Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo
New York, New York
March 14, 2014
“LAC (after ‘Swan Lake’)”
-- by Jerry Hochman
At what point does the ‘reimagining’ of a classic story so change the original that it’s no longer the same story, despite any superficial similarity? And if it’s no longer the same story, must the ‘reimagined’ production still be compared with, and held to the same standard as, the original?
I thought of these questions as I watched the New York premiere of Jean-Christophe Maillot’s “LAC (after ‘Swan Lake’)” (the parenthetical is part of its title) last Friday at City Center, danced by Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, of which Mr. Maillot is Artistic Director and Choreographer. And I’ve responded to my own first question by concluding that Mr. Maillol’s creation relates a new version of the classic story that significantly changes, confuses, and diminishes the impact of the basic story. But “LAC (after ‘Swan Lake’)” deserves to be evaluated on its own merits. And after viewing this one performance, and replaying it in my mind, I see it as a significant but flawed work that energizes the theater with its extraordinary stage vitality, and one that also has moments of choreographic and performance beauty, and even brilliance. Ultimately, in its audacity, ‘LAC’ has a kinship as much to Matthew Bourne’s “The Sleeping Beauty,” which had its New York premier at City Center last fall, as to any ‘standard’ version of “Swan Lake” that plays with the setting or modifies the Petipa/Ivanov choreography (e.g., Peter Martins’s version for New York City Ballet; Christopher Wheeldon’s masterful reimagining for Pennsylvania Ballet), but it’s less successful than the Bourne piece because it’s not so much an attempt to ‘explain’ or ‘update’ the story as it is just to change it into something different, more complex, and more opaque.
A fair evaluation of this piece, as well as Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, requires a brief summary of the company’s history. The current Monte Carlo company was founded in 1985. Its first directors were former Paris Opera Ballet etoile Ghislaine Thesmar and premiere danseur Pierre Lacotte. Mr. Maillot, who has creative roots in both classical and contemporary ballet, was appointed to be the company’s director in 1993. But the program notes also relate that Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which began performing in Paris in 1909, used Monte Carlo as a ‘creative workshop’ for two decades. Further, upon Diaghilev’s death and the succession that followed, certain members of Ballets Russes reassembled in 1931 as the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. So even though it has no direct relationship to the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, in some respects, even if only in dreams, it is not only a contemporary ballet company, but an heir to Diaghilev. In that sense, seeing things differently, and taking risks, would seem to be embedded in the company’s genetic material.
Consequently, based on “LAC” as well as on Mr. Maillot’s “Romeo et Juliette” (which I saw performed last year by the Pacific Northwest Ballet), recognizing the company’s difference from the ‘norm’ (whatever that is) is a required prism through which Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo productions, at least those by Mr. Maillot, should be seen. Different is not necessary better or worse – it’s just different. And like those of its spiritual antecedent, some of its productions may be recognized in their own time, some in the future, and some not at all.
Recognizing Mr. Maillot’s choreographic style as not just a ‘style,’ but in many ways a different ballet language, is also essential. In my review of his “Romeo et Juliette,” which I enjoyed a great deal, I described Mr. Maillot’s choreographic style, to the extent there is one, to be a synthesis of a multitude of styles that looks both lyrical and balletic, and angular and contemporary, at virtually the same time. It’s reassuring to see that the company, in its description of Mr. Maillot’s style, says essentially the same thing: “Neither classical nor contemporary, not even between the two, Mr. Maillot refuses to adhere to one style and designs dance like a dialogue, where tradition[al] on pointes [sic] and the avant-garde are no longer mutually exclusive.”
Although ‘LAC’ doesn’t ‘hang together’ as well as “Romeo et Juliette” did, most of this is to me a consequence of the changes imposed on the ‘standard’ story.
