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Wanted - where was the music ?


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#1 katharine kanter

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Posted 13 May 2002 - 04:12 AM

With apologies to Alexandra for posting this review that is also up on ballet.co


WHERE WAS BEAUTY, IN ALL THAT ?


On May 2nd, lightning struck at the performance of Don Quixote, following which Laetitia Pujol was appointed étoile. I was watching the conductor attempting to follow events on stage, and was just about to pump myself up into my usual "why isn't he watching the stage ?" frenzy, when it happened. I suddenly realised that here was a decent conductor, with a fair amount of experience in this particular mine-field, and he was going nowhere - pedalling through thick sauerkraut, as the French put it.

There is no way, absolutely no way, that any conductor, even Wilhelm Furtwaengler, could make the events on the Bastille stage that night, tally with the music.

And why ?

There are, I think, three reasons. One, the choreography. Two, the way the choreography is now being taught. Three, the fact that the dancers have simply given up on listening to the music. A long way behind, comes rotten conducting.


The choreography

How Nureyev, who was an able musician himself, and a very musical dancer, ever got round to choreographing the rubbish he did, is a mystery. We would all agree that Nureyev had a lot going for him, but not that ! He was fussy, he was obssessive, he did stuff that no-one in their right mind would ever do to the music –an obstacle course. Anyone who does not come out on the other end maimed or blind, wins, or becomes premier danseur, or whatever.

The point about music for dancing, is that any composer who knows what he is doing, always writes in less events per square millimetre – I mean per bar line – than in purely instrumental music. The reason is simple: the bod' simply cannot move as fast as the human voice, or one's fingers on a stringed instrument, for example. Ballet music resembles operatic music, with the dance line replacing the vocal line, except that in terms of musical events, it is still less dense. That is a fact of life, like it or not. The dancers, and the audience, can then concentrate on what they are supposed to be doing, rather than rushing about like madmen unleashed by Pina Bausch.

19th Century ballet music is, as a rule, cleverly written with all that in mind. Even Minkus can be listened to, without being sick, provided the choreographer has left his little ego in the cloakroom. In fact, even a Minkus ballet can look like a work of art, if the dancers are tippie-top, and Other Things are not allowed to get in their way.

Is that asking too much ? Ask a silly question, get a sillier answer !

Nureyev, to name only one pathological case, wanted every member of the the audience to know what an absolute genius he was. So he took Petipa's steps – and I'm not the first to have remarked that Petipa was perhaps not the world's greatest mind – and twiddled and piddled about with them. The result: chaos.

Two, the way the choreography is now being taught

As Mlle. Pujol came out, shaking with nerves – she had to take on the role of Kitri a fortnight in advance owing to an injury to Mlle. Osta – and somehow survived that bone-breaking first variation, something else struck me. What was terribly, awfully wrong, was not Mlle. Pujol, who, after all, was doing what her teacher had told her to do, but the chain-reaction of rotten choreography, the instructor working with a rehearsal pianist, then transferring the whole thing to a full orchestra, and sending the girl out with a muddled concept.

Over the past thirty years, Kitri's dances in Don Q have undergone the same shift that has often been discussed on this Website: bigger, louder, faster, more extreme. Maia Plitseskaya has a lot to answer for, as it was she who started the trend towards Dancing to Impress.

Those dances were probably, originally, meant to be light, lilting, graceful, with gypsy buzz round the edges, but, withal, PERFECTLY in synch with the music. Instead, what do we see ? A tiny little woman, Mlle. Pujol, about five foot three, dancing the steps in a way suited to a six and a half foot giant – everything big, everything exaggerated, everything for effect on the cavernous Bastille stage. Net result: a conductor tearing his hair out, reining in the orchestra as though manoeuvring a teetering diligence. One half expected to hear him bellow WHOA BOYS!!!!!!!

Now, could Mlle. Pujol have known this ? No. Could her experienced, much older instructors, who had led the piano rehearsals, not have known
- that a tiny woman must always dance WITHIN her own size, within her own ambitus of articulation, or she is going to be way off the music,
- that the rehearsal pianist is going to be far more flexible, one foot away from the girl, than a one-hundred man orchestra buried in the pit, and the pianist is going to cheat like mad to make HIS playing fit the variations, rather than the other way round,
- that none of the above is going to work, once you get out on stage with a hulking great orchestra,
- and, that Kitri's variations cannot be danced that way, if we are to remain within the area of classical ballet ?

