The Dance Insider Interview

tahoe coverLloyd Knight of the Martha Graham Dance Company in the “Moon Duet” from Martha Graham’s 1952 “Canticle for Innocent Comedians.” Photo courtesy Lake Tahoe Dance Festival.

Copyright 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak

(This Dance Insider Interview is sponsored by Freespace Dance and Slippery Rock Dance. Like what you’re reading? Please show your appreciation today. You can donate to the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager through PayPal by designating your payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check. The interviewer dedicates this piece to Jamie, without whom it would not have been possible.)

Here in rural France — where the natural wonders certainly don’t leave us wanting for diversions — when it comes to onstage summer spectacles, the best we can hope for is tired family circuses starring lions that should have been retired long ago, subsisting largely thanks to regional funding. Back in my home state of California, meanwhile, straddling the frontier with Nevada, for eight years the denizens of Lake Tahoe have come to expect much more: a local festival with an international reach and historic scope, with Lake Tahoe Dance Collective Lake Tahoe Dance Festival founders Christin Hanna and Constantine Baecher, director of the Copenhagen International Choreography Competition, doing the archival work that many dance enterprises with much more resources have all but abandoned, and resurrecting forgotten treasures by the pioneers who made the American dance scene, coupled with new work. As proof of the loyalty they’ve engendered — and that rural residents and vacationers aren’t country bumpkins when it comes to art and will support profound work — they’ve done this with only 30 to 40 percent of the means coming from foundation and modest public grants, the remainder donated by individuals and local businesses. “That was of course different this year,” says artistic director Hanna, who performed with Oakland Ballet, Ballet New York, and Cincinnati Ballet and was a founding member of New Chamber Ballet, on whose behalf she returned to her native Tahoe City in 2006 to initiate a performance and summer workshop. “But we’ve seen our donors step up to make sure we stick around and can offer a wonderful program next year.”

For this year, given that the festival normally performs outside to a modest 400-person capacity audience, it might have been easy for Baecher and Hanna to justify continuing the live event, simply requiring masks and limiting admission to allow social distancing, perhaps making up for the budget shortfall by augmenting the modest $30 ticket charge. Instead, they took the only responsible route a festival operating in one of the areas hardest hit be the Corona virus can: While a Young Dancers Workshop will still be offered live — in a portable outdoor studio and ensuring strict social distancing (see below) — the festival is migrating online, broadcasting three nights of mixed programs from past years and newly recorded for this year by artists meant to feature in the 2020 edition, each interlaced with thematic artist interviews and introductions of the work. Broadcast live at www.laketahoedancecollective.org on July 22, 23, and 24 at 6 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time, the programs will remain accessible for 24 hours, with a requested donation of $25. ($75 donors receive a tee-shirt and a wine glass.)

Online or in-person, this event is a vital tonic for these times and for my home state and its neighbor. Perusing the photographs of past performances and of the jubilant hosts on the outdoor stage whose backdrop is the most magnificent, blue-est lake in the world, one can’t help but think of an episode of the t.v. Western “Bonanza” in which Hoss succeeds in calming a raging giant of a man by showing him his favorite spot… a rocky shore on this Lake.

Keeping with the electronic spirit of the event, I interviewed Christin Hanna via e-mail. Her answers, as you’ll see, reflect not only a dance pedigree that also includes training with Margaret Banks’s Nevada Festival Ballet, Joffrey Ballet School, and American Ballet Theatre’s summer school, but a combination of local investment and dance-historical awareness that, while not unheard of at the ‘regional’ level (such as Marcello Angelini’s Tulsa Ballet) or in ‘little’ New York companies (Diana Byer’s New York Theatre Ballet) is rare to find at this — or any — level of the dance eco-sphere.

Paul Ben-Itzak: Ballet companies (American and European) typically have a historical blind-spot when it comes to preserving and presenting indigenous choreographers of the first part of the 20th century, outside Balanchine and Graham. And for the few contemporary dance-makers they retain, it tends to be the same ol’ same ‘ol. (For example, for Agnes De Mille, “Rodeo.”) The Lake Tahoe Dance Festival, by contrast, features choreographers from this epoch rarely produced outside their own companies, where those companies still exist (Hawkins) or ethnically-linked troupes (Ailey for Horton). You seem to have chosen to focus on this slice of our history, rather than, say (given the preponderance of ballet dancers on your guest roster) an assortment of duets and divertissements from classical and romantic ballets, or even Balanchine or Robbins work (where you could profit from the several experienced dancers of their pieces among your performers, including Wendy Whelan, Stephen Hanna, Abi Stafford and Ashley Bouder). Why? (Feel free to disagree with my premise.)

Christin Hanna: Well, we were actually able to add Balanchine, but you’re right. When we founded the festival in 2013, we wanted to create a program that would educate an audience about dance, and you can’t get a real sense of what dance is without knowing where it came from, and also attract dance aficionados for the unique programming. Additionally, I returned to my home of Lake Tahoe to create culture here in the performing arts, inspired by my time performing at Jacob’s Pillow. Growing up here, I had only a 4-hour drive to San Francisco to see world-class dance, and locally we are a community of Olympic athletes — ski racers, mountain climbers, and ultra-marathon runners.

A great example you recognize is the work of Erick Hawkins, which is relatively unknown compared to Graham and Taylor. Hawkins was actually a member of Balanchine’s Ballet Caravan, before marrying Martha Graham and becoming one of her first male dancers, then breaking off on his own. To see this lineage in his work is absolutely incredible, and to be able to present the three to show the audience this context is vital.

We also have a Lester Horton work, and many don’t know that Lester Horton was a prolific choreographer in addition to developing a modern dance technique, known the world over. He actually ran the first multi-ethnic dance company in the United States, in Los Angeles, and when he passed it was the dance critic and writer Frank Eng who sent Horton’s dancers, Alvin Ailey and Carmen De Lavallade among them, east to Jacob’s Pillow in a car to perform!

Paul Ben-Itzak: As a supplementary question to the above, the conventional wisdom would be that in a resort community like Tahoe (if not year-round, at least during the summer period) not necessarily ‘educated’ to ballet and just expecting extravaganza or “pretty,” one would present more known, popular, or ‘spectacular’ works. Your programming seems to owe more to the type of ballet-archeologic ‘curio’ curating one might find at, say, New York Theatre Ballet, which (while fascinating to notators and ballet eggheads like me) might be more interesting to the Ballet and Modern ‘insider’ than the general public. Why this choice? And how do your audiences respond?

Christin Hanna: One of the things we didn’t necessarily plan, but that I’m extremely pleased with, is that the feeling of the festival is one that is quite intimate, an up close and personal experience where the audience can hear the dancers breathe. As most locals and visitors usually find themselves in Tahoe because of the outdoor recreation, everyone is an athlete, and can identify with that visceral, physical sensation, even if they are new to viewing dance. Part of the reason we show a range of styles is for those new audiences to start to understand what their own personal taste is as they come to watch more dance. For most of our audience, that may just only be the performances we put on year after year.

Paul Ben-Itzak: And an ancillary question to the last: Who is your audience? Is it as typically ‘gray-headed’ (as a former Kennedy Center president, Lawrence T. Wilker, once put it to me) as that of many ballet companies? (Feel free to question my premise here too; it’s been a while since I’ve attended a live ballet performance.)

Tahoe directors Christin Hanna and Constantine BaecherLake Tahoe Dance Festival founders Christin Hanna and Constantine Baecher, at home in their kingdom.

