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American Ballet Theatre

'Lady of the Camellias'

by Colleen Boresta

June 4, 2011 matinee -- Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY

This is the second season American Ballet Theatre has danced Lady of the Camellias, but the June 4th matinee was my first time to see this John Neumeier work. Lady of the Camellias is based on Alexandre Dumas fils’ novel La Dame aux Camellias. This book is also the source for Verdi’s opera La Traviata, Frederick Ashton’s one-act ballet Marguerite and Armand and the famous Greta Garbo movie Camille.

Lady of the Camellias is the story of Marguerite Gautier, the most famous French courtesan of her day (the 1840’s). She falls in love with the wealthy young Armand Duval. As well, Armand falls desperately in love with Marguerite. At the beginning of each of the three acts of Lady of the Camellias, Marguerite has already died and her possessions are being sold at auction. The rest of the act concern Armand’s flash-backs of his time with Marguerite.

Going back to the original novel as his source, Neumeier interweaves the heartbreaking tale of 18th century courtesan Manon Lescaut and her doomed relationship with Des Grieux with the romance of Marguerite and Armand. From the time Marguerite sees the ballet Manon Lescaut, images of Manon’s tragic life constantly haunt her.

In Act II, Armand’s father visits Marguerite in the French countryside where she is living with Armand. Armand’s father insists that a relationship with a courtesan will ruin his son’s chances in life. Out of her complete and total love for Armand, Marguerite leaves their place in the country. She has her maid give Armand a note saying she has returned to her former patron, the Duke.

Armand is devastated, and in Act III he becomes involved with the courtesan Olympia. While this affair is being conducted, Marguerite becomes more and more ill. (She has been coughing throughout the entire ballet.) Finally, Marguerite collapses, and dies, alone.

The best thing about Lady of the Camellias is the passionate performances of Diana Vishneva as Marguerite and Marcelo Gomes as Armand. Both dancers clearly portray the intensity of the love affair between the courtesan and the young aristocrat.

All the dancers in Lady of the Camellias acquit themselves well, but it was hard for me to immerse myself in Neumeier’s ballet. Lady of the Camellias is set to the music of Chopin. Many choreographers have used Chopin’s scores for their ballets, most famously Jerome Robbins and Frederick Ashton. In their ballets Robbins and Ashton use a variety of Chopin’s compositions. In Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias, however, the same Chopin piece is repeated throughout the entire ballet. There are no musical highs or lows, just monotone funeral dirge music for over two hours. It was stultifying. I had major problems staying awake.

Neumeier’s choreography for Lady of the Camellias consists almost entirely of lifts. Many of the lifts are gorgeous, but after a while they all look the same.

It is a shame that so much major talented is wasted on John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias.

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