In ballet, there is a world of a difference between bravura dancing, tremendous brio, virtuosity, that you have got to be able to turn on and off like a spigot, as needed, and dancing for EFFECT. The latter, is circus.

To get the jetés as huge as possible, here we had Mlle. Pujol rushing for them with arms flailing as though we were heading for a rugby scrum. No, no, and no ! Her instructor must have seen it, he undoubtedly did see it, and let her get away with it. That is slipshod teaching indeed, because, with this particular Kitri, we have got a first-rate technician, who does not need to pull on rugby shorts and spiked shoes to succeed.

Three, the fact that the dancers have simply given up on listening to the music

Most of them have. They feel that the music is completely out of their control. With this sort of choreography, they are simply trying to start, or finish, their steps on time.

Rotten conducting

There is, of course, rotten conducting. But what is a conductor to do, when he's got a choreographer, an instructor, an orchestra – bored out of its collective skull – and half the dancers acting as though the music were just there to provide counts ?

The net result of this sort of experience, is that Beauty did not make it to the appointment. Beauty, moreover, appears to have a marked aversion to dancers - unless they be in character roles - wearing wigs or hats, especially mock-torero hats.

As an aside, one cannot help but be a little concerned by Mr. Paquette's peculiar lack of affinity, in the role of Espada, with props and accoutrements of any kind, be they capes, shawls, swords or bits of stage furniture. And, if I may be allowed to make one small remark, in relation to Mlle. Fiat: unjustly, in the eyes of many, the beautiful redhead was passed over, in the 2002 Concours, for promotion to première danseuse. Although Mlle. Fiat has the face and figure of a dainty porcelain doll, she is a very strong dancer, indeed so strong, that most of the ladies simply fade away alongside her. Her beats are a full foot off the ground, her feather-light jetés the height of a man, without a shadow of apparent effort. No matter how irritated one might be at being "stuck" for another year in demi-soloist roles, care has got to be taken not to "disrupt the picture", not to give the impression, albeit unconsciously, that one is elbowing the weak out of one's way, because, at the end of the day, art suffers.

As in all things, there were exceptions. Myriam Ould Braham and Emmanuel Thibault (ninety-seventh from the left in the seventeenth row, as usual), had strapped Hermes' wings to their sandals and somehow lent a few instants of Dancing with a capital D. Despite a fall, that I would tend to attribute to perplexity generated by the fiddly hand movements Nureyev has given to Cupid, Mlle. Ould Brahm was a positive enchantment.

#2 Alexandra

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Posted 13 May 2002 - 04:52 AM

No apology necessary, Katherine. We've never had a prohibition on, or problem with, people cross posting on several forums.

#3 Estelle

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Posted 13 May 2002 - 06:09 AM

Thanks for your review, katharine.

You didn't mention at all Benjamin Pech, who danced Basilio on that program. What did you think of it?

I wonder if part of the problem might be that dance easily get lost on the huge stage of Bastile.. When I was there on May 8th, I was happy not to have forgotten my theater glasses, because everybody looked so tiny from the back rows of the parterre!

I'm not sure I understand well what you meant about Fanny Fiat in:
"No matter how irritated one might be at
being "stuck" for another year in demi-soloist roles, care has got to be taken not to "disrupt the picture", not to give the impression, albeit unconsciously, that one is elbowing the weak out of one's way, because, at the end of the day, art suffers."

Do you mean that you had the feeling that she was
jumping too high and trying too much to show her qualities at the expense of the rest of the corps de ballet?

I agree about Myriam Ould-Braham's qualities, and I hope that she'll get more roles next season. By the way, I find that it's a pity that there is no "Young dancers" program this season, as it is one of the only opportunities to notice some corps de ballet dancers (especially those who hadn't been given big roles in the school's programs).

