Auguste Vestris


Critiques / Reviews

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Reckless the Man!
More Power to Lopatkina !
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The Best of Times, the Worst of Times
December 2004

Printable version / Version imprimable   |  1098 visits / visites

The Sleeping Beauty (Petipa/Nureyev)
Opéra Bastille
Review of performances from November 28th to December 26th 2004

Just as at London on December 2nd, one life in art was spent, that of Alicia Markova, here at Paris another life in art was beginning.

The soixante-huitards are on their way OUT. And a new generation, that would like to know just what - if anything ? - might be wrong with the classical ideal ? is on its way IN.

With each succeeding wave of dancers, one might have expected that things would just go stumbling on from bad to worse. Fresh waves of people with foot-in-ear disease, and so forth.

But it is not getting worse. Despite the sorry reality that, thanks to the 68ers, there has never been so little classical dance in this country, those who against hell and high water, have entered the profession, are damn serious about it.

And yet, these are the Worst of Times. Although the man in the street might not think so, ballet dancers wear silks and satins for but two hours a day, viz., on stage, nor are they in any way shielded from the suffering in the outside world. To reach the public through one’s artistry in 2005 takes far more out of the artist, as a human being, than it did thirty years ago.

When one’s artistry does so reach the public, then, suddenly these are the Best of Times.

Step Right Up to the Big Tent and we give you Variation Number Three....

So starved are we for classical dance in this fair nation of France - things being rather worse here than in the USA - that it now boils down to the Nureyev productions, or nothing.

The unpalatable truth remains though, that his productions tend to shred under close scrutiny, for Nureyev has tinkered both with the steps, and the dramaturgy.

Most would, I think, agree that if only because of its extraordinary score, The Sleeping Beauty should be treated not as "entertainment", but as a work of art.

But it is not enough for the dancing to be of a high order. There must be an overall dramaturgical concept ruling the whole, a concept worthy of Tchaikovsky’s score, one that that has meaning, and one that will be worthy, too, of the backbreaking work that the instructors and dancers have put in, to bring this play before the public.

A Digression, concerning Count Sergei Witte

In the West, for some bizarre reason, the dramaturgical purpose informing The Sleeping Beauty tends to be perceived as a celebration of autocratic rule. The Czars themselves, however, do not appear to have found that much to celebrate. In 1861, three full years before President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the Emancipation of the slaves, Czar Alexander II freed the serfs.

From Alexander’s Manifesto of Emancipation:

"We are persuaded that the present state legislation favours the upper and middle classes, and defines their obligations, rights, and privileges, but does not equally favour the serfs, so designated because partly owing to the old laws and partly to custom, they have been subject hereditarily to the authority of landowners, who in turn, are obligated to provide for their well-being. The rights of noblemen have been hitherto very broad and of uncertain legal definition, stemming as they do from tradition, custom, and the good will of the noblemen themselves" (...)

"We rely upon the zealous devotion of Our nobility, to whom We express Our gratitude and that of the entire country as well, for the unselfish support it has given to accomplishment of Our designs. Russia will not forget that the nobility, motivated by respect for the dignity of man and Christian love of one’s neighbour, has voluntarily renounced serfdom, and thus laid the groundwork for a new economic future for the peasants."

The so-called "Westernising" faction that Alexander II led, was not a monetarist, rentier-finance clique as that term is understood today. The issue, as Alexander wrote, was "the dignity of man", as opposed to feudal despotism, the latter’s propagandists being known as the "Slavophile" faction. The Westernisers pressed for modern industry and a transport grid, the serfs’ right to own land, popular education, and intellectual freedom. Piotr Illitch Tchaikovsky, the composer of Beauty, stood in the "Westerniser" camp.

In the year that Beauty was first danced at Petersburg, viz. 1890, Count Sergei Witte, perhaps the greatest of Russian statesmen, was first appointed Minister.

