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Paris Opera Ballet POB - "Signes"

by Marie-Laure Ferreyra

March 27, 2004 -- Opéra Bastille, Paris

The Opéra de Paris is so in love with American choreographer Carolyn Carlson that it has named her Chorégraphe Etoile, a title created especially for her and bestowed upon her alone. The Parisian audience, too, is fond of Carlson, and since "Signes" was first created in 1997, it has been performed successfully many times.

Visually, the work is a triumph indeed. The bold colors of abstract painter Olivier Debré's décors and costumes are compelling and leave a long-lasting imprint in one's mind. The paintings by Debré are spectacular, yet they do not steal the show; rather, they contribute to the mood of each tableau and even contribute to the choreography. For in several of the seven tableaux, elements of the décors move around the stage, thus allowing the dancers to truly interact with the décor.

Just like the paintings, the costumes are varied in textures and colors and suggest different moods, such as the austere gowns of monk-like figures or the light blue frothy dresses and hats of the girls in funnier, less severe sections of the ballet. Though lead Kader Belarbi's costume in the first tableau made him look disturbingly like a Chairman Mao impersonator -- which almost ruined it for me -- with his impeccable technique and his charisma, Belarbi made even a simple plié in second position exciting.

Chairman Mao aside, it did seem that some elements of the costumes were meant to find an echo in the audience. The boater-hats and yellow gloves of the clumsy men in the third tableau conjured up Charlie Chaplin, and some of the ladies' costumes were reminiscent of Esther Williams. As for the Egyptian-like costumes in the next to last tableau -- they were reminiscent of cartoons, where every detail is comically exaggerated. It may be one of the meanings of the title, "Signes" -- we look at items on the stage, and each spectator may read it in a different way depending on his background and personality.

The universe of the movies rather than that of ballet seemed to me very much present in "Signes." The costumes and the poor music contributed to that, together with the impression that Carlson was attempting to choreograph for ensembles, in the great tradition of the American musical. In the first tableau, the men's jumping around must have been created with Robbins's "West Side Story" in mind.

However, choreographers who focus on ensembles should not neglect details; if no variations and innovations are incorporated to your basic steps, then it all becomes very bland. Neo-classicism is fine, as long as something personal is added to it. The truth is that "Signes" has no true choreographic personality. This weakness is blatant in the fifth tableau, when the stage is split in two, with one side that is bleak and one side that is colorful; the counterpoint in that passage is based on the opposition between the two contrasting chunks of the stage, which is not a very sophisticated device.

Well what's wrong with unsophisticated devices anyhow? Nothing, really, except that one did expect something more complex and compelling from brainy Carlson. The piece is visually successful in that some images stick in your memory, but it is for the wrong reasons, namely because the same poses and images are repeated over and over again. Case in point, the female lead's part, danced by Stéphanie Romberg: her high arabesque on plié is repeated over and over again with no changes whatsoever, and yes, her grand développé in second position is splendid, but need we see it so may times?

Finally, the piece is at its best in the lighter sections, when humor is used. Carlson handles parody successfully, for instance in the Chinese tableau where the girls mimic love in cartoon-like fashion, their hands amplifying the beating of their hearts. Sometimes, the female dancers seem to become props: they freeze and are carried off like statues by their male partners; though this comic device has been used over and over in dance, it is always amusing.

One of the reasons why simple humor is successful in "Signes" may be that the dancers are so extraordinary, all of them. Their command of the steps and their grace are hypnotic. Carlson used the dancers to set them off, with several passages where members of the corps de ballet are given an opportunity to dance alone and shine -- Hervé Courtain and the exquisite Juliette Gernez earned enthusiastic bravos. The pas de deux of the blue tableau, similarly, is a delight thanks to Berlarbi and Romberg's extraordinary presence. They manage to instill intensity and emotions in otherwise bland choreography.


Edited by Lori Ibay

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