That's a bit off-topic, but last saturday I had a look a some part of the documentary "Les enfants de la danse" filmed at the POB school around 1987-88. katharine, if you want to see Emmanuel Thibault as a kid (about 12-13) in class, and rehearsing a variation with Roland Petit, you must see it! :) It can be seen in the collection of videos of the Forum des Images in the Forum des Halles. I didn't have enough time to see the four
parts of the documentary (each of them lasts about 40 minutes), but it was quite moving to see dancers like Nicolas Le Riche, Jean-Guillaume Bart, Vanessa Legassy, Clairemarie Osta, Aurelie Dupont, Raphaelle Delaunay, Benjamin Pech as teen-agers or little kids (and also a baby-faced Jeremie Belingard, I think, with a tiny voice).
And also quite sad to see how cute Ghislaine Fallou (who has now been absent from the stage for three years for health reasons, and might never come back) was as a kid...

#4 katharine kanter

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Posted 13 May 2002 - 06:30 AM

I hadn't in fact meant it as a proper "review", because I felt that Mlle. Pujol and M. Pech had been thrust into the roles a fortnight in advance, their interpretation was not yet "cooked" but had to be served ! My purpose in writing , initially, was the question of coaching, with respect to the music.

All I mean to say about Mlle. Fiat, who is manifestly not only a lovely-looking young woman, but simply bursting with every sort of gift, is that she has a slight tendency to say "look at me !".

On the May 2nd, Mlle. Fiat had been paired up with Véronique Doisneau as a démoiselle d'honneur. I've got a lot of time for Mlle. Doisneau, who is simply the daintiest little thing on the stage, and quite a good dancer really. She can't be much over five foot tall, and if I'm not mistaken, she's also a good ten years older than Mlle. Fiat. When one is paired up with a tiny fragile doll like Mlle. Doisneau, there has got to be a feeling that "we're in this together", one has almost got to rein in one's exuberance, or Mlle. Doisneau is going to look like a pale wee ornament lost at the outer edge of the Christmas tree. I could not help but notice that same tendency in Mlle. Fiat as one of Swanhilda's friends in "Coppelia". When one is THAT damn good, and Mlle. Fiat IS that damn good, the less one indicates one's own awareness of the fact, the better !

As Hans Brenaa was wont to say: always stay in the picture. Never allow yourself to come out of the picture.

#5 Estelle

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Posted 13 May 2002 - 06:50 AM

Thanks for the explanation katharine, now I understand what you mean. I hadn't noticed that tendancy, but when I saw Fanny Fiat she was dancing Cupid which is a soloist role.

I was surprised too that she wasn't promoted at the competition. To me, the promotion of Nolwenn Daniel was fair, as she was extremely musical and charming in her free variation, but it was absurd to promote nobody for the second available position.

I haven't seen much Veronique Doisneau, she hasn't been cast that much (and I believe she was absent some time ago for maternity leave- she is indeed older than Fiat, probably in her mid-30s now, one of the "senior" sujets who sometimes get a bit too ignored by the casting policy in my opinion)- but I agree that when two people are dancing such role, unity is essential, and it's not a good idea for one of them to try to catch all the attention...

#6 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 13 May 2002 - 06:57 AM

It's very interesting to read the POB dancer's impressions of Nureyev's choreography. There are several interviews by Marc Haegeman, including one with Elisabeth Maurin in the current issue of Dance View, which discuss this issue. They tend to know what the shortcomings of the choreography are (the usual diplomatic phrase that seems to have come out of the mouth of more than one etoile is "His choreography can be discussed.") but they all also defend it as being part of the package of Nureyev raising the level of the company.

As an audience member, I tend to find myself having difficulty with Nureyev's choreography because it tends not to make any sense, both for the reasons Katharine mentions (he seemed to need to fiddle with and overpack choreography that never needed his tinkerings) and what I've seen tends to distort the logic of the story at the expense of adding variations for the danseur.

Thanks for your report, Katharine!

#7 Estelle

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Posted 13 May 2002 - 07:12 AM

I've always been a bit puzzled with the interviews you mention (Maurin, and also in earlier issues Platel, Legris, Guerin...): all of them defend Nureyev's choreographies, while I really don't find them interesting in general (the French word which comes to my mind about it is "tarabiscoté"), and well, they are people who have danced so many great choreographies that they should be able to recognize it when they see/ dance it- so I always wonder what I'm missing.

