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Bolshoi Theatre

'La Fille du Pharaon'

Hoorah for Captain Spaulding
The African Explorer

by Katharine Kanter

January 15-18, 2004 -- Opéra Garnier, Paris

Do y’all remember that glorious moment when a cast of thousands bursts into song as Captain Spaulding, alias Groucho Marx in one of his many incarnations as an African explorer, lopes into the hall in his inimitable man-meets-monkey way? Well, for the past few days Captain Spaulding at the Palais Garnier has been our very own Pierre Lacotte, who has “reconstructed” (choreographed, actually) “The Pharaoh’s Daughter”, and designed with no little talent, the sets and costumes as well.

Beg, borrow or steal a ticket, because the thing is a SCREAM. We are all, I think, agreed that the classical dance is not the funniest of art forms, and occasions to laugh - other than a cynical cackle, are few and far between. In Lacotte's piece, everything is a mad, cracking mad, sort of opium dream, and NO, it is NOT ART. It is neither profound, nor moving, nor does it remain with one in one’s thoughts. But it is damn good fun.

Lacotte’s sets and costumes, though simple, are lovely to look at without being obtrusive, while the shivering cool of the Underwater Scene calls for a visit by Frank Andersen: the Grotto in Napoli Act II needs urgent retooling, and this is how.

The blocking of the stage and the groupings are legible, lively, and graceful, despite the small size of the Garnier stage relative to that at Moscow. At all times there is movement, no dead angles, no bits of the corps de ballet off slumped on one leg or dozing in a dark corner. While the soloists dance, the corps de ballet is going through its paces in the background.

Fascinating to see how the Russian corps de ballet moves. It is like a harpsichord – shift keyboard and move to another timbre and shading, from coiled-spring energy to faint, mezzo-tint dancing, walking and running that can, where called for, be barely turned-out, perfectly fluid. But perfectly effective as theatre.

On the first-night, marking the première of this work in Western Europe, the casting ordeal we were subjected to was Svetlana Sakharova and Dmitri Belogolovstev as Aspicia and Lord Wilson/Taor. Five minutes into the ballet, one groaned inwardly “Get that woman off the stage!” as a reptilian foot and leg emerged out of the gloom like the head of the Loch Ness monster. Although Mlle. Sakharova attended the same school in Kiev as Mlle. Cojocaru, to say that Mlle. Sakharova’s dancing is, like that of her younger classmate, an outpouring of spiritual beauty would be – let me be tactful here - something overstated. As for the poor lad who was apparently press-ganged, on account of his looks, into replacing the indisposed Serguei Filin, M. Belogolovtsev cannot get his feet round M. Lacotte’s choreography.

But the question is, can anyone ?

Over the years, one comes to realise that although M. Lacotte has composed some pretty variations and groupings for the woman, he seems to have it in for the man.

In the Bournonville Schools, there is one awful step called The Dark Step. It is a nightmare, a seething, heaving mass of petite batterie without any “brightness” (such as pas courus, or even, hey, a quick jeté for light relief). It is done by men, because we ladies rush for the smelling salts even thinking about it. Now, The Dark Step is an experiment. A challenge. It is NOT meant to be beautiful, and it is NOT meant to be a model for choreography, although Auguste B. has put a version of the thing into Act I of the "Conservatoire".

But M. Lacotte, as I’ve said, has it in for the gentlemen. Many of his variations seem to be based on the “sock it to’em” concept behind The Dark Step. Pile on the obstacles, let’em pump for oxygen, let’em bound and rebound! And to hell with Beauty, eh!

Then in walks some poor matinée idol, six and a half foot tall, who can dance, sort of, and who looks terrific in colour photography. But he can’t jump and he can’t beat. M. Lacotte shows him the steps. The lad turns green - “What, have I to do this, to draw my wage?”

Anyway, the men’s variations are killers, brisés of every shape and size including en tournant, horrendously complicated sissonnes I don’t even know the cotton pickin’ name for (cotton pickin’, cus we’re in Egypt, baby), and it might all be a hey-ho! and do-able were those torments prised like jewels in golden fretwork, rather than being scrumpled up on top of one another without a beam of moonlight, a ray of sun, or even a light grey cloud to set them off properly. To say that even Thomas Lund and Emmanuel Thibault might find it impossible to make those variations look like music and poetry says it all.