Christin Hanna: The very first performance we held was a spring showcase at the high school auditorium (we have no other indoor performance space) with seven young dancers and four guest professionals. The next week a man wearing full work gear stopped me in the aisle of the grocery store. He said, “You’re that ballet lady!” and I wasn’t sure what was coming next, but he continued, “My son has a crush on one of your dancers, so he dragged us all to the performance last week. I’ve never seen anything like that and I was really blown away!” This is the perfect example of why I’m doing what I’m doing, and that moment was such a wonderful affirmation following our first show. This person was not someone who was going to spend his vacation going to New York and attending a performance at Lincoln Center. Our organization gave him the opportunity to be welcomed into a new experience that he might not have had otherwise.

Our audience is quite diverse, and of all ages. Naturally, in the summer in Tahoe we have a variety of visitors, so this group is really looking for a special evening on vacation. Our locals have been tremendously supportive of the festival and our organization in general; they see the quality of what we’re bringing in and are thankful beyond imagination. In general, the fact that we bring such big names is what may attract those who have not come before, because it’s someone from NEW YORK CITY!

I must also say that we have steadfastly kept ticket prices to performances below $30. It’s my personal feeling that performing arts organizations, commercial or non-profit, have to really keep an eye on who it is who can actually [afford to] come to the theater; I’m talking pre-Covid of course. And there are certainly a number of outreach programs, etcetera, but I’d rather sell 400 tickets at $30 than 75 tickets at $150. The point of this art form is to share it and to touch people’s lives. Someone who makes minimum wage should be able to come to the ballet.

Paul Ben-Itzak: How have the directors you’ve worked with influenced you in this ‘preservation’ optic?

Christin Hanna: Those who have influenced the preservation side of things are actually my collaborators, starting with Constantine Baecher, my best friend and co-founder of the festival. We both see the landscape of dance as deeply inclusive of the past, in addition to simply [being aware] that DANCE can mean a lot of different things to different people, which brings us around the world stylistically and more.

Our teacher from when we met as students at American Ballet Theatre, Daniel Baudendistel, is a treasure of historical information, and he joins us for a portion of the online presentation as well. Also, we’re just old enough to have come up as students before YouTube, and I still have all my VHS tapes from when I recorded PBS broadcasts of performances. We were so hungry as young people to see and know more. Kristina Berger, who brings the Horton and the Hawkins, also comes every year and her connection to those entities is a profound part of her artistry and teaching. I guess you can really just say that we’ve all gravitated to one another with the shared interest of keeping the past alive.

Paul Ben-Itzak: Tell me about Agnes De Mille’s “The Other,” one of the works which will be featured.

Christin Hanna: As you mentioned earlier, I feel like De Mille is one of those from whom we don’t get to see the treasure trove past “Rodeo,” or her work on Broadway. My friend Stephen Hanna actually had the idea, and at first we were looking at “A Rose for Miss Emily,” however that one is quite dark and we didn’t think it would work excerpted out of doors. Anderson Farrell of the De Mille working group sent us “The Other,” and we fell in love with it.

Tahoe Stephen Hanna & Abi Stafford in De Mille's 'The Other'The composition of this photograph — and thus the achievement of photog Jen Schmidt in capturing this moment of Abi Stafford and Stephen Hanna performing the duet from Agnes De Mille’s “The Other” at the Lake Tahoe Dance Festival in 2019 — is not so banal as it might at first appear. Au contraire, it makes a profound statement about the most fundamental gift of the true Danseur Noble. First, Hanna had to transcend the potential distractions in this outdoor performance: The most luminous lake and most legendary trees in the world in the backdrop; the dude in the baseball cap in the front row. Next there’s the standard challenge to the male partner: to make it look easy and effortless. Then there’s the challenge visible, or palpable, only to the ballerina: in two hands he needs to communicate not just “I won’t drop you” but “You’re free to fly”; the only physical concern of that woman should be the precision in her limbs and fingers. Most (good) ballerinos only get to this point. What Hanna achieves here — besides freeing his partner to achieve grace — is his own form of grace. Don’t yet see it? Hint: Feets, don’t fail me now!

Paul Ben-Itzak: What if any Antony Tudors will you be presenting?

Christin Hanna: We’re thrilled to be presenting the opening section of “Jardin aux Lilas,” which pairs beautifully with the De Mille as it was she who suggested Tudor to founder Lucia Chase in the early days of Ballet Theatre, in addition to the fact that both works explore that timeless theme of unrequited love!

Paul Ben-Itzak: For the De Mille and the Tudor, who will be staging, and to what degree will they or you be referring to Labanotated scores of the works?

Christin Hanna: Diana Gonzalez-Duclert staged the “The Other” on Stephen and Abi [Stafford] last spring before the 2019 Dance Festival; we’ll be showing archival footage of that. Diana was De Mille’s rehearsal assistant and originated the role Abi danced. As for the Tudor, we have graciously been lent footage by Diana Byer at New York Theatre Ballet from a performance in 2013. NYTB has presented many of Tudor’s works, as well as De Mille’s.

Paul Ben-Itzak: Any other works or choreographers on the programs to be presented you’d like to highlight?

Christin Hanna: We’re always particularly excited to show works being made today by budding choreographers, so we’ve selected our favorites from past festivals to showcase. One of these is “Red-Spotted Purple,” which is danced by Ashley Bouder, who commissioned the work for her Ashley Bouder Project performance at the Joyce in 2018 and then brought it here that summer. Ashley’s company is dedicated to furthering the inclusion of women and marginalized people in leadership roles in the performing arts world, and this work was an all-female collaboration with composer Stephanie Ann Boyd and Lauren Lovette, a principal dancer with New York City Ballet and a budding young choreographer. In our third night, we highlight contemporary works that have previously been shown here in Tahoe. One of note is by Bryan Arias, whom I knew when he was a student, and who has become a phenomenal dancer (Nederlands Dance Theater, Kidd Pivot) and choreographer too. In 2014, he brought his dance partner Rachel Fallon to perform a section of his work “Notice,” which had won the Copenhagen International Choreography Competition that spring, which my co-director Constantine Baecher founded. His career has blossomed; he’s currently making a work at the Bolshoi!

Paul Ben-Itzak: Any chance the festival will eventually produce any of the ten ballets by Martha Graham which belong to the public domain (thus, no royalty costs, no Graham trust to go through): “Appalachian Spring,” “Night Journey,” “Chronicle/Steps in the Street,” “Lamentation,” “American Document,” “Heretic,” “Flute of Krishna,” “Frontier,” “Panorama,” or “Celebration”? “Appalachian Spring,” with its grand score and evocation of mountains, would seem particularly appropriate.

Christin Hanna: We would be thrilled to present any of those…. We are happy to be working with Lloyd Knight of the Graham company, performing opposite Wendy Whelan in the “Moon” duet from Ms. Graham’s 1952 “Canticle for Innocent Comedians,” still as relevant today as when it was created. This duet can be held up against anything choreographed today by anybody! The piece has an emotionality that is hard to state in mere words. The Graham trust generously gave us the rights for this performance free of a charge. As a young and small company, we have a limited budget in the number of professional dancers we’re able to bring in, and in the summer the additional challenge is housing, as it’s the height of tourist season…. So the pieces in the festival tend to be [for] smaller groups. “Appalachian Spring” would certainly be wonderful!

Paul Ben-Itzak: And any chance of presenting the work of Katherine Dunham?

Christin Hanna: Certainly. We’re also interested in some of the Ted Shawn solos he did later in his life. Our bucket list is long!

Paul Ben-Itzak: I note that in addition to the guest artists, you have a larger number of local dancers. How and where do you find — and nurture — them in the Tahoe/Truckee area? (Are you also a native of the region?)

