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The Case of Elisabeth Maurin
February 2002

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The lack of anything even remotely approaching the choreographic standard of Jules Perrot or Auguste Bournonville over the past century, has meant that interest in theatrical dancing now tends to boil down to hero worship of the individual artist.

Seen from a dancer’s standpoint, unless one is a complete narcissist – and there are of course, such people in the profession – this is a heavy burden to shoulder. One is expected to go out, and single-handedly make brain-pounding trivia, such as Kylian or Forsythe, or a third-rate rehashing of Petipa, look like art.

That audiences continue to come to the ballet at all, under circumstances of near-zero choreographic excitement, is proof nonetheless of the incredible commitment of that handful of dancers who can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Allow me to take a few minutes of your time, to draw to your attention the artistic personality of Mlle. Elisabeth Maurin.

Readers abroad may know of her, from Dominique Delouche’s films on Serge Peretti, and Violette Verdy. She was appointed étoile of the Paris Opera by Rudolf Nureyev, more or less at the same time as Sylvie Guillem. She is to retire in about eighteen months’ time.

The dancer is just over five feet tall, barely taller, in fact, than Noëlla Pontois, and definitely what Ross Stretton would call a "chocolate box ballerina". Although, overall, she is possessed of ideal harmonic proportions, her arms are somewhat short, which slight defect alone, together with her lack of height, would no doubt preclude her from entering the Opera School today, just as one suspects that, under current conditions, she would have little chance of ever being appointed étoile. Beside such magnificent women as her colleagues Aurélie Dupont, or the six-foot Marie-Agnès Gillot, one would be hard put indeed even to call her pretty. There is nothing, apparently, remarkable about Mlle. Maurin, save her eyes, flashing dark-blue fire.

No-one has ever been infatuated with Mlle. Maurin, least of all herself. Indeed, when the tiny redhead in her size two slipper steps out on stage, towered over by the splendid corps de ballet, a slight sigh of disappointment travels round the house. Until she begins to dance. At which point, there is utter silence, even in the cavernous spaces of the Bastille Opera, a latter-day Coliseum where the Jolly Green Giant himself would have difficulty in projecting across the footlights.

The first thing one notices, in all her roles, is a childlike freshness, devoid of all cynicism. This is no nymphet glued to night-time Reality TV. Few spectators still believe in the character of the Sylphide, Giselle, James or Albrecht, because the nineteen year-olds dancing the parts today, look as though they had just straggled in from a Techno-Rave event. They will believe in Mlle. Maurin.

The Unexpected. One example, is Mlle. Maurin’s interpretation of the Second Act of Giselle. Many will indulge what I would call a Blue Mood: one paints oneself a blueish white, and, drooping faintly forward, attempts to look Unwell, all the while radiating quiet gloom.

In notes taken on one of Mlle. Maurin’s 1996 performances of "Giselle", I wrote,

"The dancer’s optimistic outlook, of which her oddly "upbeat" Giselle is typical, allows her to communicate, albeit with delicacy, the underlying irony, even humour, that bubbles over from Perrot’s steps. Perrot would have loved this Giselle, just as he hated all romantic excess and morbid self-absorption: in his design, Albrecht was to return to reality at the end of Act II, and, in a way, another plot opens."

Her mime scenes are traced with a master’s hand. I recall her mandolin-playing in Act I of Raymonda, in the "Dream" scene, the tiny fingers musically plucking imaginary strings –suspension of disbelief as one will rarely experience it. In La Bayadère, I recall her as Gamzatti, to Monique Loudière’s Nikiya. The scene opens, with Gamzatti downcast; she falls upon her couch, a thousand thoughts oppressing her mind. Time slows its course. In Mlle. Maurin’s features, one reads her self-doubt, her unwillingness to force Solor to love; she toys with the idea of sacrificing her own interest, an impulse chased by a transport of childlike cruelty and rage, the jealousy of the innocent.

An unbearable level of theatrical tension was reached, and tears sprang to one’s eyes, as Gamzatti, trembling with authority, drove Nikiya from the stage.

Not for the lily-livered. As one might expect from such a tough-minded individual, Mlle. Maurin does not tend to mince her words when interviewed:

"As to the impact of television, and the fad for gymnastics, to my mind, classical ballet is, at the end of the day, something for the connoisseur, for people who know something about the form. Some would have it be a popular art form. Well, it IS a universal language, but IT IS NOT A POPULAR ART FORM. The public, I think, has got to be educated.

"(Along with) television, video and whatever goes along with all that – gymnastics, clubs where the little girl does what they call "movement classes" (expression corporelle), the parents "stretching", and the little boy, judo. People today are less and less willing to undergo any form of suffering. They’ve got in a habit of escaping into FACILITY.

"Because classical dancing involves great suffering.

"Kids today entertain themselves with video games. We are living through an epoch where people have UNLEARNT TO DREAM." (from a 1995 interview)

It takes all kinds. There is plenty of room in the ballet world, for the glamorous cocktail-party lion, inaugurating charity balls, swanning on the covers of fashion magazines in mink hotpants (yes!), or promoting furs, perfumes and jewellery. In fact, in a way, it is good for the ballet, because it keeps an under-rated profession well in the public eye. And to be fair, there are first class dancers – like Mlle. Dupont - amongst the cocktail-party lions. Beware, however, of the tendency to think that those who lack star quality off-stage, must lack it on stage as well. In the case of Mlle. Maurin, that is a whopper of a misunderstanding.

Such people are calm, they do not drip sex appeal or kittenish fun from every pore – unless the piece calls for it. Their only authority is their tremendous competence; they radiate a kind of deep silence. The spectator is led into the inner working of ideas, thanks to the hand extended by an artist willing to take a harder look at the mechanics of existence, than most of us.

In Mlle. Maurin’s own words, from a 1995 interview:

"In our profession, one is very much alone. One must study what lies within oneself, without the aid of words, one must seek within the depths of one’s being, and in that search, one is indeed alone.

"The loneliness is a heavy burden to bear. No room for cheating, no tricks, no riding the wave of self-delusion."

Three hurdles

The choreographer, and the dancers, if they are any good, attempt to convey a certain type of mysterious ideas. That is the subject of ballet, and that is what makes people cry, not the story-line. As ballet happens to be physically, very difficult, there is a degree of struggle and suffering, that forces one’s respect. That is the first hurdle, to master the physical difficulty, and add the element of joy. This is the level of what one might call, grace.

The second hurdle, that few dancers cross, is to get into the hard-core of the art form itself, how the particular art form, in this case, ballet, actually generates an idea, through technique, and expresses it. It is beyond grace, a higher level of abstraction, and involves a transcendental element of difficulty.

The third hurdle arises where one presses to go beyond that, into an area where all art forms and higher forms of thinking meet. One recognises the point that third hurdle is crossed, when, in a flash of lightning, there is a sudden criss-crossing of mortality and immortality. It is beyond anything to do with the steps. It is a "Beethoven" sort of domain. Few individuals in any discipline, venture over that third hurdle.

France is a country where, for many historical reasons, and in particular, the Terror under the French Revolution, there is a great fear of that quality of emotion. It is shirked by even the most able among French musicians and artists. Those who threaten to enter that area in a sustained way, seem often to be met by irrational hatred on the part of colleagues, that cannot be explained away as mere jealousy. It takes guts to go there. Mlle. Maurin has, even though fleetingly and on but a few occasions, crossed over that third hurdle, and that is why she must not be allowed to retire unsung.

K.L. Kanter