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Choreographer Pierre Lacotte

by Catherine Pawlick

January - February 2006 -- Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg

Jet-setting between the dance capitals of Europe, with Paris as his convenient home base, Pierre Lacotte, at the age of 74, is a very busy man. In January and February 2006 he spent several weeks setting “Ondine” on the Maryinsky Ballet. I was able to catch him one morning during the intermission of “Don Quixote,” which he had been requested to attend, and speak to him about his work.

Upon our initial greeting, Lacotte’s refined manners were an immediate reminder that I was speaking with a French gentleman. His language and word choice offer a taste of nobility, old school aristocracy, elegance and worldliness but without the snobbery that is often associated with such traits.

Lacotte’s name is perhaps more well-known in Europe, where he has become a dance scholar, a specialist in reconstructing old, lost ballets based on archived or otherwise minimal sources of documentation. His first reconstruction, “La Sylphide,” is perhaps his widest achievement, which he completed for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1972, and which set him on the path towards restoring other ballets.

Lacotte based the reconstruction of “La Sylphide” on Fillipo Taglioni’s original version, set to the libretto by Adolphe Nourrit, danced to music by Schneitzhoeffer, and first performed in Paris in 1832 by Filippo’s daughter, Marie Taglioni. Lacotte emphasized to me that this “Sylphide” was not the well-known Bournonville version that Marie Taglioni had never, in fact, danced. It was four years later that Bournonville’s version appeared, but Taglioni could not travel to Copenhagen to dance it, Lacotte tells me, as it was too expensive.

“So the Bournonville version of ‘La Sylphide’ remained in Denmark,” Lacotte explains, “and it was not until 1847-48 that it left the country. It was believed to be the first version of ‘La Sylphide,’ about which the entire world spoke at the time. But Marie Taglioni came to St. Petersburg to perform her ‘Sylphide,’ and later traveled to England, Germany, Italy, and Austria with her new triumph. ‘La Sylphide’ was a great event, and I found the authentic document that had been given back to the Opera of Paris on which to base the recreation.”

Working with that document, Lacotte reconstructed the ballet, which he subsequently set in Tokyo, Argentina, Prague, Novosibirsk, Rome, Czechoslovakia, London, Washington, DC and Helsinki.

“From there I became a bit of a dance historian,” he says, highlighting that his interest in restoration came “…from the love of classical dance – because I think that if someone does not take on this task, everything is going to disappear. No one is interested any longer in anything but changing ballets or making modern ballets to the music of old ballets.”

Mr. Lacotte has managed more colossal reconstructions as well. He revived “Swan Lake” at the Ballet National de Nancy, where he was Artistic Director from 1991 to 1999, and a long list of ballets, both large and small, for companies around the world. His accomplishments are too lengthy to list in a concise manner, but nonetheless I asked him for a brief summary.

“I set ‘Coppelia’ on the Paris Opera Ballet, ‘Marco Spoda’ at the Opera of Rome with Nureyev and Gillen Tesmar. For Katia Maximova in Moscow, for the Moscow Classical Ballet, I set ‘Natalie’ or ‘The Swiss Milkmaid.’ I set ‘La Gitana,’ which is an old ballet, in Barcelona.”

“I set the old ballet ‘Le Lac des Fees’ at the Berlin Opera. And in Nancy I set ‘Nombreux,’ which was a ballet created here with Philippe Taglioni. I also reset ‘L’Ombre,’ another Taglioni ballet. I worked here in St. Petersburg, it was quite a long time ago, it was almost 30 years ago, in 1979, when I set the pas de deux of ‘Papillon’ for Irina Kolpakova; Olga Tchenchikova and Gabriela Komleva danced ‘Le Diable Boiteux,’ ‘Cacchucha,’ a famous dance of the same century. After that I recreated Philippe Taglioni’s ‘La Fille du Danube’ in Argentina and in Tokyo. I reconstructed ‘Paquita’ at the Paris Opera, all three acts in full, four years ago. I recently set ‘La Fille du Pharon’ for the Bolshoi and now I have returned to the Maryinsky to recreate the Jules Perrot ballet, ‘Ondine.’”

Based on libretto from the 19th century story “The Naiad and the Fisherman” and in contrast to Frederic Ashton’s adaptation to music by Hans Werner Henze, this version is set to music by Cesare Pugni. The first performance of this “Ondine” took place June 22, 1843 at the Queen’s Theatre in London. The revival features Lacotte’s own choreography. I asked him about the project.

“It premiered on the 16th of March, opening the Sixth International Maryinsky Ballet Festival. I have done the costumes and the choreography; it is an adaptation of the ballet as it was in the past. ‘Ondine’ was first created in London for a dancers’ reunion. It was danced originally by great dancers of the time: Fanny Cerito danced the role of Ondine and Jules Perrot himself danced the role of Mateo.

“When Perrot was engaged here to work for the Bolshoi Theatre of St. Petersburg (as the Maryinsky theatre was known at the time), he set this ballet, and Carlotta Grisi, who had also created the great role of Giselle, was invited to St. Petersburg to dance Ondine, so the ballet premiered here in 1851.”

“This ballet remained in the repertoire for a while and then disappeared. [Anna] Pavlova had danced it, as had [Tamara] Karsavina. I think Mathilde Ksseshinska had danced it as well. All the dancers of the epoch danced it.”

“Ondine’s” history is complex. In 1874 Petipa completely rechoreographed the ballet, and in 1903 Alexander Shiryaev, ballet master and pedagogue, set a new version which lasted two years. That was the version to which Lacotte refers, danced by Pavlova, Karsavina and Fokine. In 1921 Shiryaev revived the ballet for the Leningrad Choreographic Institute (now the Vaganova Academy). In 1984 a suite from the ballet using Perrot’s original choreography was performed in honor of Peter Gusev’s 80th birthday, but nonetheless the ballet has never been a constant in the Maryinsky repertoire.