In 1893, Witte (1849-1915) became Minister of Finance, and finally Chief Minister to Czar Nicholas II in 1905. Here is the clarion call sounded by Witte in a private letter to Nicholas dated October 22nd, 1905, that deals with the consequences of the Potemkin Uprising:

"The present movement for freedom is not of new birth. Its roots are imbedded in centuries of Russian history. ’Freedom’ must become the slogan of the government. No other possibility for the salvation of the state exists. The march of historical progress cannot be halted. The idea of civil liberty will triumph if not through reform then by the path of revolution.

"The Government must be ready to proceed along constitutional lines. It must sincerely and openly strive for the well-being of the state, nor should it endeavour to protect this or that type of rule. There is no alternative. The Government will either place itself at the head of the movement which has gripped the country or find itself compelled to relinquish that movement to elemental forces that will tear it to pieces."

Shortly thereafter, viz., in 1906, Witte was overthrown by rentier-finance interests.

Saint Petersburg, and particularly the Maryinskii Theatre, on account of the many European musicians, painters and dancers working there, was the centre of the Westerniser faction. It was in the midst of intense political debate over reform that Petipa’s ballets were, in fact, composed.

After the 1917 Revolution, extreme elements, notably the "Futurists", sought to do away with classical art, including the classical dance. For a time, their fury raged almost unopposed, as most intellectuals and artists had fled Russia after 1917. However, a very few dancers of high philosophical conviction, led by Professors Vladimir Ponomarev (1892-1951) and A. Vaganova (1879-1951), stood their ground and through their disciples, notably Professor Alexander Pushkin, saved Russia for the dance. It was they who produced artists such as Galina Ulanova and Marina Semionova. The latter, now ninety-six years of age, is teaching at Moscow to this day.

There are many parallels between that time, and our own, that this writer will refrain from drawing in an article on the ballet.

Our own dancers and instructors have studied all the aforesaid in the history books, and have it in the mind when they are dancing. Over the past century, The Sleeping Beauty has therefore come to mean more, not less, than it did in 1890.

But the production itself, as dramaturgy, must reflect that knowledge.

Disbelief definitely not suspended

Frankly, this writer lacks the technical competence to put up a production. However, we crave the reader’s indulgence, and for the purpose of argument, here is what, I think, I should do, had I the responsibility for a new production. (1)

In the light of all the above, I think I should bring strongly forward the idea of Time, as its proper subject, one latent everywhere in Petipa’s original design of 1890.

To further the idea, I should differentiate very sharply between the Three Acts. In every detail, I should be quite specific as to the historical epoch in which Act I unfolds, let us say the Absolutist Seventeenth Century, and look to it that every mime gesture, every dance, cleave as closely to the true pattern as one can in the theatre. Throughout the ballet, ancient dances appear; they will be performed as authentically as possible, and with devotion, because they carry the Theme.

The Prologue and Act I are, in fact, what used to be called a Masque. The artists will be in stiff poult-de-soie and brocade, heeled shoes and periwigs, and the overall aspect of the "dance" is a promenading and parading on the occasion of the Royal Christening. (2) A ponderous and very formal solemnity, interrupted by Aurora’s Act I dances, that are more than a classical interlude. They portend the future.

The King and Queen shall be the weightiest, the most superlative, of mimes, radiating the Sun of the throne and the autocrat’s self-sufficiency. Otherwise, it means nothing to see them crumple before Carabosse.

By contrast, I should place the Vision scene in No Time and in a moonlit No Where. It is a scene of transition, of passing over to Freedom. The lighting would be entirely different from Act I, and the backdrop, a dim tangled forest. The Dryads, being tree sprites, would be clothed or rather veiled, in shifting, diaphanous gauze. I should try to solve the problem of the tremendous clunking created by the corps de ballet steps such as ballonné or jeté en temps d’arrêt, that do not seem to fit a mysterious wood spirit. And Aurora would be as a firefly, darting in and out of the Dryads’ sombre foliage.