Christin Hanna: Yes, I train dancers and work with them throughout the year, and bring in guest teachers and choreographers to work with them. I was born and raised here in Tahoe, and there was no professional training available, so my parents drove me to Reno for classes and rehearsals seven days a week (an hour each way!), and where I trained with Margaret Banks at Nevada Festival Ballet. The idea of creating a mecca for dance in Tahoe was inspired by my time at Jacob’s Pillow, and my desire to be able to offer our community the highest level of dance possible. It’s always bothered me that more rural areas don’t have as much culture as big cities, and that’s why the Pillow in particular was so inspiring. The dancers who come to work with me do so at a time when they are making the decisions in their lives about what they’d like to focus on, and they’ve chosen to take dance more seriously and can therefore dedicate themselves to being in the studio every day after school.

Paul Ben-Itzak: Who are the artists who will actually be in place — present there
this year — and thus (if I understand correctly) teaching, live, the Young Dancers Workshop?

Christin Hanna: Kristina Berger, Damien Johnson, and Erik Wagner, in addition to myself, are here teaching at our Young Dancer’s Workshop. We own our portable stage, so we set that up as a studio in late May and have been able to have completely safe classes with a limited number of students in masks and maintaining social distancing.

Paul Ben-Itzak: In the press release, you opine, “When faced with the inability to have a festival, we knew we had a unique opportunity.” Recognizing that we all wish the tragic crisis which has prompted these opportunities (others in the arts and other sectors have also made this observation) happened, how can art, specifically, and dance, specifically, if you like, make an opportunity (or find an opportunity) out of crisis and tragedy? How is art and how are artists particularly equipped to spot and ‘exploit’ these opportunities?

Christin Hanna: We’re mostly excited that anyone around the world [will be able to see the performances], which is why we wanted to keep it free, with a suggested donation. It also offered us the opportunity to use this format of the three nights — to weave together the connections between Balanchine and Graham and Hawkins and share these insights with our audience. Every piece is introduced by either the dancers or choreographer giving unique insight, which we feel keeps that feeling that the audience usually has at the [live] festival. Last year, an audience member wrote to me and thanked us for creating the kind of event where one could walk up to a dancer after the final bows and thank him or her personally. That is the connection to this art form that I believe we need to nurture — the personal connection.

Paul Ben-Itzak: Dance — or live dance performance — can seem flat (and two-dimensional) captured on film or video. Realizing that you’re not the only performance company facing this dilemma in these times, and of course the health necessity to go this route (instead of performing in front of a live audience in a closed or constrained space), how, specifically, will the video-taping or filming be handled / produced to mitigate against this potential flatness?

Christin Hanna: Most of the video being shown is [archival footage of] our past performances or performances elsewhere. In my opinion, there’s really no way to have as vital an experience on a screen as you would at a live performance. However, two of the works filmed specifically for this are the final male solo from Balanchine’s “Apollo,” which Adrian Danchig-Waring and his husband Joseph Gordon filmed outdoors in Shelter Island, New York, and Hawkins’s “Greek Dreams,” filmed right here on our outdoor stage/studio this past week. We are incredibly lucky to be going through this time with the technological advances we have today that make advanced camera work and file sharing possible.

Paul Ben-Itzak: If I understand correctly — but please correct me if I’m wrong — all the pieces presented here are from previous years’ festivals. Thus perhaps this issue has not yet come up for you. But how do dancers confront the real health threat of continuing to rehearse and perform at such close contact (often breathing hard from exertion) in such times (assuming working with a mask would be physically trying as it constrains breathing when one is exerting oneself)?

Christin Hanna: We are at 6,200 feet of elevation and wearing masks daily in our outdoor classes. It’s not ideal, but like anything else, you get used to it, and it’s so much better than being in your kitchen on Zoom! The staff I have here has all been tested and quarantining together, so we are able to work safely. I imagine that until there’s a vaccine, we’ll be seeing more companies following this kind of model, which is really like an artistic residency, but now it’s just a matter of also quarantining.

(Observation added by PBI, upon re-reading this response while transcribing our e-mail interview: What Hanna expresses here is a quintessential part of the working ethos of the dancer; is any artist more adaptable? Here we’re talking about the artistic metier which, in Covid conditions, is most exposed to risk — the one metier in which the practitioner puts her instrument and her body on the line every time she steps out on stage or into a class or rehearsal — Covid or no Covid — and which, for most forms of the art, already has a ‘perishable by’ date stamped on it; and yet the dancer, as always, just adjusts.)

Paul Ben-Itzak: How does your magnificent setting — I assume that when there are live performances, they are outdoors, with the lake as a background? — contribute to the experience, for performers, presentation, and audience?

Christin Hanna: People who attend our festival for the first time are completely mesmerized, because yes, Lake Tahoe is our backdrop, and we perform with the sunset as our lighting. Programmatically, not everything works when having to compete with this environment, but other than that it’s a dream. When dancers have performed here they always tell everyone how magical the setting is!

Paul Ben-Itzak: Does the Lake Tahoe Dance Collective organize year-round activities, and if so, for example….?

Christin Hanna: Our Spring Performance is usually a mixed evening, but with more focus on our local dancers and with just a few guests.

Paul Ben-Itzak: You might not necessarily have a comment here, as this is more about my observations on the subject based on one of the photos we’re going to use (from De Mille’s “The Other”) with this story — pertaining to certain evident skills of male partnering indicated by the photo — but do you have any thoughts or observations on the subject of the male partner, and/or Stephen Hanna (husband? brother? I ask because your familiarity enhances your qualifications as an observer)’s partnering skills and values particularly?

Christin Hanna: As far as we know, we are not related, but I do think we may have a distant connection somewhere — I guess we’d have to do one of those genealogy kits! Stephen is an exceptionally kind human being and a wonderful partner — we were actually going to dance together this summer for the first time in a new work. But yes, “The Other” is heavy on partnering. What reads to me when I watch Stephen’s partnering skills, from the front of the room in the director’s side of things, is that it’s so solid that you almost forget or don’t realize what an amazing feat he’s pulling off. Because of that skill, the ballerinas he works with always look effortless.

Race Matters: Why are Blacks Ballet’s invisible men (and women)?

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the Dance Insider on March 7, 2000. Today’s publication sponsored by Freespace Dance.

NEW YORK — The other day at the Children of Uganda performance (reviewed elsewhere in the DI Archives), I saw something that I rarely see at the ballet: Black people. Not just on stage, but in the audience. Actually, the two are related: I believe the reason I rarely see Black people at the ballet, with the exception of Dance Theatre of Harlem, is that there are so very few — and in the case of American Ballet Theatre, no –Black people on stage. This is not meant to infer that Black people just want to see Black performers. Rather, when a company, such as ABT, is so lilly white, the message is that this is not a Black-friendly environment. So it was refreshing Monday night to go to an event that indicates that another company, Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, is not just welcoming Blacks into its house, but going to their house.

A caveat before I begin: I live in New York, so my observation about the dearth of Blacks in ballet applies to the two companies I see most of the time, ABT and New York City Ballet. (Author’s note, December 28, 2019: At last viewing, the Paris Opera Ballet was doing a lot worse than its New York counterparts, making them look like the Ailey company by comparison.) I am aware that the problem is not so severe elsewhere. Houston Ballet, for example, goes beyond tokenism. Atlanta Ballet, too, has one of the most diverse companies in the country. San Francisco Ballet, on the other hand, which is located in one of the most racially diverse cities in the country — I grew up there — has very few Black dancers, and no Black principal dancers. Several years ago, when Evelyn Cisneros was just breaking in there and was about to go on stage for a George Balanchine piece, Cisneros would later tell me, an assistant ballet master instructed her to coat her beautifully brown skin with white pancake makeup.

