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'La Fille du Pharaon'
Hoorah for Captain
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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