Professor Tully has stressed that in the Vision scene, the quality of movement and the way the dancer sheds the eyelight, must be quite different from Acts I and III, and be true to the so-called "Romantic" ballet. Unlike the late 19th Century classical Russian variations, where one looks, and presents, clearly and directly, what one will do, as in Act III, the Dryads look away from the apparent direction of the body, towards somewhere and some thing that lies just beyond the spectator’s sight and comprehension.

There apparently was a Russian production, in the 1960s, where the Prince has literally to slash and tear his way through the forest of darkness, before he reach the sleeping princess. Certainly, Désiré must undergo trial and tribulation, otherwise, he has not shewn Reason enough to be a Prince. The Lilac Fairy can guide him to the forest, but cannot and will not guide him through it. All this is quite gone from the Nureyev production, and I should restore it.

If Act I be the Seventeenth, then in Act III we shall break out clearly into the late Eighteenth Century, with its Princes of Reason, that saw King Gustav III of Sweden ("I am the first citizen of a free people"), Carlos III of Spain, and most importantly, the American Revolution enshrine the dignity of man as a founding political principle. The Russian Anthem appears in the midst of the Finale.

Again, I should restore the dances of that day properly, refrain from tweaking them, and bring back all the Fairy Tale characters that Nureyev has tossed out.

But I thought this was a Fairy Tale ?

How shall Fairy Tale Characters fit into our theme of Time ?

It so happens that what we call Fairy Tales in English, are very ancient. They were not invented by Walt Disney or Beatrice Potter. Some are of Sanskrit origin. The Sleeping Beauty itself is an Oriental fable that may be a thousand years old !

Here is the list of Fairy Tale characters as compiled by Alexandra Tomalonis on Ballet Alert, in an article entitled "Who are all the Guests at the Wedding ?"

"1. Bluebeard and his wife
2. Puss in Boots
2a. The "Marquis de Carabas", in a sedan chair, with his servants
3. Goldilocks and Prince Avenant
4. Donkey-skin and Prince Charming
5. Beauty and the Beast
6. Cinderella and Prince Fortuné
7. The Blue Bird and Princess Florine
8. The White Cat, carried in on a velvet pillow by four large servants
9. Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf
10. Scruffy Ricky and Princess Aimee
11. Hop O’My Thumb and his Brothers
12. Mr. and Mrs. Ogre"

Bluebeard is of course Henry VIII of England.

These tales are themselves history, telescoping the centuries into a single fable, like the layering of geological plates, allowing one the artistic licence to reach in and out of actual history, in and out of verisimilitude.

To give one example. In the mediaeval Lai de Yonnec, on which the Blue Bird pas de deux is based, there appear sombre and serious elements (prettified in the 17th century telling of the tale), that have to do with the ugliness of feudal marriage, where the woman was a chattel, and the striving of the man, and the woman, to escape from that bondage. To find the beloved, the Knight must fly INTO the cage ! The outcome is fatal. That is the "dark" or elegiac mode. In a "light-filled" or rhapsodic mode, one could take the notion of flight as the will to freedom, tout court.

Petipa’s Bluebird pas de deux may be read by the dancers either way; M. Emmanuel Thibault, whose creature will on occasion inhabit the airs, and on occasion, the seas, continues to experiment, and very successfully, with both. (3)

As modern audiences, with modern train schedules, cannot be expected to spend five hours in the theatre every night to listen to the full score, the aforesaid guests cannot all dance. But some of them may wish to. (4)

A Basket, a Basket, for a Ducal Head

Each mime part in Beauty is a true personage, with the tension and responses peculiar to it, and one’s awareness of others’ actions on stage does not take place in the arms alone, but in the entire body, and especially the eyes.

Nor does one use the music in the same way as in the dancing parts; often the mime may walk straight against the beat, hearing it, but almost as though disregarding it. That is one of the ways that the mime, like a curlicued silver picture-frame, is set against the picture that is the dance. At Paris, there is confusion with this, and several mimes have gone for a literal One Beat/One Gesture approach.