New York City Ballet also has just a handful of Black dancers. Its one black principal, Albert Evans, does not typically get the princely roles. He gets the character parts, such as Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” A similar lack of opportunity befell the late Christopher Boatwright at SFB. A beautiful prince if ever I saw one, Boatwright had no problem landing the Romeos when he danced in Germany; those opportunities ceased when he joined San Francisco.

But the most blatant example in our times of ballet’s “Invisible Man” is Desmond Richardson’s experience with ABT. (Yes, I am picking on ABT — how can it call itself “American” and not reflect this country’s rainbow diversity?) Initially, ABT did the right thing. The immediate need for bringing Richardson in was its new production of Lar Lubovitch’s “Othello.” But ABT didn’t just make him a guest artist for that one ballet; he was welcomed into the company as a principal dancer. It stopped there, however. Richardson is probably our greatest living male dancer –and yet beyond “Othello,” he was put to little use. The visiting Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato used him in a lovely trio. I think he performed in one other one-act ballet. And then he was cast in “Romeo & Juliet”– not as Romeo, of course, but as the villain, Tybalt. In a Times story at the time or shortly after Richardson left, it was clear from Richardson’s comments that he was very uncomfortable there.

I saw a very relaxed Richardson last night at Fez in Greenwich Village, where Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre was hosting a press reception for Indigo in Motion, its upcoming evening of three ballets set to the music of some Pittsburgh-connected jazz giants: Billy Strayhorn, Lena Horne, Stanley Turrentine, and Ray Brown, the last two of whom are creating original music for the program. Kevin O’Day, Lynne Taylor-Corbett and Richardson’s partner in Complexions, Dwight Rhoden, make up the choreographic team. As members of the Steel City’s Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild jammed live last night, Rhoden and Richardson chatted with PBT artistic director and former ABT stalwart Terry Orr. Orr’s passion for this project appears not just a token effort to bring in new audiences, but seems genuine; he wore a big grin on his face the entire evening, snapping along with and tapping to the jazz.

There were probably more Black people in the small lounge last night than I saw on or off-stage at ABT the entire last season.

Of course, there are box office considerations at work here. “In some ways, you could subtitle what we’re doing as putting butts in seats,” said Steven Libman, PBT’s managing director. “Unless dance begins to develop a connection to its audience, we are not going to have an audience.”

Helping to put those butts in the seat will be jazz singer Vivian Reed, who will sing the songs made famous by Horne. Last night she gave us a stirring example, a bluesy rendition of “Stormy Weather.”

Mondrian chez Monet: Death & Devotion

mondrian sunflower and devotionWhile I was initially skeptical of the very premise of Figurative Mondrian: A Secret History, running through January 26 at, appropriately, the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris (whose permanent collection of its namesake’s work traces Claude Monet’s own progression from caricaturist to late-‘Water Lillies’ and ‘Japanese Bridge’ abstractionist — there are none so clairvoyant as those who can barely see), an examination of a selection of the oeuvres featured suggests that at least the Marmottan, as opposed to many of its sister institutions in Paris and New York, has not forgotten that one of the fundamental missions of a fine arts museum is to continually re-evaluate our understanding of historical artists. (As opposed to using the greats as platforms to launch their own fleeting fancies, as the Musée Petit Palais is now doing in marking the bicentennial of the birth of Gustave Courbet by pairing a paltry dozen works by the Modern Master with many more by a contemporary midget.) My initial objection was that one can’t simply lop off the early stage of an artist’s career from the rest and elevate it from a necessary foundation on which what followed was constructed to an independent oeuvre worthy of standing shoulder to shoulder with what artists who made their reputations in that genre accomplished. (If our most representative modernist and surrealist, Picasso and Duchamp, started out as, respectively, eloquent figuratives and last-generation impressionists, it was because these were the worlds they were born into and these were the schools in which their masters created and taught.) And that the most important legacies these formative stages offer is the proof that before he went off the reservation, the artist demonstrated that he had mastered the fundamentals. Before you break the rules, you need to prove you know what they are. Even James Bond had to show he had the rigor to enter Her Majesty’s Secret Service before he was granted a license to kill.  (And even Martha Graham had to pass by Leonid Massine — in whose version of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” she played the Chosen One — before she branched out from the ballet tree to create her own Modern system) What the Marmottan was thus characterizing as an oeuvre worthy of an expo in its own right had previously seemed to me to fall more appropriately into this category, Piet Mondrian’s necessary rites of passage to establish that he knew how to depict nature before he set out to denature it, an ‘apercu’ that he’d started out with forests populated by trees before he got to empty spaces dissected by lines. And not much more. This impression was based mostly on Alberto Busignani’s monograph “Mondrian” (Arts et Métiers Graphiques, Paris, in Dominique Fort’s translation, and Sadio Editore, Florence, 1968.) But even the two oils above disprove Busignani’s contention that by 1909-1910 — and already hinted at in 1908 — “the abstraction of the subject absolutely forbids [Mondrian] from creating a painting of story.” You don’t have to be a Moses Pendleton (to evoke Modern Dance’s most famous sunflower-worshiper) to see story in the “Dying Sunflower I” oil on carton at left, measuring 63 x 31 cm, or “Devotion,” the oil on canvas at right, measuring 94 x 61 cm. Both images  © Kunstmuseum Den Haag, The Hague, the Netherlands. — Paul Ben-Itzak

Exclusive: ‘Trompe-l’oeil’: Michel Ragon’s saga of art, artists, dealers, markets, & critics in Paris in the ’50s, episode 4, translated in English for the first time

Feneon Matisse 22 smallHenri Matisse (1869-1954), “Interior with girl” (Reading), 1905-1906. Oil on canvas, 72.7 × 59.7 cm. New York, the Museum of Modern Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. David Rockefeller, 1991. Photo © Paige Knight. © Succession H. Matisse. Succession Matisse. On view at the Orsay Museum in Paris from October 16 through January 27 and the Museum of Modern Art in New York next Spring as part of the exhibition Félix Fénéon (1861-1944). Les temps nouveaux, de Seurat à Matisse.

by & copyright Michel Ragon, 1956, 2019
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

To be able to simultaneously share, for the first time in English, Michel Ragon’s seminal 1956 novel about the contemporary art market and world in Paris in the 1950s — and which also treats post-War anti-Semitism in France — we’ve decided to illustrate today’s installment with art directly referred to in “Trompe-l’oeil” that readers can see now or soon in Paris, New York, and London, notably at the Orsay Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Jeanne Bucher Jaeger gallery in the Marais, the Waddington Custot in London, and Di Donna Galleries, New York. (See captions for details.) Like what you’re reading and want to see more? Please support independent arts journalism today by designating your donation in dollars or Euros through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check through the mail. Special thanks to Michel and Françoise RagonEdward Winer, and  Jamie. To read the previous installment of “Trompe-l’oeil” (which links to earlier episodes), please click here. First published in the French original by Albin-Michel.

Fontenoy had gotten his start at L’Artiste with a reportage on Matisse. Not that he was particularly interested in this major painter, but his editor tended to ask him to write about the subjects he was the least interested in. He wasn’t trying to irritate or bully Fontenoy. The editor in chief’s dishing out of the weekly assignments to his writers was completely haphazard. What really interested Fontenoy, the new non-figurative painting, had very little chance of being mentioned in L’Artiste. Just the bare minimum coverage needed for the weekly to appear au courant without turning off the majority of its subscribers, only now discovering, with rapture, Impressionism. The editor in chief put up with the whims of his writers as long as they weren’t too glaring. Fontenoy was permitted, like his colleagues, to talk about his fads from time to time. His boss would have been surprised to learn that Fontenoy’s support for Manhès and Ancelin had not been bought and paid for by Laivit-Canne, their dealer.