I understand what they mean about the fact that it helped raise the level of the company (and also it probably gave more roles to the male corps de ballet and soloists), but for me it just isn't a good argument to put a ballet on the stage- else there would be piano concerts with just training exercises (I don't know the English words for "faire des gammes")...

One point they mentioned is that it had become part of the style of the company- and well, I've never seen the company pre-Nureyev, but I'm not sure that it's a good thing to have a style with so many complicated useless steps. And now it is getting danced more and more by younger dancers who never were trained by Nureyev, and, as Marc pointed out in his review of the recent series of "Bayadere", a lot of details are getting lost or modified, and we might get all the negative aspects without the passion he had managed to communicate to the dancers he coached...

I also wonder if one of the reasons why Nureyev's choreographies have become so much the "reference" productions of the POB might be that there were not many full-length classics in the repertory before. It might seem strange now, but a lot of full-length classics entered the POB repertory quite late: "Swan Lake" in 1960 (Bourmeister's version- it was last danced in 1992, and I've read
many critics preferred it rather than Nureyev's version at first), "Sleeping Beauty" and "The Nutcracker" in the mid or late-1970s, "Don Quichotte" in 1981, "Romeo and Juliet" (Cranko's version- Lifar's version was only one-act long, and on a different score) in the early 1980s... So the audience and the dancers probably weren't very familiar with them, and doing new productions was easier. It probably would have been different if the POB had had some productions in the repertory
for a longer time, like Sergeyev's "Sleeping Beauty" for the Royal Ballet.

#8 katharine kanter

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Posted 14 May 2002 - 09:07 AM

I have picked up, more or less by osmosis, that the main reason that POB dancers cling to Nureyev's choreography like a barnacle on a rock, is that everyone, absolutely everyone, who cares about classical dance fears that if this nonsense is scrapped, what comes in will be far, far worse.

Although one must respect Brigitte Lefevre's hard work and self-discipline, nevertheless she is, at the end of the day, as she has herself said, a "Pope" of Modern Dance. The repertory is roughly two-thirds cluttered up with Pina Bausch, Blanca Li, and sundry flotsam and jetsam. While the "classical" productions quite evidently do not bear the stamp of an AD who is passionate about this particular area of human endeavour !

Similarly, people have clung to Claude Bessy, fearing that if a woman of that energy were ever allowed to retire, a Gnome at the Culture Ministry would parachute in Mats Ek, or an Ek Clone, as head of the Opera School.

Moreover, and assuming one were to cast about Europe for classical choreography worthy of the POB's admittedly high level, one has got to see that the general feeling out and about town has been:

LIFAR - nixed, as of dubious allegiance during WWII,
ASHTON - nixed, as "too English", "twee" and "insufficiently technical to be exciting"
BOURNONVILLE - nixed, both as too "naive" and too technical: would show up technical shortcomings, viz., zero épaulement amongst the ladies.

So Pierre Lacotte, poor man, has been rolled in with his truly awful, Russified pastiches of Bournonville. His "Sylphide" has got'em rollin' in the aisles - and not from delight. The only thing going for his "Paquita", were the beautifully simple, but lovely sets and costumes. Otherwise, vacant.

Roland Petit and Béjart are buffoons who cannot choreograph for beans.

So where does that leave us ?

It leaves us with the fact that there are some intelligent people coming up, such as M. Legris, who will, I imagine, shortly retire. It is not pie-in-the-sky to imagine that these people might take over the ballet, and perhaps take decisions about the repertoire agreeable both to the world, and to those dancers who see themselves as truly classical. Anyone who has observed the quite astonishing authority and maturity of a girl like Aurélie Dupont (her dancing ain't my cup of tea, but that's neither here nor there), and her bold outspokeness, cannot but think that here, too, one has got a future AD.

#9 Alexandra

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Posted 14 May 2002 - 09:19 AM

Katherine, I'd add Leo Staats to your list. Also scorned now, I've been told, as too old-fashioned a/k/a steppy.

I think part of the charm of Nureyev's productions is for the reason Estelle mentioned -- they are technical exercises. They give the whole company, not just a group of ten or twelve, a classical work out.

This doesn't help today's audience member, perhaps, unless one focuses only on the dancers and not the choreographer (which many are quite happy to do) but in the long term interests of the company, it's not a bad bargain. If that keeps the classical technique ALIVE for the dancers -- not just as classes, but as something they believe in and want to dance, and perhaps inspire a young choreographer (how about Bart?) to do something new in that language, then they're worth keeping.