For its libretto, Mr. Maillot relied upon Jean Rouaud, a contemporary French writer who is well-known in Europe. Together with Mr. Maillot (apparently there was considerable collaboration), Mr. Rouaud has crafted a new story that adheres to the essential components of the original, but presents it in a way that overwhelms it and undermines its essential thematic purity. There is still a battle between perceived good and evil in the characters of the White Swan and Black Swan (who are otherwise unnamed), and there’s still a hint of relationship between the two – like they might represent two sides of the same woman, or perhaps be sisters – but to me this possible interpretation is undercut by other changes to the story. And many of the other characters are derived from characters in the antecedent original: there’s still a Prince (also unnamed), although he’s somewhat milquetoasty, and a Queen, who has a pivotal thematic role in this production. And there is still a controlling, evil sorcerer/villain – except here the evil sorcerer is a woman called “Her Majesty of the Night” rather than von Rothbart. There is still Benno, the Prince’s friend, here called ‘Confidant’. And there are still swans and hunters, as well as prospective mates for the Prince, called ‘Pretenders’.
But now there’s a backstory. This Prince has a father, the King. That’s a nice change – I often wondered why he was missing in the original. But if you create a King, you’ve got to give him something to do. In Mr. Rouaud’s revision, prior to (or during, it’s not clear) his marriage to the Queen, this King had a relationship with Her Majesty the Night (‘Night’, from this point forward) and, the program notes keep insisting, may or may not have been the father of her child, the Black Swan. This is a nasty little 'maybe he is/maybe he isn't' wrinkle.
And there’s also a flashback. When the ballet begins, the curtain opens onto a stark, sterile set consisting of three ‘thrones’ (sets by Ernest Pignon-Ernest, who also created the sets for “Romeo et Juliette”). The Prince sulks on his throne. Then, in a filmed ‘silent movie’ flashback, we see the boy Prince sitting with his parents (who, for no stated reason, are dressed in helmets that disguise their faces – perhaps in his memory the Prince doesn’t see their faces) at a picnic, and meets this sweet little girl in a white dress. We don’t know where this little girl came from or why she’s at this picnic. [Perhaps she’s the child of the Queen from a prior relationship, or of the King and Queen together – but that would make her the Prince’s half or full sister, and even this libretto doesn’t go there.] The boy Prince knows immediately that he will love the little girl in white forever. Birds sing and flowers bloom – at least in the audience’s imagination. The two also play with a ‘trunk’ filled with costume paraphernalia, including a feathered sleeve and a white hooked-nose mask, which is a convenient way for the Prince to remember the little girl in white if he were to see her years later looking like a swan.
But then the happy picnic is spoiled. Accompanied by her two sidekick/thugs the ‘Archangels,’ Night interrupts the picnic, bringing with her a somewhat malevolent looking little girl dressed in black. Their presence destabilizes the relationship between the King and Queen, presumably because the Queen knows of his dalliance and that the girl in black is Night’s daughter, and that her husband may be the father. Night also feverishly attempts to get the boy Prince to dump the little girl in white and hook up with the little girl in black, but the boy Prince remains loyal. For reasons that are unclear – perhaps she’s upset that the king won’t acknowledge the girl in black as his daughter; perhaps she wants the king to betroth the boy Prince to her daughter (which would create lots of other problem that, in this case, the libretto encourages), or perhaps she just wants to be bitchy – Night and her stooges kidnap the sweet little girl in white.
So instead of a classic fantasy story of good vs. evil with an evil sorcerer capturing a beautiful princess and transforming her into a swan as a prologue, in ‘LAC’ we have a story of good vs. evil inspired by a domestic soap opera, and a confusing one at that.