Fontenoy had submitted, among his pieces for the week, an item on the rift between Laivit-Canne and Manhès. He voiced his surprise to the editor in chief when it didn’t show up in the paper.

“My friend, if we start reporting on the fracases between painters and their dealers, it’ll never end.”

“And yet readers love reading about the quarrels between Vollard and the Impressionists. Why wouldn’t they be interested in reading about the intricate dealings of their own times?!”

The editor in chief shrugged his shoulders. “Vollard isn’t around any more to make trouble for us. Laivit-Canne, on the other hand, is an advertiser. I don’t want to upset a gentleman who supports our newspaper to help out another gentleman who’s not even a subscriber.”

bucher vieira balletMaria Helena Vieira da Silva, “Ballet figure,” 1948. Oil on canvas and black lead pencil, 27 x 46 cm. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Paris. On view at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Marais, in Paris through November 16; the Waddington Custot gallery in London, November 29 – February 29; and Di Donna Galleries, New York, March 26 – May 29, 2020.  “I watch the street and the people walking, each with a different look, each advancing at his own rhythm,” Vieira da Silva once explained. “I think of the invisible threads manipulating them. I try to perceive the mechanics which coordinate them…. This is what I try to paint.”

Fontenoy reddened with shame and anger. He was seized with a violent compulsion to throw up his hands and walk out, but he contained himself. Who would be left to talk about the painters he loved if he quit L’Artiste? Not Morisset, that’s for sure. This last had just walked into the editor in chief’s office sporting a broad smile. Everything was broad with him, for that matter: His shoulders, his handshake, his critical standards. The only time he became particular was when it came to abstract art. Morisset was always nice to Fontenoy, even if their opinions were completely opposed. He was one of those people eager to please everybody. If he ran into one of his enemies, before the latter even had time to dig his feet in he sprung on him, frenetically shook his hand, slapped him on the back, and called him “pal” with such conviction that the concerned party ended up being hoodwinked. As Morisset didn’t take anything seriously, he mingled with the artistic milieu with a casualness that seemed genuine when in reality everything he did was calculated. Except for a handful of abstract art galleries, scattered and without a lot of means, Morisset lined his pockets with tips from all corners. If a painter asked his advice on how to get exhibited, he complimented him on his talent, slapped him on the back and pushed him into a paying gallery where he had a deal for a percentage for every sucker he reeled in. As the painter was not hip to this arrangement, he’d offer him a canvas for his services. If the idea didn’t occur to him, Morisset would be sure to bring it up. He also wrote numerous exhibition pamphlets which he could always be sure to get printed by a shop with whom he had an ongoing arrangement. He resold paintings that he’d been given or extorted. Morisset earned a paltry $24 per month at the paper and yet somehow managed to have his own car. He spent his weekends with his family at his country place. He was a man perfectly content with his lot and at peace with his conscience. One day Fontenoy told him:

“When abstract art has conquered the market, you’ll be its most fervent supporter.”

He assumed Morisset would get pissed off, or protest, but no. He responded in the most natural manner possible: “Of course… How could you imagine otherwise?”

Morisset was bought and paid for from his shoelaces to his beret to such a degree that he wound up laughing about it. For that matter he liked to say, “Painters get rich thanks to us, it’s normal that we should get our portion of the profits. If you don’t ask for anything, my dear Fontenoy, you won’t get anything. You’ll see, your abstract painters, if they make it rich one day, they’ll slam the door in your face because you’ll always be broke. But they’ll still need a good publicity agent and I’ll be there. Do you really believe that painters think of us as anything more than flacks? This being the case we need to take our gloves off and play the game.”

VIEIRA10Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, “Playing Cards,” 1937. Oil on canvas with pencil tracing, 73 x 92 cm. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Paris. On view at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Marais, in Paris through November 16; the Waddington Custot gallery in London, November 29 – February 29; and Di Donna Galleries, New York, March 26 – May 29, 2020.

Another critic arrived in turn in the editor in chief’s office. His name was Arlov and he was as uptight as Morisset was hang-loose. While he wasn’t lacking in intelligence or critical sensibility, his cirrhosis leant him a preference for melancholy paintings. For him Bernard Buffet represented the summit of contemporary art. He was also moody. His opinions tended to follow the course of his digestion. Whether an exhibition was praised or thrashed depended on whether Arlov visited the gallery after a good meal or bursting at the seams a la Kaopectate. In contrast to Morisset, one had to be careful not to load him with free drinks or food. A painter’s career sometimes depended on this perfect understanding of the digestive system of critics.

Arlov was poor. He wasn’t in art for the dough but the dames, his goal being to sleep with as many women as possible. This explained why he presided over the Salon of Women Painters (he’d even created it). His monumental book on the NUDE was the authoritative work on the subject. The funny thing was that his particular gender specialization even encompassed dead painters, with whom short of being a narcoleptic he had no chance of sleeping. He’d even managed to write, who knows how, a spicy “Life of Madame Vigée-Lebrun.” His big dream in life was to rehabilitate Bouguereau; albeit a man, the 19th-century Academic’s nudes weren’t entirely lacking in sensuality. Needless to say, Arlov was not too interested in abstract art.

Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun self portrait in straw hatLouise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), “Self-portrait in Straw Hat,” after 1782. Purchased by the National Gallery, London. Public Domain, via Wikipedia. Vigée Le Brun was the official portraitist of Marie-Antoinette.

After having gone over, with their editor in chief, the issue which had just come out and whose pages were spread out over a big table, the three journalists jotted down the vernissage invitations, cocktails, etcetera for the upcoming week…. The editor then took the floor.

“Sunday, Protopopoff is baptizing his son. Mustafa is the godfather. Protopopoff has invited me to the reception, at Mustafa’s digs, but I’m already booked. You, Fontenoy, you can write up a big spread for the front page….”

“Why me? I think Morisset is a lot more qualified.”

“Impossible Old Man,” this last cut him off. “I spend Sundays with the family.”

Arlov quietly tip-toed out.

“What’s the hang-up, Fontenoy,” the editor continued, “you’re not going to tell me now that you don’t like Mustafa’s paintings?!”

“Okay, I’ll go….”

Fontenoy was thinking: Always the frou-frou stuff that has nothing to do with the painting itself. Mustafa godfather of the son of his dealer Protopopoff — what a waste of space when artists who are creating the art of our times don’t have a forum, practically don’t even have champions! What a metier! Embalm cadavers, voila what we’ve been reduced to. When Mustafa had been abandoned in the gutters of Montparnasse by the seedy bar-owners who sponged money off him in exchange for a few jugs of red wine, the newspapers had no space to talk about Mustafa. Today, Mustafa no longer has any need for publicity, and they take advantage of the slightest pretext to put his name on the front page.

Leaving the newspaper office, Fontenoy remembered that he had a date with a young female painter. This Blanche Favard was doggedly pursuing him. The problem was that when it came to female painters, he never knew if these signs of attention were meant for the man or the art critic. When in doubt, he sagely opted for the second possibility.

Blanch Favard lived in the Cité Falguière, an affordable housing complex initially conceived and constructed as worker housing and now peopled almost exclusively by Bohemians. From the basements to the attics, as in the honeycombs of a hive, artists of the most diverse schools, ages, and nationalities applied themselves with the patience of worker bees and the passion of alchemists to create their Great Work. All this in the shadows of some major ghosts who continued to haunt the cité, notably that of Soutine, who’d lived in one of the studios when he arrived in Paris in 1913. The painters of the Cité Falguière still talked about Soutine. It was their re-assurance. Because a genie had once lived between these walls, it was always possible that one of them….