I can't totally dismiss Petit and Bejart. I don't like them -- I do like Petit's Les Rendez-vous, Jeune Homme, Le Diable Boiteux, and Carmen, but some others are simply Cabaret. But he's not incompetent. I haven't seen enough of Bejart to really tell, but the bits I've seen show a sure sense of craft underneath all the feathers and black leather dance belts. Some Petit, with the right stars, can be good theater. I wouldn't want to build the repertory on either of them, but I'd rather watch them than Nacho Duato and crew.

#10 Marc Haegeman

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Posted 14 May 2002 - 10:09 AM

Nothing to do with being for or against Nureyev's versions, but which productions of the great 19th-century classics would you prefer the POB to dance, bearing in mind that the originals are not available or accessible for them?


Originally posted by Estelle
and well, they are people who have danced so many great choreographies that they should be able to recognize it when they see/ dance it- so I always wonder what I'm missing.


What great choreographies are you thinking of, Estelle? I am just asking, because thinking of all that's being danced by the POB these days and accepted by the dancers as interesting choreography, makes me wonder about the value of that judgement (not to mention the creations by the dancers themselves - Pietragalla, Le Riche, etc).

#11 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 14 May 2002 - 10:45 AM

The sad thing about that question, and even Alexandra's before it, is that paraphrased, it's "Good classical ballet chorography is not an option, therefore what brand of mediocrity bothers you the least? Would you prefer modern dance which runs against the dancer's training or hypertheatrical ballet that ignores its form? Our options for classical ballet are technically advanced productions with no sense of dramatic logic or dramatically sound productions with no sense of classical style."

Would you prefer arsenic or hemlock with your tea?

#12 Estelle

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Posted 14 May 2002 - 02:55 PM

Originally posted by katharine kanter

It leaves us with the fact that there are some intelligent people coming up, such as M. Legris, who will, I imagine, shortly retire.  It is not pie-in-the-sky to imagine that these people might take over the ballet, and perhaps take decisions about the repertoire agreeable both to the world, and to those dancers who see themselves as truly classical.

As a viewer, I do hope that Manuel Legris won't retire too soon- I'd be happy to be able to see him for a few more years... But if he is to become an artistic director someday, then I hope he'll stop dancing, because being both an artistic director and an active dancer rarely has given good results...
I love Legris as a dancer, but I don't know much about his choreography tastes, except that, as all POB dancers apparently, he seems to enjoy a lot Nureyev's productions and also a lot Neumeier and Kylian.

Also there might be quite a lot of other factors (and especially financial ones...)

But so far, my problem with Brigitte Lefevre is that I don't get the feeling that she has real ideas about artistic policy- just putting a bit of everything in the repertory, some classics to fill Bastille and some modern stuff because it looks cool (and I'm afraid it's the only way to get some French newspapers to talk about the POB :) ), etc.

Marc, you're right- when compared to many new additions to the repertory, I realize that there are reasons to cherish Nureyev's productions after all (and at least there the dancers got some real ballet to dance, unlike, say, that awfully boring stuff by Blanca Li last winter...) I was thinking about Balanchine, Robbins, Tudor (but it has been absent from the repertory for quite a lot of time and so most young dancers haven't had opportunities to perform it), Fokine for example.

Leigh, in French we would say "avoir à choisir entre la peste ou le choléra" (having to choose between the plague and cholera).

#13 katharine kanter

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Posted 15 May 2002 - 12:28 AM

Leigh wrote

"Good classical ballet chorography is not an option, therefore what brand of mediocrity bothers you the least? Would you prefer modern dance which runs against the dancer's training or hypertheatrical ballet that ignores its form? Our options for classical ballet are technically advanced productions with no sense of dramatic logic or dramatically sound productions with no sense of classical style."

You've hit N'other nail on n'other head Leigh.

The question is, how do we get out of this awful rut ?

I cannot resist quoting ol' Nureyev himself (interview to the daily Libération in 1986): "we've got to bring Bournonville back to the Schools, with his peculiar step combinations, if we want there to be new work of note".

That is a paraphrase, but he actually said something very like that.


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