“And so when Makhar Vasiev asked me to recreate ‘Ondine’ to Pugni’s music,” Lacotte continues, “I had the pleasure of accepting.”

To begin his work, Lacotte studied the first version of the ballet, set by Perrot in 1843, but only the Pugni’s notes from the violin section remained, along with a critical review of the production. For the reconstruction he also consulted pedagogues Gustav Rico and Carlotta Zambelli. With limited documentation to reference, he recreated the ballet basically from scratch, “in a manner which I believe the aesthetic of the era dictates.”

We sit in the famous green velvet chairs that adorn the anti-chamber to the Director’s box within the Maryinsky Theatre. “It is a joy to be here,” Lacotte expresses with enthusiasm, looking around him, “to encounter again all the traditions that I knew, since I worked a lot with the Russian professors of the time, especially Liobov Egorova who was a fantastic professor and taught me all of the repertoire. I worked at the Opera de Paris where I was a premier danseur, I did all the classes at the Opera de Paris, and there I worked with the French repertoire of the epoch and also I had an Italian professor. So I knew all three schools, the Russian, Italian and French schools – it’s a very special vocabulary and naturally, you know, here in Russia, we had French people as well, Charles Lande, Didelot, then Jules Perrot, Artur Savailion and finally Marius Petipa. Almost two centuries of masters of French ballet here.”

I inquire as to whether he notes a difference between the Russian and the French schools.

“Yes and no, because the French school and the Russian school were both beautifully conserved. There is a difference, the style, and that is normal because the countries have different personalities. But I think that France and Russia have something very much in common. The speed of work, the same will of preserving traditions, the same goal.”

What about the dancers themselves, do they work differently?

“Yes and no. Yes and no. It’s that…in France they respect the work of the feet more, the footwork, and in Russia the port de bras, the work of the arms. Baryshnikov said something very funny, he said that the perfect dancer would have French legs and a Russian head and arms. There are good and bad dancers everywhere, but in Russia there is simply an enormous love of dance, that gives the public a great enthusiasm. And it is wonderful to understand all of the traditions of these two countries that rightly knew how to bring refinement and a burst of French-Russian culture to the populous. For me, France and Russia are the countries that have preserved these traditions the best, and as such their ancestors have given us a great gift.”

Lacotte begins to recount some history, revealing his vast knowledge. Some Maryinsky dancers have joked that he is a walking encyclopedia, and this description is in fact not far from the truth. “It was Louis XIV who had created the first [Dance] Academy, as before that a formal institution [for dance] had been considered but [the idea] was abandoned. But Louis XIV had wanted to give names to the steps, which remain to this day. And he gave money so that the children could be trained and prepared, and for professional dancers as well.

“And from there ballet companies sprang up everywhere. It was inspirational for France to display these companies, a matter of pride. The tradition, the steps are in French; and then Italy did the same, and then Russia, and thus it happened, an international universe of ballet.”

I’m told that “Ondine” is a tragedy, and I ask Lacotte to explain.

“Yes, yes, like in ‘Giselle.’ Ondine, who is the naiad or mermaid, had asked the Queen of the Sea to return to the land to be with a fisherman that she is in love with. The Queen says, ‘Okay but I will give you this flower, and if it keeps its petals until you are married, you will stay on the land and will become a mortal. If not, you will return to the sea. If the flower loses its petals before your marriage, you will die.’

“But Mateo, the fisherman, is in fact engaged to Jeanina, a young Sicilian peasant girl. Ondine does all she can to get Mateo’s attention and have him leave Jeanina. Jeanina is on a boat and falls into the sea, and she drowns. But by this time, when Ondine can finally marry Mateo, it is too late, too much time has passed, the flower is dead, and Ondine dies. She is taken back into the sea and Mateo rushes to join her.”

“It is a shame that this ballet has left the Maryinsky’s repertoire, like so many other romantic era ballets that become lost with the passage of time. ‘Ondine’ is a very pretty ballet that I hope and think will work as well here as ‘La Fille du Pharon’ worked in Moscow,” says Lacotte. He comments that, in his experience, little difference exists between working styles in the Petersburg and Moscow schools. “There is a slight difference, but the speed of work is the same, and both companies take great pride in what they’re doing. They are of course very different in style, but very similar in their approach to work.”

A brief peek into the studios during rehearsal period revealed that “Ondine” is no small undertaking. For the corps de ballet rehearsal the entire company was called – over one hundred dancers gathered in the company’s largest studio as Lacotte himself showed the choreography with the help of two French/Russian translators. Completely classical in style, “Ondine’s” steps are reminiscent of Saint Leon’s choreography for “Coppelia”: ballonnes, petite reverences – small, simple, but unquestionably classical steps. In testament to his French training, during rehearsal Lacotte demands accuracy in the footwork, requesting the 16 females he is working with to be precise in their steps.

Does his ballet require teaching a new style? “Yes, and that is a great task. But I think that with a good school, good training, as is the case here, there isn’t any problem. Everything is adapted to the technique, and they do it very well.” He describes the style of dance in “Ondine” as “very quick, there are many small steps, steps that existed years ago but have been lost. It is new for them because they no longer work in this style. So at first it is difficult and then it becomes easier, they adapt.”

Despite the challenges of mounting a work of this magnitude, the choreographer has only positive things to say of the experience.

“I am very content here, I feel part of a family, because we have the same way of thinking, and I have the chance to work with the dancers here. It fairly corresponds to everything that I love.”

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