Fontenoy was hailed by Blanche Favard, a plump little thing with a laughing visage whose blonde mane was twisted into tresses. She emerged from one of the windows just like a conventional figure in a Viennese operetta. Fontenoy hiked up to the floor that she’d indicated.

The studio was petite, but Blanche Favard painted mostly water-colors. She’d spread them out on the divan which occupied half of the room. The work was delicate. The forms very subtle. But here again one could recognize Klee’s influence. That said, Blanche had her own particular characteristics and personality. She’d started out in one of the same modes as Klee, this was clear, but she’d extended and deepened it. In setting out her work for him, she didn’t smile. Her visage remained tense, worried. She awaited Fontenoy’s verdict with a certain anxiety. And yet he’d never abused painters. He tried to understand them, convinced that a critic always has something to learn from an artist, even the most mediocre artist. Next he eliminated from his choice painters that he didn’t understand or that he didn’t like. He rarely thrashed an artist. He preferred consecrating his articles to vaunting the artists he liked while keeping quiet about those he didn’t.

Fontenoy talked to Blanche Favard about her water-colors, in measured terms, carefully weighing his words, underlining a quality here, a certain heaviness there, or a gap in the composition elsewhere. Little by little, the visage of the young woman loosened up. As Fontenoy concluded his critique, she was smiling again.

She put some water on to boil on the small Bunsen burner posed on the floor, so that she could offer some tea to her visitor.

“I’d love to have an exhibition,” she said. “But I don’t have enough money to pay a gallery. And yet it would really help me in my work to see the public’s reaction. One can’t just paint for oneself all the time.”

Fontenoy considered for a moment, at the same time taking some water-colors over to the window so he could study them in the full sunlight.

“Well, there is a bookstore which might be open to hanging your water-colors on its walls…. It’s not the same as a gallery, but it’s better than nothing. I’ll speak with the bookseller. He’s not really into abstract art, but he trusts me.”

“Yes, but the frames? I can’t just present my water-colors like that!”

“Mumphy! We need to show them to Mumphy. I think he’ll like them. I can’t get mixed up in the financial negotiations, but I can certainly ask Manhès or Ancelin to introduce you to Mumphy.”

“Oh! You’re so sweet,” Blanche Favard exclaimed in clasping her hands together just like a Reubens angel.

Then, amiably ironic:

“I know that you don’t accept paintings, nor money. But you’re doing me a big favor! Isn’t there something I can give you?”

Feneon Matisse 23 smallHenri Matisse (1869-01954), “Nude sitting down,” also known as “Pink Nude,” 1909. Oil on canvas, 33.5 x 41 cm. City of Grenoble, Grenoble Museum – J.L. Lacroix. © Succession H. Matisse. Digital photo, color. On view at the Orsay Museum in Paris from October 16 through January 27 and the Museum of Modern Art next Spring as part of the exhibition Félix Fénéon (1861-1944). Les temps nouveaux, de Seurat à Matisse.

“Nothing, nothing,” grumbled Fontenoy, who’d suddenly started furiously mashing his tea.

Blanche laughed archly.

“Well, you can at least accept a sugar cube because you’re crushing the bottom of my cup to death!”

Sipping his tea, Fontenoy surreptitiously examined the young woman arranging her water-colors out of the corner of his eye. How old was she? 25, 30, 35? Fresh-faced if just a tad stout, she was ageless. Fontenoy had known her for a year. He’d noticed her first consignments at the Salon of New Realities and had written a cautiously positive review. Later she’d been introduced to him at an opening, like so many other painters, he couldn’t remember when. They’d continued running into each other from time to time in the galleries or, at night, at the Select. This was the first time he’d seen her in her atelier.

As he was getting ready to go, Blanche ventured: “I have one more thing to ask of you, but I don’t dare.”

“Ask all the same.”

“So, if you succeed in getting this bookstore to exhibit me, I’d be very happy, very flattered, if you’d agree to write the pamphlet.”

“We’ll see….

Blanche Favard stepped towards the young man and took the lapels of Fontenoy’s velour jacket in her hands, tenderly manipulating them. Her face was so close to his that he could feel her breath.

“So, there’s hope?”

“Yes, of course,” replied Fontenoy, trying to disengage himself.

Blanche let go of his jacket.

“I’d love to give you a kiss, but you’d think it was just for services rendered.”

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” sputtered Fontenoy, uneasy. “So, bon courage. I’ll keep you updated on my efforts.”

20 years of stories not told elsewhere: When Blackface (& body) reared its ugly head onstage at the Paris Opera Ballet

By Paul Ben-Itzak 
Copyright 2006, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

From the Dance Insider Archives: First published on October 24, 2006. Today’s re-publication (to which the only addition is the term ‘lilly-white’)  sponsored by Slippery Rock University Dance. To learn how to obtain your own copy of the DI / AV Archive of  2000+ reviews of performances, exhibitions, films, & books  from around the world by 150 artist-critics,  e-mail  paulbenitzak@gmail.com . 

PARIS — When racism rears its ugly head in a supposedly civilized setting, a sort of stunned, incredulous shock can set in. So it took me a minute Saturday night, sitting in my lush red orchestra chair in the ornate Paris Opera House, presided over by a colorful Marc Chagall panorama of the arts painted around the chandelier, to realize what I was seeing up there onstage, a few minutes into Serge Lifar’s 1947 “Les Mirages”: Two characters straight out of an “African” “tribal” “sacrifice rite” from 1930s Hollywood, clad entirely in black body suits, hands and faces included. Eyes and lips in a pronounced white, of course. Making bugaboo facial expressions and doing some sort of stereotyped to the nth degree savage dance — they stopped just short of scratching their crotches. (Just to make sure I wasn’t seeing things, I checked the program after my premature but necessary exit: Ah yes, these would be “Les Negrillons.”)

What is this petrifying example of racist stereotyping doing on the stage of a theater in 2006? What was the (lilly-white) Paris Opera Ballet’s dance director Brigitte Lefevre thinking? (Obviously, she wasn’t. Voila le problème.) (Incidentally — or not so — Serge Lifar was condemned for collaborating with the Occupiers after World War II.)

On my wall is the second edition ever of Paris Match, and the first to feature just one person on the cover: Katherine (or “Kathrin” as the magazine spelled it — they Frenchify everything here) Dunham. It’s dated April 1, 1949. I don’t know if Katherine Dunham was here in 1947, but if she was, and happened to find herself at the premiere of “Les Mirages,” she likely would have had a much more demonstrative response to offer than my polite exit from the theater.

Exposed! How a ballet dancer and a Realist artist created the world

L'Origine du mondeFrom the Dance Insider / Arts Voyager archives and the recent exhibition Sigmund Freud, From Seeing to Listening at the Museum of the History and Art of Judaism in Paris: Gustave Courbet, “L’Origine du monde” (The Creation of the World), 1866. Oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm. © Paris, musée d’Orsay.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation today. Just designate your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. No amount is too small. To translate this article into French or another language, please use the translation engine button at the right of this page.)

PARIS — A sort of anthropological elaboration on his discovery that the model for Gustave Courbet’s alternately maligned and celebrated 1866 painting “L’origine du monde” (most recently in the news when the luddites at Facebook tried to ban it; okay to use us to recruit terrorists, but art is too dangerous) was the Paris Opera Ballet dancer Constance Quéniaux — the author uses her trajectory as a window into the world of the late 19th-century Parisiennne courtesan — Claude Schopp’s “L’origine du monde: Vie du modèle,” published by Phébus, should be required reading in schools of journalism, for both its positive demonstration that investigative journalism relies as much on scrupulous research as vigorous legwork and its negative example of how to pad out (or as the French say, embroider) a story. Given that Schopp has singularly taken the mystery out of a major work of art that managed to retain it for 150 years, the achievement is dubious.

