nations”. Well, in this litigious age, where the long arm of the law extends even to the manufacturers of microwave ovens, in which ladies have thought to dry off a rain-soaked poodle-dog, why, for Heaven’s Sake, has no-one thought to do Maurice Béjart for his myriad inglorious manifestations ?
In any event, I thought I should refresh my memory as to just how bad the stuff really is.
The programme opens with Firebird, to one of Stravinsky’s more danceable scores. Uncle Mau’s choreographic vocabulary is restricted to a grand plié in second position, done with the bum sticking out, to the effect, that one seems to be seized by an urgent need to take a pee on stage, or worse. And then stepping backwards into an attitude. And, lest I forget ! Developpé à la seconde. Those do kill time, by clogging up a fairish number of bars of music.
Tricked out in battle fatigues, the corps de ballet darts about the stage getting into a foul mood, by dint of doing very little.
Like all of Uncle Mau’s work, his Firebird is conceived as a vehicle for a pet dancer.
Uncle Mau’s Pet for the Day was M. Nicolas LeRiche.
The latter faces a conundrum: there are objective criteria for assessing the quality of classical dancing.
Although each and every professor, and each and every member of the public, is entitled to prefer the dancing of X, Y or Z, on account of more elusive elements, such as mime skills, phrasing, and so forth, the hard core of the ballet must be objective, not subjective. Otherwise, it would not be a classical art form, but a Happening.
Over the last five years or so, M. LeRiche has let himself slip. Though but thirty-one, technically he has come down well below the standard of M. Legris, a man almost a decade older. M. LeRiche shuffles on landing, corrects the height of an attitude, re-assembles a position. Rather than taking jumps fully through the foot, he hurtles and lunges into the air. One never has the faintest as to where he will land, or whether he will stay cleanly there, once he does.
In an interview to the weekly newsmagazine L’Express on April 17th, M. LeRiche said:
"What is beautiful, in a jump, is the launching of it, the impetus, the will to take it to the utmost, to make it dazzling. As for the landing, well, let come what may !” (« Ce qui est beau, dans un saut, c’est l’élan, l’impulsion, la volonté de le conduire au maximum, de la rendre éclatant. Pour la réception au sol, on verra bien ce qui se passera... »)
That may indeed make a big spectacle, Sir, but the great Henning Kronstam seems to have taken rather a different view:
“It is the landing from a jump that is so beautiful. It is not enough to hang in the air, you have to come down. And you should not come down with a bang.”
(In Henning Kronstam, by A. Tomalonis, Univ. of Florida Press, 2002)
Or again, from another renowned technician, Erik Bruhn:
“This sensitive contact with the floor is absolutely vital to me. In all steps of elevation and batterie, I must feel the foot and have it under complete control on the take-off and landing.... a broad, sustained leap will require a more consciously controlled descent than, for example, a series of quick, springy sissonnes."
(In Studies and Comments on Bournonville’s Etudes chorégraphiques by Erik Bruhn and Lillian Moore, Ed. MacMillan, New York, out of print)
Trajectory – that is what jumping is about. It is a pushing down into the floor, that floor which is an active element, it is a pushing off, a rising, a soaring, and a decline into that floor again, which is like the sounding board on a string instrument.
It is NOT a Nietzschean exploration of one’s Ego.
But we seem to be dealing with an unabashed Nietzschean here. In the same interview to L’Express, M. LeRiche ventures onto thinnish theological ice, where, I imagine, Messrs. Kronstam and Bruhn might have declined to tread:
"Because of our Judeo-Christian background, we desire to do things well. But there is nothing worse. To try and do well, faced with someone like Pina Bausch, whatever can that mean ?” (« A cause de notre education judeo-chrétienne, nous éprouvons le désir de bien faire. Mais il n’ya rien de pire. Essayer de bien faire, lorsqu’on se trouve face à Pina Bausch, qu’est ce que cela signifie ».)
“We desire to do things well. But there is nothing worse”.... Well, well, well, this particular Judeo-whatever writer would be satisfied with a couple of well-executed steps. Good enough for Béjart though...or Pina Bausch.
On to Webern Opus V. No relation whatsoever between what happens in that quartet, and the twitching irrelevancies the dancers are subjected to. Why do people look at it ? Well, Uncle Mau is not naive, eh ? He plumps down onto the stage two very capable people, blessed with ideal harmonic proportions and wearing virtually nothing (snow-white Unitards – eat three pea-pods and a pea at breakfast, and it still shews in your stomach at 3 pm), and has them undulate in vaguely sexual moves for fifteen minutes before 2,300 people. Of course, Mlle. Moussin and M. Moreau gave it their all, but does Uncle Mau deserve their all ?
Finally, Phrases de Quatuor, to “music” by Uncle Mau’s chum Pierre Henry, described as a tribute to Manuel Legris.
I say “finally”, because I walked out after this thing, having just been warned that M. Gaudion or M. Carbone would be coming out as drag queens in The Miraculous Mandarin. At the Bibliothèque Nationale’s current exhibition on the painter Jean Fouquet, there is a good deal of talk about the Dignity of the Artist. One felt that here was one Indignity, those theatrical artists might usefully be spared.
Footnotes to History: In the Nineteenth Century, indignities were perpetrated on theatrical artists off stage. In our day, they are perpetrated on stage. Six of the one, or a half-dozen of the other.
Anyway, back to M. Legris. The gentleman, for those who may not have had the privilege of seeing him dance, has been étoile in the French National Theatre for almost twenty years. One of the world’s foremost artists, he has, over the last two years, made it known that he no longer cares to dance certain parts, for reasons of age.
Now, so far as I can understand it, Uncle Mau has an odd habit. Once he picks up, on his radar screen, that Mr. X or Miss Y, a celebrated artist, is about to retire, or has begun to think about retiring, he will spring up, like a leering Jack-in-the-Box, and offer to choreograph something utterly earth-shattering, but attuned to their allegedly failing powers. I say allegedly, because in reality, Mr. X or Miss Y may still be capable of doing a helluva lot, and would be better off without Uncle Mau’s “help”, but I digress.
And that is how we get Marcia Haydée as Mother Teresa, being laughed off the London stage this past March. Or M. Legris, in Phrases de Quatuor. Do not let me elaborate on one of the most embarrassing moments in my forty-something years in the theatre. Only respect for M. Legris kept one from creating a ruckus by walking out in the middle.
Incidentally, another of Uncle Mau’s Muses, and a frequent partner to M. LeRiche, Mlle. Sylvie Guillem, appears in this month’s Milanese trade paper, Balletto 2000. Shot by no less a photographer than herself, she is, of course, in the alltogether, and I do mean starkers, a follow-up, no doubt, on last year’s tasteful little spread in Vogue Magazine.
Unlike Uncle Mau or the over-exposed Mlle. Guillem, I have neither power, nor influence, nor connections of any kind. But let it be said nonetheless: this lot is a plague upon our theatres.