Apart from the extraordinary Nathalie Aubin as Carabosse, and Mlle. Hallé who was frankly superb as the Countess, M. Eric Monin as Catalabutte has been the only mime in this run who seems to have taken the score home, and mulled over what he should be doing at each instant, whether initiating, or responding to the events as they move across the stage. Musically, it all works, and the clock-work mind of his sycophantic courtisan is most skilfully painted. M. Monin has made a little jewel of the "Knitting Maids" scene every night, led indefatigably by Mlle. Danielle Doussard. In Act III, when sitting beside the King and Queen, not for an instant does he fall out of character, but bends the eye to watch like a hawk every scrap of the action. Accordingly, so does the public.

Were all the mimes on stage to work to that intensity, the ballet would take off like a rocket.

(That being said, there were also passages when M. Monin, having no réplique from the other mimes, went right over the top. When Aurora "dies", Catalabutte must be grief-stricken like everyone else and recede into the background. As Mlle. Dupont was rather less compelling than Mlle. Ould Braham in this scene, nothing really happened theatrically on the night, and the "buffo" temptation overtook M. Monin irresistibly. Might one suggest that, occasionally, he resist it ?)

Nureyev’s happiest decision is to have Carabosse and the Lilac Fairy as mime roles, and that works beautifully, when played by Nathalie Aubin, and Muriel Hallé respectively.

Nathalie Aubin’s Carabosse is a true theatrical invention, a sheer delight, living each gesture to the full as though quaffing the headiest of wine, lolling about drunk with power on the kingly throne or packing off her minions to wreak their mischief.

Would that the other mimes had been so beautiful ! The King and Queen, the Duke (save for the very creditable M. Novis) and Page in the Forest Scene all deserve to lose their heads !

Regal and ducal heads fall, because the mime scenes are not considered important enough to be thought through. In the ’Knitting Women’ scene preceding Act I, unless M. Monin be on stage, pure arbitrary reigns. A gaping hole opens at the Lilac Fairy’s second entrance, lasting several bars in Act I, as the music plays wildly on and the Rats settle down Stage Left, in an atmosphere about as artistically-fraught as a Junior School Panto. The Four Suitors are, in theory, extremely picturesque. Each should be painted in the most vivid of colours, with quaint foreign ways and gestures. But our poor suitors haven’t a CLUE what to do with themselves, nor even how, or where, to stand.

On stage, every last eyelash-flutter counts towards building the edifice known as Suspension of Disbelief.

Petipa, an innovator ?

In the original Maryinskii design, each Fairy stands for a spoke in the Wheel of Character, and that is why they have names ! Does anyone still care that the second variation for example, Fleur de Farine, is face-powder, the gift of beauty ? Or that the third Variation, Fée aux Miettes, is the gift of plenty and generosity, because in old Russia, one strewed breadcrumbs over the newborn ? Or that the Fée Violente is not violent at all, but Petipa’s homage to the marvels of electricity, to Man who has taken lightning down from the skies ? Or that the Fourth Fairy is no squeaking Canary-bird, but Eloquence, whose dance is sweeter than any speech ?

As Yvonne Cartier has stressed, Petipa was actually innovating, when, in order to represent character, he integrated mime gesture directly into the fairies’ dances. But Nureyev has simplified all arm and torso movement, that carry the burden of meaning, in favour of making things needlessly complex for the legs and feet, flattening out the contours of the dance, and slowing the tempi down intolerably. The Fée des Miettes should be allegretto; we now take it moderato, almost andantino; rather than the original low développé into arabesque, Nureyev has the ballerina hop from pointe into emboîté en attitude derrière landing on the flat foot ! A great thumping step, done to a gentle pizzicato from the pit !

In the Fleur de Farine variation (known here Number Two !), a difficult allegro passage intended for ONE ballerina, Nureyev has TWO on stage in a mess of basket-weaving (5) that has them nearly tripping over each other’s feet.