It’s easy to forget, in this era of “gotchya” journalism, the example set for my generation of Woodstein wannabes by the Washington Post reporters who brought a president down. They did this not by digging in the White House trash-cans but because a cops reporter named Bob Woodward had his ears perked and was smart enough to recognize the national implications of a local hotel break-in when it came up on the municipal court docket.

Claude Schopp’s solving of a mystery which has intrigued art aficionados since the work Anglophones know as “The Creation of the World” was created in 1866 came in an even more staid setting, the musty research rooms of the French National Library on the Seine. And it came because Schopp is what the late Joseph H. Mazo, one of my mentors, used to call (as in I’m looking for) “an anal copy editor.”

The leading living expert on Alexander Dumas Jr., Schopp was preparing a book on the correspondence of the latter with George Sand, the good woman behind at least four great men of 19th-century European arts and letters (Chopin, Dumas senior and junior, and Flaubert). He’d already revealed, in “Alexander Dumas, Jr. — the anti-Oedipus” (Phébus 2017) how the son had rescued a batch of love letters between the woman he referred to as “Mom” and Chopin (while chasing after his own elusive mistress in an obscure Slavic border town), subsequently burned by Sand. That book also proved that Schopp does not have his head buried in the past; the revelation of a screed Dumas Junior had written supporting a law (still on the books at least as recently as 1872) which gave a man the right to kill his unfaithful spouse helps explain what some see as the retrograde status of women in contemporary France; they’ve had a long way to come, Baby. (Junior, who as the author of “Camille” might have been expected to have more sympathy for women, terminated his piece with “Kill her!”)

So it’s no surprise that this reactionary, no friend of the Paris Commune (organized by Parisians who refused Versailles’s surrender to the Prussians), would pen a report for the Rouen News on June 6, 1871 lambasting its most prominent artistic avatar: Gustave Courbet, who had famously brought down the Vendome column (as being a symbol of Versailles) and was subsequently ruined when he was forced to pay for its restoration.

“What kind of fabulous copulation of a slug and a peacock,” Dumas asked, “what procreative antitheses, what sebaceous oozing could have possibly generated, for instance, this thing known as Gustave Courbet? Under what blister, with the help of what compost, as the result of what mixture of wine, beer, and corrosive mucus and flatulent edema could this pilose, loud gourd, this aesthetic stomach, this incarnation of the imbecile and impotent Me have sprouted?”

origine du monde queniau smallFrom the Dance Insider / Arts Voyager archives: Mlle Constance Quéniaux par Disdéri, BnF, département des Estampes et de la Photographie.

It was while examining the transcription of Dumas Junior’s response to the letter “Mom” must have subsequently written him defending Courbet (as Dumas’s letter suggests; the Sand letter to which he’s presumably responding is lost) that Claude “Eagle-Eye” Schopp stumbled on the identify of the model for “L’origine du Monde”:

“There’s no excuse for Courbet — this is why I piled it on,” Dumas explains to Sand. “When one has his talent which, without being exceptional, is remarkable and interesting, one doesn’t have the right to be so proud, so insolent, and so cowardly — not to mention that one simply does not paint with such a delicate and sonorous paintbrush the *interview* (emphasis added) of Mademoiselle Quéniaux of the Paris Opera Ballet, for the Turk who dwelled there from time to time, above all in such an in-your-face, natural manner, not to mention painting two women passing as men,” the latter a reference to the painter’s “Sleep,” in which two luxuriant odalisques cuddle in a nap. “All this is ignoble…. Compared to this I’ll forgive him for toppling the Vendome column and suppressing God, who must be laughing like a little fool.”

Struck by not just the senselessness but the epoch and language incongruity of the English word “interview” in a letter from 1871, Schopp asked to examine the original manuscript in the Library’s collection, and discovered that the handwritten word was clearly not ‘interview’ but *intérieure* — the word is underlined, and easily legible even in the reduced reproduction in the book, including that accent over the first e.

For a rigorous scholar like Schopp, though, this wasn’t good enough, so he then set about looking for connections between the four principals — Courbet, Quéniaux, Dumas Junior, and the evident Turk in question, the Ottoman ambassador and playboy Khalil Bey, who had been the dancer’s lover. Thus it was that he uncovered that the painting had been a vanity commission for the painter from “the Turk” — paint my mistress — and who subsequently kept it hidden behind a curtain in his salon, with only the select privileged with an occasional viewing. (Schopp also found accounts from some of these contemporary witnesses.) The Dumas-Bey and Dumas-Quéniaux connections — which would explain how the writer had access to this intimate knowledge — are more sketchy; Dumas’s lover was Quéniaux’s best friend, and the writer and the ambassador had at different points both bought at auction Delacroix’s 1839 painting, “La Tasse dans la maison des fous,” which inspired Baudelaire to write (and which I know because the poem illustrates the painting’s or a drawing of its appearance in a 1905 auction catalogue in my own possession):

Le poète au cachot, débraillé, maladif,
Roulant un manuscrit sous son pied convulsif,
Measure d’un regard que la terreur enflamme
L’escalier de vertige où s’abîme son âme.

(The poet in solitary confinement, slovenly, darkly pensive
Rolling a manuscript under his foot so convulsive
Realizing with a regard that the terror like fire to coal
is consuming the vertiginous stairwell roughing up his soul.)

(Click here to read more of the poem, in French and in English translation.)

So far so good but still not enough to justify a whole book, so Schopp pads it out with a portrait of the world of the demoiselles that is not particularly original for anyone who’s read Balzac or Zola, except in a conclusion where he adduces Quéniaux as the proof that not all courtisans ended up like Zola’s Nana or Dumas Junior’s Camille, dying young and consumptive after destroying or being deserted by everyone around them. And everything: Schopp goes into much — too much — detail listing all the beautiful things with which the retired dancer went on to surround herself in homes in Normandy and on the rue Royale, not far from the Church de la Madeline. His detailing of her good works — in charity — is more justified, until you get to the part where he supposes, without any evidence, where all this money came from, namely from being a prostitute, or mistress if you prefer. And it doesn’t stop there; he goes so far as to make the generalizing statement that the line between dancer and hooker — or mistress — was fine at the time, the slippery slope of retirement leading from one to the other. I guess Claude Schopp never heard of Marie Taglioni, the Paris Opera Ballet dancer and school founder who was the first to dance on point artistically, and who was still giving classes to English girls when she died.

The other padding is more onerous, consisting of quoting two pages-worth’s (on multiple occasions) of passages from contemporary gossip pages on theater parties or benefits just because Quéniaux makes an appearance, or recurring sequences on an old fogey of an operetta writer whose (platonic) harem included her and, worse, naming every single witness, including their profession and address, who signed every single birth or death certificate of even the most peripheral figures to the tale. It’s as if the very talent which lead Schopp to the discovery — scholarly meticulousness — took over the project, with the means getting confused for the end.

But there’s a larger problem here, and it’s the same one I have with the original painting’s current exhibition at the Museum of Jewish History and Art in the Marais in the (re)context(ualizing) of an exhibition on Sigmund Freud.