The reason why Bournonville’s enchaînements are so masterful, despite their appalling difficulty, is that he starts with a MUSICAL concept and has the steps articulate around that, with pauses, silences, in short, breathing space. Without that, one cannot take in the myriad changes of direction like clouds scudding across the sky, the alternately delicate, or vigorous, shading lent the “painting” by the full engagement of the torso.

So, dear friends, M. Lacotte has GOT to make up his mind. Either we are in the old French school, or we ain’t. T’is one, or t’other. In the old French school, plastique was of the essence. Whether in the air, or on the ground, the dancer has got to be allowed time to create a shape that looks like something other than a very wet, muddy dog on a winter’s day. The dancer cannot do that if he be given seventeen horrendous bits of petite batterie to do, interspersed with some monstrously large jeté, or, God forbid, a manège, all in the space of one minute and thirteen seconds, the torso wracked helplessly in the effort.

Messrs. Medvedev, Godovski and Gudanov put in a valiant effort, and anyone who thinks these men are “not good enough” should try dancing those variations himself.

Secondly, there is such a thing as style. What’s the point of making some poor Russian chap to whom these complex steps are the Great Unknown stagger through a variation and then allow him suddenly to raise the arms to ear level in entrechat, like a 1970’s version of the Bluebird ? Why go to the trouble of doing all this reconstruction on scores and manuscripts and then allow the female soloists to expose everything but the digestive tract, as one wag has just put it, flinging that goddam leg about at ear level?

How can one alternate pas de deux in the old French style, where the man and the woman both dance, with acrobatic Goseizovsky-style partnering, where the woman’s only “step” is essentially développé? Makes no sense.

By the way, could someone tactfully take M. Lacotte aside and explain that when the man shall dance in a kilt, or as here, in Egyptian loin cloth, let us avoid manège, tour en l’air and pirouette?

Anyway, we are told that the Bolshoi has the strongest corps de ballet of men on the planet. Unfortunately, owing to the Lacottian blinkers blinding him to this particular half of the human species, the gentlemen have little to do. I mean, if we can be modern by doing away with roughly 90 minutes of Pugni’s score, as well as most of the mime, let us be truly modern, and let the men to dance, rather than just waving a fan or a pair of light cymbals about.

The ladies, however, are a delight ! Ye Gods ! They are witty, musical, feather-light... I could go on, and on. After eight or nine years in Paris, one forgets that there are women in the profession who are allowed to go down and dance without radiating angst.

Unfortunately, this writer was standing, and very far from the stage, but for what one could see, the dancing by the feminine soloists in the Pas d’Action and in the Nile Scene was richly detailed and very strong indeed, particularly the wonderful Anastasia Yatsenko, about whom one could rattle on fondly for hours! Contrary to what we have been led to believe about the Russians, the footwork was crisp and buoyant, the batterie jewel-like, and, withal, a thousand nuances in the torso. That is what makes the dance, that is what makes it interesting, and that is why people come back.

Mlle. Yatsenko is a textbook example of how one uses port de bras to play with the music. For example, in the pas d’action, she has pas de chat with the arms en couronne. She will hold the couronne just long enough to give its full elliptical value and precise musical accent, and then take it down to move into another lovely port de bras. Or the three odalisques in Act I, Scene I, who, as they turn, use the arms to mark rubato: carry the port de bras fully through the torso to the fingertip, mark it, and only then, move on. It’s a fraction of an instant, but how critical a fraction!

Looking down from above at the fascinating declivity, the play of light and shadow over the incline of the head, the nape of the neck, and the back, and the ever-changing angles all this forms with the leg, I found myself for the first time in YEARS, at a quintet rehearsal the next night, listening to the adagio of a Mozart oboe quintet, and imagining step combinations. Because the dancing of the woman here in Paris is so tense, so stiff in the torso, that one’s imagination has quite shrivelled up, in terms of inventing things.

