Paris Opéra Ballet
San Francisco War Memorial
Opera House, San Francisco, CA
By Dean Speer
Director of Dance for the Paris Opera Ballet, Brigitte Lefevre has the amazing challenge of leading the world's oldest ballet company with its rich past into the 21st century. Fraught with landmines -- artistic and otherwise -- it's very difficult to move forward a cultural institution that's conservative, steeped in tradition, and bound to its adoring public. Past directors have gotten into deep trouble when they've tried to make too many changes and too quickly.
Lefevre (who jokes that no one has EVER told her she looks like both Leslie Caron and Shirley McLaine...she's the spitting image), gave a pre-performance talk prior to the West Coast premiere of POB's "Le Parc" and fielded questions from audience members. Lively, engaging and charming, she addressed some of the contemporary issues facing ballet and dance at the POB today. (Her remarks were translated and she also spoke a little in English.)
It's interesting to note that Lefevre is actually (by my count) the third female director of POB. These have included the American Indian ballerina Rosella Hightower (who by her own admission saw herself as a "caretaker" director), Violette Verdy, and now Mme Lefevre.
Mme Lefevre succeeded the famous and infamous Rudolf Nureyev who did have the strength of personality and will to implement many of the changes he felt were necessary at POB. He really started the ball rolling for moving POB forward artistically.
I think POB and Mme Lefevre must be applauded for the courage to bring a new and very different ballet while on a tour and away from the hometown venue.
This said, I also have to say that I really think the States are way ahead of Europe and Russia in terms of contemporary art. Certainly in dance. "Le Parc" is essentially what I call a "non-dance dance." Most of the movement is gestural or consists of "everday" movements such as walking and running. I found myself (under the cover of the darkened War Memorial Opera House thinking, "Been there, done that!" I also realize that while this kind of minimalist work has long been done and lauded here, it's probably new and indeed experimental in Europe and at POB.
Et un, et deux, et trois
In three movements and performed with no intermission (so the audience is less inclined to escape?), I thought the first to have been the most successful. A "musical chairs" romp for POB women and men, this was the most accessible. The various Mozart music that was used aided in making this ballet more palatable.
Pas des pointes
I found the second movement -- done in skirts and with bare legs and feet for the women and bare feet and pants for the men, the strangest and most offensive. For example, the women go behind the phallic-like columns that are the set, and hump them. Then, to make matters worse, the men come in, stand still in front of these columns and the women come down on them for "servicing." All done very beautifully and artistically, of course. The third movement was the least memorable for me and I have an impression that there was a duet that was passionately performed. Perhaps I was on artistic overload at this point or simply my mental defense mechanisms kicked in. I do remember gorgeously and period-gowned women leaning over in full profile and engaging in hand washing gestures. Impressive for being in unison and for this being their "dance."
Probably the most distressing aspect of this kind of piece for high-level dancers who are thoroughly and beautifully bred and trained (these dancers can do ANYTHING) is that they don't take advantage of this but rather squander these virtually infinite resources. More boldly stated, this kind of modern dance could easily be done by most students anywhere, so why the Paris Opera Ballet? (See above...)
Less is More?
As I said earlier, I think that we in America on in the forefront of contemporary art and seeing works like "Le Parc" remind me of this, as they seem less experimental and more of an echo of what's gone on before.
Still Lefevre and POB must be lauded for commissioning this work by Angelin Preljocaj. A bold, risk-taking venture that all directors must do. The conundrum being that when creating something totally new, you don't really know what you're ultimately going to get until its stage debut.
Chacun à son gout
At the other end of the choreographic spectrum is Nureyev's 1992 staging of the 1877 ballet "La Bayadere." A full length "tutu and crown" story piece, this crowd pleaser is rarely seen in its entirety in the West. Of the three acts presented in San Francisco, I felt that the third, "Kingdom of the Shades," was the most successful --choreographically and artistically.
I'd have to call his first two acts "servicable" and uninspired choreographically but, again, beautifully danced by the full army of POB dancers. Act two was the most interesting and fun to me. Filled with "pas d'actions," it gave all of the many levels of dancers full opportunity to show what they can do.
Un peu plus forte, s'il vous plait!
During the coda of the pas de deux of this second Act, Mlle Agnes Letestu astonouned us with eight en de dans fouettes, each finishing in attitude, following by 16 "regular" fouettes en de hors. My, my! I've never seen anyone, anywhere perform in public this difficult step and sequence.
Lessez-faire ou il faut
Speaking of technique and movement styles, I found it interesting to note that the dancers attacked movement less than we're used to seeing here in the USA. American dancers tend to perform with an edge that I've come to like, so I had to adjust my viewing lenses to this stylistic difference.
I also noticed that all of the POB dancers have beautiful feet, their arabesques are archieved with the back pushed more forward than we do and that the line of these arabesques tend to veer to the side and are more behind the hip, rather than behind the spine, as we are accustomed to. Not to say that one is right or wrong, just different.
On the very plus side, these dancers have épaulement DOWN! Too often we in balletic America dance with too little full use of the upper body in the way that the tool of épaulement is meant to be deployed. So this was refreshing, instructive and great to see.
Overall, it was a very special treat to have seen this venerable company. Full of rich history, !zowie! dancing, and artistic sincerity. It had been over 25 years since I had last seen them and I really hope it will be much sooner than that for my next visual feast from this great company and institution.
Edited by Marie.