Change the steps, change the composer’s intention !

Nor does the concept of blurring slightly this or that step to give clear-cut definition to others, seem to have crossed Nureyev’s mind in his incarnation as choreographer. Each step is given the same, flat-out intensity, definition and weight, tying a millstone round the dancer’s neck.

Greetings, Professor Doctor Video !

In all events, the Fairies are, historically, ballerina roles, danced at the level of First Soloist and Principal, and the "lower" ranks need to see someone do it right, in vivo. Not on a tape ! At Paris, it is become the custom to have the Fairies danced by a coryphée. By some miracle, Séverine Westermann and the nineteen year old Laura Hecquet were quite wonderful, actually, and Mlles. Boulet (what a relief to see the lovely Marie-Solène back on stage ! ) and Cordellier put up a valiant struggle, but I suspect that others may have fallen victim to Professor Doctor Video. (By the way, given the hitches that arose at Eleonora Abbagnato’s début as Florine, Professor Video seems to have been consulted here too).

Only Fanny Fiat, who should, in point of fact, be première danseuse, really has the brilliant technique, the awareness of dance history, and the éclat that the roles require.

In all events, by tossing out the reason behind the fairies (and most of the party guests), Nureyev has transformed a ballet once replete with all manner of allegory, metaphor and ambiguity, into an excuse to party drunkenly and non-stop for three Acts.

The Tinker, the Tailor, the Candle-stick maker

Nureyev’s propensity for tinkering with the steps is, as the French say, "pas triste".

Denied her splendid staircase entrance by Nureyev, Aurora first appears like a little mouse creeping out from the woodwork. One invariably hears members of the public wondering whether she’s another fairy scooting in late for the Christening.

Following Round One of those interminable Rose Adagio Balances, as Aurora comes down the diagonal in arabesque penchée, Nureyev has her rest the hand on the shoulder of several appositely-placed ladies. Where DID he get that from ? On the arabesque penchée the head and torso rotate downstage to the public, so how does one aim for a third-party upstage, without smudging the arabesque line ?

By handing most of Act II over to the Prince, Nureyev has smashed up the Vision scene, and neither the extraordinary M. Martinez, who has been dancing the role, nor the Italian guest artist M. Bolle (who was unexpectedly and astoundingly good) can, with the best will in the world, make that endless monologue with its wet and weedy choreography look as though it sprang from some inner necessity.

If Nureyev’s worry was that the men in the corps de ballet are bored, which they are, other options were open to him, such as giving the Four Suitors something fun to do somewhere, or at the very least, giving them a real individuality, by working out decent mime for them. As for the Garland Dance, either have students do it, as per Petipa’s plan, or let the adult men now dancing it toss away those spiffy little garlands and do some actual steps. But don’t hand the whole of Act II to one single dancer !

In the Act III Jewel Pas de Cinq, Nureyev has three demi-soloists dancing unisono. This is an out-and-out mess. How can three people in the most ill-assorted configurations of size and bodily complexion imaginable, possibly coordinate, à trois, a solo ? And the Pas de Cinq ends, again, in a frenzy of basket-weave jetés. The Five have come a cropper on those every night.

The French Aurora, as we love her !

The Opera too has its strivers-after-effect, its Can-Can dancers and so on, but, not only.

On November 28th, we had the magnificent début as Aurora by Mlle. Mélanie Hurel, followed by her four or five further performances, that, save for one, this writer also attended.

Each of Aurora’s variations accords with a special rhythmic structure, that Mlle. Hurel has perfectly captured, and indeed, she seems simply to hear the music better than most.

Might one give one example of the surprises that Mlle. Hurel reserves for the attentive "listener" ? At the end of the Vision pas de deux, there is a funny little battement jeté avec demi grand rond de jambe. At that place in the score, it might seem odd. The thrice-repeated step is timed by Mlle. Hurel so that the rustling in the string section evokes to the EYE of the public, the rustling of the tutu that the public cannot HEAR - a rustling, as the vision slips from Désiré’s grasp.