On to that monument of a woman, Maria Alexandrovna, whose reputation has preceded her. Whether she be a great artist, one would not venture to say after seeing her dance but twice, in the role of Ramse (January 15th), and then as Aspicia (January 18th). Judging by those two nights, this would certainly appear to be one of the planet’s great female technicians, a race that has almost disappeared since the days of Nadia Nerina, owing to a thirty-year craze for extreme slenderness and picking up the leg. I could not help wondering whether this were not how Agrippina Vaganova would have danced Aspicia. There is nothing like this amongst the ladies in the French theatre, and few like this in the world.

Maria Alexandrovna has the authority, the inner strength, and the magnetism of a man, in the elegant shape of a woman. Possessed as well, of the many-sided and variegated technique of a man, she never shows her strength. Look at the finely-muscled flanks and arms, and the drum-like centre, to see where those astonishing jumps, landing in the most difficult positions and soundlessly, come from! Thrust like a spear into the ground on pointe, her dry and nervous foot is a calibrated instrument, moving across the floor like the hands of a machine-tool operator.

However, Mlle. Alexandrovna’s partnering is poorish – from what I could see, the glitches in the Act I adagio were entirely her responsibility, not that of M. Skvortsov, while her plastique in all manner of arabesque and attitude is not irreproachable, perhaps because she finds those poses “not challenging enough”, frothing as she is to get on to the “hard bits”.

More importantly, though she can dance Nadezhda Gracheva – or just about anyone else, actually – into the ground, her mime and acting skills fall short of the latter ballerina, who also happens to be a sensitive and poetic partner. In Amazon guise, Aspicia, out hunting with bow and arrow, meets Taor and is struck by love’s arrow herself. With Nadezhda Gracheva, this was enchantment! With that Amazon Maria Alexandrovna, the expression of fear on Taor’s face reads: “if this is Sunday, it must be Paris, and the woman must be Claude Bessy!” Did M. Skvortsov actually recoil slightly, as I thought, at that awesome sight?

However, M. Ruslan Skvortsov, who danced Taor on January 16th and 18th, to the Aspicia of Mlles. Gracheva and Alexandrovna respectively, is a dancer with the same sort of quiet authority as Igor Kolb over at the Maryinski, and one who, without being flash or brutal, will not allow Mlle. Alexandrovna to wash the floor with him. Taor’s variations are extremely difficult, indeed almost impossible to pull off with beauty, but he came very, very close to it. His partnering with Nadezhda Gracheva was a marvel; his mime beautifully-supported, musical, and very poetic. The final, parting tableau behind the gauze is all mime, and it was extraordinary - when done by Skvortsov and Gracheva.

Mlle. Gracheva is the typical example of a brilliant woman, whose body has been chopped up on the altar of high extensions. As readers well know, the prime requisite for a female dancer today is to be able to pick up the leg, and in Russia moreover, one is – regrettably - “streamed” for promotion to principal from an early age. Probably someone realised that Mlle. Gracheva was very gifted but that her body does not really have the ability to pick up the leg AND rotate, so they forced it, in order to keep her. As she extends the leg to some absurd height, watch closely – the leg begins to rotate back inwards, front, back or side. How can we go on doing this to people ?

That being said, her interpretation of Aspicia was by far the most persuasive of the three, the finest in mime detail, and very feminine.

***

Since 1989, when the West recklessly imposed Shock Therapy on Russia, the suffering in that nation has been terrible. It has taken real courage, and patriotism, to remain in the company, rather than flee to the West and its wages. People have had little to eat, shabby clothing, cold apartments, low wages, and worse. And yet, they radiate a fervid commitment, a cultural level, and a joie de vivre lacking in the French National Theatre, with one or two egregious exceptions that diplomacy forbids one to over-emphasise here.

How do the Russian professors get this out of their men and women in what has been, until very recently, such an oppressive economic environment? It is has to do with the deep knowledge those professors have of many things other than the ballet, how they work with the music, how they study painting and sculpture, how they read poetry, and how they get the relevance of those studies across to their pupils, who then, paintbrush to the painter, bring all that to the dance.


Edited by Holly Messitt

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