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Film Society of Lincoln Center

'Dominique Delouche: Ballet Cineaste'

by Juliet Neidish

July 23-27, 2008 - New York City, New York

The Film Society of Lincoln Center has a long history of presenting unique and engaging film programming.  I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate and thank its organizers for their consistently stellar contribution to the field of dance.  This summer’s dance series was of particular note.  Entitled “Dominique Delouche: Ballet Cineaste,” it was the first American retrospective of this French filmmaker whose work since the 1980’s has attempted to look at how ballet style and roles have been passed down from dancer to dancer. 

There is a wealth of information on the history of dance within these feature-length films, but each one is also an aesthetically produced filmic portrait of dance and dancers at work.  Delouche’s work can be enjoyed both as an artistic vision and as an informative documentation.  Seven of the ten films aired in the series focus on the life, success and forte of an individual legendary ballet star and his or her efforts to coach younger dancers as they prepare to perform traditional or historical dance roles. 

The stars we see in these seven films are none other than: Alicia Markova (at age 90), Violette Verdy, Maia Plisetskaya, Ekaterina Maximova, Vladimir Vasiliev, Yvette Chauvire and Nina Vyroubova.  Each of these masters outdoes the next via their magnanimous, larger-than-life personalities.  They all hold within them unrivaled keys to their greatness as ballet stars of their time.  They have much desire to share and teach, and Delouche provides a welcoming environment for these stars to unveil interpretations, secrets of their success, and lessons they learned from their masters.

The format is similar in that we become privy to rehearsals in which the now retired dance stars coach current Paris Opera dancers in roles that they had made famous.  Delouche also provides an opportunity for the master to share stories, histories and memories.  Rare archival footage is interwoven.  The personality of each legend is what defines and differentiates the individual portraits.

It is within the rehearsal format that Delouche intends to give us a glimpse into how the elder dancer transmits vital information and qualities to the younger dancer in order to preserve traditional ballet repertory.  The films in this genre are quite successful in deliciously saturating us in the wonderfully engaging characters, grace, elegance and phenomenal knowledge and dedication of these legends. 

However, in each interaction, I found myself dumbfounded and frustrated in how little of the stylistic and expressive qualities that the contemporary dancers were actually able to incorporate from their lessons.  Over and over I was riveted by the studio performances of the older dancers usually attired in teaching clothes and sometimes even sitting on a chair, as they “walked through” sections of choreographies that they had not performed on stage in years.  Having captured these sessions on film is a gift to the audience and the field of dance history.

The questions brought up about transmission, although frustrating, are nevertheless fascinating and need addressing.  The Paris Opera dancers all have wonderfully honed technical training, and the repertory of the company has continually included traditional ballets.  Yet in seeing the juxtaposition of today’s dancers with the stars of a generation or two before them, one cannot help but be struck by their totally different physicality.  While it is inevitable that technique will continue to develop, giving dancers more physical skill, and of course changing the look of the ballet body and its line, what seems to have been neglected in today’s training is the mastery of the qualitative side of the work which was seminal to the creation of all of the repertory being coached in these films.

The Paris Opera dancers seem sincere in their desire and attempt to emulate the stylistic changes and expressive nuances that are being asked of them and shown to them, but none are able to succeed.  They do fine with changes in timing, but their training may not be giving them enough of an interpretive element to either imitate the older dancers or to create the needed effect through their own devices. 

In all fairness to the Paris Opera dancers in these films, I must point out that these are in fact “staged” rehearsals as opposed to a camera merely being brought into a rehearsal.  There are lights, semi-costuming and the older dancers often focus directly into the camera.  To some degree, Delouche is naïve to think that he can capture a fully successful moment of transmission after having introduced the pressure of performance into a rehearsal situation.  Nevertheless, today’s singular fixation on the technical training of the dancer is by no means unique to the Paris Opera dancers.  By focusing on the interaction between these dancers and their predecessors, despite the hybrid nature of the rehearsal setting, Delouche does unearth a great deal about transmission, reconstruction, expression and performance.

The jewel of the series is the film of a performance of the 18th century ballet “La Fille Mal Gardee” performed by the Ballets de Nantes (1989).  Ivo Cramer choreographed the ballet after the original Dauberval (1789), and Delouche did the sets and costumes and directed the production for French television.  This historic ballet is the only early narrative ballet that has managed to remain in today’s repertory, but it is rarely performed with this kind of historical research.  Cramer is a specialist in the period.  The ballet is performed as it originally was, in heeled shoes rather than on pointe or in ballet slippers.  The goal for Dauberval and his predecessors of “ballet d’action” was to tell a story using just dance, and this production succeeds completely.

The visually sumptuous film is a fully engaging, beautifully danced, touching story.  The brilliance of this collaboration is its ability to translate the unique historical moment of the piece which transitions from Baroque dance to narrative ballet.  One need not be aware of the groundbreaking nature of the work or the film’s important contribution to dance history to be thoroughly taken by its delightful and satisfying artistry.

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