Or, in that same pas de deux, the supported jeté as the Vision is tossed into the air before vanishing into the wings - on each night, Mlle. Hurel has inclined the torso and thrown the arm at the precise instant in the music, that makes one sense rather than see, that it is both a vanishing, and a promise of joy.

These are amongst the devices of Irony.

Personally, I would call that artistry, but Mlle. Hurel’s Aurora has nevertheless upset a few at Paris, it being alleged here and there that she is no great shakes as a technician, while others are heard to protest (I kid you not !) that "she should be taller and prettier".

Before making such unguarded remarks, one can only suggest that the disgruntled either clean their spectacles, or gaze severely at their own person in the looking-glass. What is a "great" technician ? Does it mean executing, as though headless and armless, each individual step per text-book definition, the step seen as something done by the FEET and LEGS alone ?

The Greek word TEKHNE signifies an "instrument", a "means". A "great" technician is someone who knows WHY he is doing what he is doing, and has figured out how to get that across within the limits of what his body can do on the day, while disguising effort, and working to push back those limits. That is what one calls Available Technique.

Why trouble to disguise effort ?

Terminator and Lara Croft do not. They sock it to you full frontal - the straining muscles and cords, the sweat, the stench of it all.

Contrary to prevailing opinion, a classical dancer is not Terminator.

He is not an athlete.

Indeed, many shun all form of exercise save the dance ! The effort put in, is not the point. In the very instant that the public become aware that force is being applied, that force becomes itself a disruptive, Unwanted Voice, thrusting in between him, the public and the idea, rather like a dog barking during a string quartet. Therefore, any sign of force is actually a deficiency in technique - although the most celebrated and popular dancers of this day and age do insist on putting that force very much up front.

As Aurora, no single ballerina can scale all the role’s manifold hurdles. Accordingly, at least to this writer, a ballerina is indeed Aurora if she be fully in command of whatever her Available Technique may be, so that that the overall concept come through masterfully.

Beyond any doubt, Mélanie Hurel has disguised all force, created a true personage in her Aurora, and succeeded in this most daunting of all balletic enterprises. And so - at least to me - her technique is more than up to the task.

On the night this writer saw Mlle. Dupont as Aurora, although the steps were all there, and very brilliantly executed, her expression exuded a marked sadness, and she appeared either to be in pain, or somehow indisposed. In relation to Mlles. Letestu and Gillot in the role, it would be impertinent to comment here. Those ladies seem better suited, temperamentally and otherwise, to works such as Angelin Prejlocaj’s Medea over at the Palais Garnier, in which both have recently scored a notable personal success.

Speaking of the tall, in a year or two’s time, and despite her height, one could imagine Mlle. Aurore Cordellier in her namesake’s part.

Drinking at the Fountain of Bakhtchisarai

"What I love about her, is the way she goes straight to the edge with the idea".

Overheard from a lad at the Opera School, speaking to his fellow pupils about Myriam Ould Braham’s début.

For on December 4th, our next début as Aurora was by the twenty-one year old Myriam Ould Braham, who is a born classical dancer. To avoid all misunderstanding - a born CLASSICAL dancer. It is the lady’s language, and the ideas are conveyed directly from the mind, to the limbs, to the wider world, in a limpid, and most poetic form.

Some years back, I recall reading a relation by another ballerina of how Galina Ulanova danced. "In Fontan Bakhchisarai, the colleague wrote "when I saw Galina lying there asleep as Maria, and I had to creep up and stab her, she radiated such spiritual beauty, such purity, that I was afraid to touch her, it was as though I would actually commit a crime, if I touched her."

Even so, when Ould Braham falls bewitched at the touch of the needle, the corps de ballet seems to shrink in real horror, and the veiled ladies-in-waiting to shiver in real grief as the pages bear out that tiny, still frame - that same eerie feeling that Ulanova’s colleague speaks of. Theatrical truth, as a vehicle for other truths.