After the film/prologue, the ‘live’ ballet begins with a first act that essentially synthesizes Act I of the ‘standard’ Petipa/Ivanov version of “Swan Lake” (the Prince’s ‘birthday celebration’)with bits and pieces of Act III (the ball at the castle to find a mate for the Prince), as well as parts of Act II and Act IV (even though as yet there's no White Swan). [The story may have been butchered, but that’s nothing compared to what was done to the Tchaikovsky score.] To get him to stop sulking about the lost little girl in white – to ‘make a man of him’ - the King fights with his son and humiliates him, and tries to convince him to be more like his boisterous friends. The Prince, something of a momma’s boy, doesn’t really like the idea, but he’s a quick study, and when a flock of visiting female sex objects happen by to liven things up, he joins the mutual lust and aggression and they all party like it’s 2099. [The Prince is depressed, but he’s not THAT depressed.] The King (with or without the Queen’s agreement, it’s not clear) then orders the aroused Prince to select a mate from among a number of ‘suitors’. Then the Pretenders arrive, each with her/their own defining attitude: the ‘Conceited Woman’ (also called the ‘Vain’ one in a program insert); the ‘Indifferent’ one (also called the ‘False Indifferent’ one); the pair of ‘Libertines’; and the ‘Insatiable’ one (also called the ‘Voracious’ one). To the Queen, none of them is suitable for her son. Not even the Libertines, which might have proved an interesting pairing. Or tripling. Then Night and her Archangels crash the party, which arouses the King but brings consternation to the Queen. [Except to the extent they make convenient porteurs for Night, the Archangels, like Friar Laurence’s ‘Acolytes’ in “Romeo et Juliette,” have no particular function except to fill stage space.] As she did at the ‘picnic’, Night brings with her her now grown and hotter than Hades ‘Black Swan’ daughter (wearing a black mini-wrap that looked like an oversized lace doily with strategically placed openings revealing the ‘nude’ colored leotard underneath) to ramp up the sexual temperature. The Prince, initially smitten, is all over her like a cheap leotard. But then, after more hyperactive dancing and warnings from the Confidant, and as a still from the film flashback is projected against the back of the stage, he remembers the little girl in white and rejects Night’s daughter as well as the not so great Pretenders.
That’s Act I.
Only after this, in Act II, which roughly, very roughly, tracks Act II of the original, does the Prince appear in a forest of sorts, in front of a stone cave of sorts, and meets his long lost little girl in white, who is now a White Swan (though how and why the Prince arrives at this Forest encounter is not stated). Their love rekindled, the White Swan briefly morphs into the adult form of the little girl in white. But Night and the Archangels (sounds like a punk rock band), along with her daughter, again intervene, and attempt to seduce the Prince. But even after Night returns the big little white girl back to being the White Swan, the Prince remains committed, and somehow it’s understood that his love will break Night’s spell.
But in Act III, which is the wedding of the Prince/White Swan/woman/lost love, Night switches the two swan-women, and the Prince unknowingly marries Night’s daughter. Who may be his half-sister (he doesn’t know that, but the Queen does). The White Swan returns from wherever Night hid her, and, distraught, runs, or flies, away. Triumphant, Night runs off with the King in pursuit, abandoning her, or their, daughter. But the anguished Queen takes over and somehow, as a result, Night’s daughter dies (whether by her own hand, or wing, or the Queen’s isn’t clear). Returning to the forest, the distraught White Swan and Prince collapse and die. Her plans, whatever they were, foiled and her daughter(s) dead, Night shrieks in villainous frustration. And then n(N)ight falls – in the form of a giant black sheet that descends over the bodies of the Prince and the White Swan – and maybe Night too, but by that time she might have been on the stage floor and, well, black and black tend to blend together.
That the Black Swan may be Night’s daughter is nothing new – in some versions of the standard story she’s von Rothbart’s daughter. And the cast name changes and scene shifting are a stretch, but could conceivably work. It's also possible that certain aspects of the libretto were lost in the translation. But even being charitable, the essential changes made to the original story, and the insinuations about ‘possible’ relationships that are never resolved, only muddy the ‘LAC’ waters.
And yet….on its own and without comparison to any version more closely resembling the original story, “LAC (after ‘Swan Lake’)” somehow works.