Mlle. Ould Braham is a maverick, and, though perfectly rigorous, does not do anything quite in the expected way. In her infinitely-precise piétinés and bourrées for example, with those tiny feet like Scythian barbs dipped in poison, the entire body seems to be crossing and criss-crossing over the centre in a scarce-perceptible wave-motion, rippling from the tip of the head to the fingers. The hand is never quite still, never plumped down grossly onto the tutu, but again, shivering ever-so-faintly in a wave motion. Her eye, which is long, and of that hue that old French calls "vair" or changing, is shy and inward-looking, but used to powerful effect.

And so, one feels strongly about the single, glaring flaw in her work: this business with picking up the leg. The moment Mlle. Ould Braham comes upon a step where it is now the fashion to pick up the leg, a steely glint comes into her eye, rather like a crazed Amazon out hunting the stag. Taste and judgment, of which she is otherwise richly endowed, are tossed to the wings, as she reaches for her spear and paws the air.

That aside, both Ould Braham and in her own way, Mlle. Hurel, approach the dance as something to which one devotes the greatest love, as though there were nothing in the world that matters more than to be there on that stage, at that time, in that place, to discuss certain intangible, immaterial ideas with that very public.

A Digression, concerning Miss Fanny Fiat

There must be something about the way Noella Pontois works that brings her pupils to think on a variation, and even a role, as one clear, poetic statement, rather than a clump of steps. What Fanny Fiat has done in Act III as the Diamond, is a single, masterfully-executed, idea.

Would that Enrico Cecchetti had been standing in the wings watching ! Mlle. Fiat’s steps of elevation - sissonne, cabriole, and those tricky jeté en temps d’arrêt, emboîté and so on - form a vast and airy backdrop, against which the batterie flashes like facets in a gemstone. Never, since Alla Sizova, have I seen such magnificent pas de chat, the entire body soaring up into an ellipse high above the ground, her steely foot grazing the boards only to rebound. In the arabesque with fouetté in the torso only (as in the "Flower Festival"), the shift in the body is like holding a diamond up to the light to admire its fires. As the variation opens, how she rests the arm against the air to the sound of the triangle! Her port de bras ! And no sign of the prodigious force that underlies the tracery of her dance !

Mlle. Fiat has never been promoted (at the Internal Promotion Concours last week, she was, yet again, barely marked !), apparently because she is bandy-legged (arqué), with sharply-irregular features and flaming red hair. Although stunningly attractive, she is therefore deemed to be a lower species, the demi-caractère dancer. But were she not bandy-legged, she could not jump like that ! And since when is the demi-caractère dancer a lesser artist ? Ninette de Valois, Margot Lander, Raissa Struchkova, all were demi-caractère ! Lest we confuse the demi-caractère with the grottesco, here is the Man, Noverre, Himself:

"The nature of the mixed, or demi-serious genre, often called demi-caractère, is that of elevated comedy (....) whereas, the grottesco (...) puts on the features of comedy that is droll, sprightly and agreeable. The matchless productions of (...) the peintre galant Boucher are the very image of demi-caractère dance (....)

The demi-caractère dancer (...) will be of middling height, and may cut quite as fine a figure as the tall. What matters height, if the edifice be everywhere excellent in its proportions ?"

Noverre, Letter XVIII De l’expression de la Figure

The genre Noverre refers to here as elevated, or "noble comedy" means plays like Twelfth Night, or the Two Gentlemen of Verona. Hardly the grotesque ! Even The Tempest and A Winter’s Tale belong to the genre of "noble comedy", and they are very serious plays.

A Digression, concerning the arabesque penchée

At Paris, Aurora has been seen doing some peculiar thingamabobs, masquerading under the name of arabesque penchée.