It takes awhile for Mr. Maillol’s accomplishment to sink in – on first impression, because the story is so strange and incoherent, the piece as a work of ballet art looks strange and incoherent as well (although the unusual and colorful costumes by Philippe Guillotel enlivened the production's appearance immensely). But in this respect, and even though Mr. Maillol had some input into the libretto, I think one needs to give Mr. Maillol some breathing space. The choreography itself is similar to what I saw in “Romeo et Juliette” – a hybrid style with movement that looks hyperactive and out of control. But as a representation of the story, incoherent and inferior as that story may be, the choreography isn’t inappropriate, and it’s not the hodgepodge of movement that it may initially appear to be. Hands and arms fly all over the place (at one point the men all moved like Tevya when he wished he were a rich man), but there’s a consistency to it – it’s just a different language. The more graphic sexual contact is startling but not inappropriate in context (and this is Monte Carlo, after all). And the dances for the Pretenders are small gems of choreographic caricature. I don’t usually like caricature dances (they’re often choreographic cheap shots). But here, strange as it looks, it makes sense. I could never understand how, in most productions of the ‘standard’ version, the Prince could summarily reject a bevy of beautiful princesses. It’s just something taken on faith, because that’s how the story works. But here, when the Prince rejects the Pretenders, beautiful though they may be, it’s understandable because despite their surface attractiveness, their personalities are repellant. More significantly, what Mr. Maillol does to the 'standard' Act III Spanish dance is a brilliant reimagining. It's no longer a 'Spanish dance' per se, but a dance of seduction - which, at bottom, is what a Spanish dance should be - and it alone is worth the price of admission.
Most impressively, Mr. Maillol's transformation of what might correspond to the 'white acts' is particularly interesting. While not ‘Petipa/Ivanov’ (the ballet is ‘after’ “Swan Lake,” not ‘after’ Petipa/Ivanov), his swans do move sort of like birds – just not idealized birds, and in distinctive patterns – just not any distinctive patterns that look familiar. [I laughed out loud as I saw the swans pose with their ‘tails’ pushed up into the air. It’s not beautiful to look at, but isn’t that what swans look underneath the white fluff when they glide on water?] And his duets for the White Swan and the Prince, particularly in contrast with everything else in the piece, are delightful. Converting the story to one that relies, in part, upon the rekindling of youthful puppy love enables a more complex choreographic relationship than just ‘pathos’, ‘attraction, and ‘swearing eternal love’ danced at a snail’s, or swan’s, pace. The last time these characters saw each other they were children. When they reunite and recognize each other, it’s appropriate that they first act like giddy children, and then that their love mature. Mr. Maillol’s choreography allows us to see all that: these initial duets are at once playful, touching, and exciting.
But whatever feelings one has about the story or the choreography, the Ballets de Monte-Carlo dancers deserve praise for their abundant energy and enthusiasm, and for executing Mr. Maillol’s feverish movement quality as it was intended to be. No dancer just stands around to populate the stage or poses as part of a frame. In particularly, Anja Behrend was a lovely, innocent, and forlorn White Swan, and her appearance on stage was always a breath of fresh air. As the Black Swan, April Ball was appropriately vicious, but also seductive and sexy – essential qualities for a Black Swan. I found the character of the Confidant, as envisioned by Mr. Maillol and Mr. Rouaud, to be an annoying, overbearing personality who is always more ‘up’ than is humanly possible. But Jeroen Verbruggen danced it with enough energy to power New York. Stephan Bourgond’s ‘The Prince’ was outshadowed by his Confidant, but became more likable as the piece progressed. And although he appeared bland much of the time, he gave sufficient color and texture to the character that had to display the greatest range of emotions and style: the bullied son, the fun-loving but anguished Prince, the devoted and warm-hearted companion, and the victim of Night’s bait and switch. As Her Majesty of the Night, Maude Sabourin was appropriately and vigorously malevolent and serpentine. The Pretenders – Liisa Hamalainen (Conceited/Vain), Noelani Pantastico (False/Indifferent), Anjara Ballesteros and Anne-Laure Seillan (Libertines), and Gaelle Riou (Voracious/Insatiable) – each did quite well with choreography that captured their characters’ cartoonish emotional qualities. And as the King and Queen, Alvaro Prieto and Mimoza Koike portrayed larger than life personalities well: Mr. Prieto’s King was a bald, macho bully, but one easily manipulated by Night, and Ms. Koike’s Queen was a Graham-esque anguished, seething soul.
I don’t like having mixed reactions to a ballet, but sometimes that’s unavoidable. Mr. Maillol’s “LAC” is a difficult piece to like because it’s so different, and because the changed story confuses and diminishes the impact of the original. But the choreography fits, and the dancing was extraordinarily good. Perhaps “LAC” will eventually be seen as a worthy alternative view of “Swan Lake” – something as audacious and controversial as a new creation by Diaghilev.