Se pencher in French means to incline. An arabesque penchée is accordingly, an inclined arabesque. It is not, never has been, and never will be, the splits on one leg. Otherwise, the French language would have troubled to define it as Grand écart unijambiste or something equally elegant. If anyone have come up with ONE good reason - whether historical, aesthetic, anatomical, musical or otherwise - for replacing the several hundred possible nuances of arabesque penchée, by a single circus stunt, please advise.

The point of arabesque penchée is to allow the public to contemplate, and I do mean CONTEMPLATE, because it is a reflective pose, the relationship between the declivity of the head, neck and torso, and the counter-posed declivity of the leg.

Just looking at - or indeed, performing - an arabesque penchée should be Heart’s Ease. But if we open it to the splits on one leg, there is no repose, and no declivity ! The leg for the one, and the torso for the other, are squished up together like a tunny-fish sandwich, the tutu-plateau being the lettuce-and-mayonnaise. Wherever ARE we headed ? Shall we soon be folded up like an umbrella when not in use ?

Thus, on the diagonal of arabesques penchées just after Round One of the Balances in the Rose Adagio, one goes Step step, arabesque penchée, step step arabesque penchée etc. Does one, to that rhapsodic music, go "March ! March ! SPLITS ! March ! March ! SPLITS!" or does one rather go "Breath, Breath - come up like a Sigh", "Breath, Breath - and come up like a Sigh" and so forth ?

Furthermore, let us say we get into an arabesque penchée - however do we get out of it ? If the incline go beyond roughly 140 degrees, how shall one disengage softly as a sigh, in accord with the music ?

There is also an impact on the body.

Like the crossing on the bridge of a string instrument, the hip joint is the heaviest joint in the human body, on which all tensions converge. The joint looks strangely like the ear - and indeed, the hip joint has been designed to "hear" all the stresses, strains and vibrations transmitted throughout the body. Might we agree to keep the noise level down to a low roar ?

For the reader’s information, there appears on an article by M. Gérard Mannoni on Beauty, published November 28th 2004. It includes a photograph of Mlle. Hurel in a supported arabesque penchée, one that has become so unusual, that one must point it out. That arabesque is an elegant figure from the classical dance, not the Can-can performed in tutu and pointes.


Lest foreign readers find us harsh, in all fairness one should say that in the month of December at Paris, the corps de ballet works under conditions that invite disaster. Our lot has been on, alternately, in a "modern" programme at Garnier, and in three to four positions per corps dancer at the Bastille Theatre in Beauty, every night of the week in December, a month that happily coincides with the height of the cold and flu season. Two of the six Auroras (and one Désiré) withdrew for injury, and one fell ill. Three Bluebirds were left to cover twenty-three performances, and the corps de ballet shrank night by night. Meanwhile, the troupe was preparing, in the wee hours of the morning, the Internal Promotion Concours, held this year on December 23rd 2004. Whether for injury, illness or sheer exhaustion we know not, over half the artists did not show up for the Concours, on which one’s advancement nonetheless depends.

All proposals to change this sympathetic arrangement, one that would doubtless be greeted with considerable warmth by Hara Kiri enthusiasts, have heretofore fallen upon deaf ears.


K.L. Kanter


(1) With grateful acknowledgement to Professors Roger Tully and Yvonne Cartier, who danced in the English productions of the 40s and 50s, for the many hours they have spent in discussion with this writer.

(2) The puppet used for the Royal Child at Paris is so tiny, that it is quite impossible to see what, if anything, is being carried about the stage.

(3) In Schumann, the ambiguities of the theme appear in his Rückert lied, Flügel ! Flügel ! um zu fliegen !" (Op. 37 no.8), that would seem to encompass, in four pages of music, almost every Greek poetic mode.

(4) Mr. Douglas Fullington, an American musicologist and art historian, and who has himself restored Petipa’s Le Jardin Animé from Stepanov notation, has penned a fascinating essay on the restored, full-length Beauty at the Maryinskii, available at

(5) Basket-weaving: Nureyev’s propensity for having a group of people hold hands, and weave in and about in tangled formation until they all come unstuck, or wish they had.