The great thing about art is its mystery, the room it leaves for the viewer to collaborate in constructing its meaning. That viewer might be a fancy-schmancy critic like me, or it might be the cowgirl I once overheard telling her cowboy and his friend, on coming upon a Charles Russell painting of two young Indians accompanied by an older women in the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, “Reminds me of our first date; mom insisted on chaperoning us.” In creating the painting whose English title is “Creation of the World,” Courbet offered his viewers the greatest source of mystery in the world, open to multiple interpretations, from the most basic (or base) to the most wondrous. (If he’d wanted it to be a portrait, he wouldn’t have cut her head off.) He invited them to participate in creating his grand oeuvre’s meaning. Schopp has now killed those infinite possibilities by revealing, “It was Constance Quéniaux.” (As the Jewish Museum has done by latching the painting onto Freud, as if his interpretation of the world and juicing up of male complexes around the vagina hasn’t already screwed us up enough.) I’m also reminded of what Andre Malraux said about Degas’s nudes (in the series of lectures that became “The Psychology of Art”), that the subject is not the model but color.

In other words: It’s about the art, stupid. Or to paraphrase Gertrude Stein: A work of art is a work of art is a work of art.

In the case of Schopp and his publisher, It’s almost as if they just had to take away the mystery and vulgarize it, in both senses of that term. (In French, ‘vulgarize’ means ‘popularize.’) As if it’s not bad enough that a publisher with such an impressively esoteric list (except for the Dumases, I haven’t heard of any of its authors) and a scholar whose previous work, the Dumas Junior biography, operated on a much higher level, plunging into the artistic processes and relationship of father and son, could sink no low, they’ve compounded the vulgarity by the book’s cover. (See illustration.) When I first visited Paris in 2000, I loved how, unlike the cultural fathers and mothers of New York, the French had no compunction about revealing naked bodies in art, in sculpture gardens, and in performance. (No ‘Family Unfriendly’ warnings here.) So why, instead of sticking to that high standard in their cover illustration, have these representatives of French intellectuals sunk to the low level of Facebook, which has infamously banned Courbet’s oeuvre?

Redemption Song: For Roland Petit and the Paris Opera Ballet, the Charm of ‘Notre-Dame de Paris’ is in the Details

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider

(Last night and this morning a fire destroyed two thirds of the rafters and cross-beams of Notre-Dame. If the church — first constructed 800 years ago with a message of redemption — is still standing this morning, said France’s deputy interior minister, it’s because a group of heroic fireman risked their lives to enter the building and work to put the fire out. As of this morning, Notre-Dame’s two towers were still standing; it’s storied gargoyles had already been put in storage to facilitate the renovation work that may have precipitated the fire, no doubt spurred on by the relentless Spring winds which have been buffeting Paris. This Flash was first published on October 10, 2001. It’s re-publication today is sponsored by Freespace Dance, presenting Freespace Dance 2019 40+ at the space at Yoga Mechanics in  Montclair, New Jersey.)

PARIS — As spectacles go, you can’t get much more spectacular than Roland Petit’s 1965 ballet “Notre-Dame de Paris,” based on Victor Hugo’s novel and created for the Paris Opera Ballet and performed by the POB from etoiles to corps with gusto last night at the Garnier, as its opening production of the season. As I suspect that this ballet and its creator are less new to many of our readers than to myself, who was encountering both for the first time, I’m not going to describe the libretto in detail. I don’t even know that, having not seen enough other interpretations to formulate a base-line, it’s fair for me to evaluate the principal interpreters of last night’s performance. Because we have rather been plagued by new story ballets in recent years, however (“Othello,” “Pied Piper,” “Snow Maiden,” and more Draculas than there are corps maidens to feed them), I would like to comment on what Petit, a past and present master of spectacle, teaches us about how to make the form not just work, but work on our emotions.

In a word, it’s in the details.

It seems to me that in spectacles like Lar Lubovitch’s “Othello” (a plodding, over-produced, over-costly, under-choreographed behemoth wisely absent from American Ballet Theatre’s repertoire the last couple of years, not so wisely retained by San Francisco Ballet), the choreographers and producers became so pre-occupied with the spectacular, they forgot that it takes more than rich effects to make a story. Thus in Othello, Lubovitch essentially gave us two hours of flailing, including perhaps the biggest waste of a diamond dancer (Desmond Richardson) ever seen on the ballet stage. So what if the ice-like block of scenery at the rear of the stage cost three-quarters of a million dollars? The choreography was cheap, and ABT was definitely cheated on the music. John Harbison’s haunting yet lush music for David Parsons’s “Pied Piper,” on the other hand, was a perfect match of composer to subject. Parsons’s choreography, however, notwithstanding a promising prelude featuring three generations of pipers, borrowed mercilessly from his older works (created on and for modern dancers). Heartfelt, complex portrayals in the title role by Hector Cornejo and Angel Corella elevated the principal choreography to something better than the sum of its parts, but the story and Parsons delivered less than their potential.

In “Notre-Dame de Paris,” based on the Victory Hugo novel more typically translated in the U.S. as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” we are provided with the potential for grandeur and intimacy, and Petit delivers on at least one of these levels, and the more important one. And in the Paris Opera dancers, who have this story and that poet in their blood memory, he couldn’t have found better vessels.

What struck me — and I use that word “struck” literally, for it hit me as a blow — most about Petit’s choreography for the four principals, as they were interpreted last night, was that it is Quasimoto who emerges as the most human of the quartet. As portrayed by Wilfried Romoli — and I use that phrase guardedly, having no other interpretations for comparison and thus handicapped from distinguishing the interpeter from his material — Quasimoto is not so much “a hunchback,” as dehumanizing as reducing a man to such a description can be, but a noble soul trapped in a body that can’t quite meet, or can’t quite rise to, the elevated level of his soul and aspirations and heroic and romantic inclinations. He does, in fact, often, regularly straighten his spine and rise, but can only stay straight for a fleeting moment, before, almost ritually, collapsing on bent knees, his right arm pulling his shoulder down (the hunch, in a just-right choice, is communicated not by an actual hunch in the actor-dancer’s back, but by the way he carries and arrays the rest of his body, most notably the arms and a constantly drooping shoulder), his lower arm left to swing, lifelessly and out of his control, back and forth, its fingers splayed.

Indeed, the most compelling moment for me arrives in a sort of role-reversed Rose Adagio: Technically Quasimoto is lifting heroine Esmeralda’s arm and hand so that she can lift one leg up and stand on just one pointe; but really, it is she that is lifting him so that he can stand up straight, as becomes clear when they release and he automatically crumples and re-hunches. (And is also a nice contrast with the arch deacon Frolo’s treatment of Quasimoto, manifest in his constantly pushing him down into a hunch.)

This passage is delivered in what is also the ballet’s romantic pay-off, the final duet between Quasi and Esmeralda, who he has secured — only tenuously, it turns out — in the church, having just saved her from the gallows. Both Romoli and Marie-Agnes Gillot, last night’s and the opening night’s Esmeralda, deliver. I didn’t know quite how to evaluate Gillot’s interpretation at first, and proceed now only haltingly because of the afore-mentioned lack of any baseline — specifically, to be able to know what is the responsibility of the ballerina-actress, and what can be attributed to the choreography. For example, in her first appearance, aptly telegraphed by a solitary tambourine (played with gusto by a soloist of the Orchestre Colonne, as was the entire Maurice Jarre score, conducted by Paul Connelly), Gillot’s Esmeralda struck me as rather cold and constrained for a Gypsy Dancer. It might also have been her white tight short skirt designed by Yves Saint-Laurent, whose costumes overall affected me as almost too sleek and modern for a tale driven by such raw individual and crowd passions. (Rene Allio’s stage designs, on the other hand, were much more appropriately medieval.)

But my first impression may have been wrong. First, I do have something of a baseline for evaluating Gillot, having seen her last season in Angelin Preljocaj’s “Annonciation,” and she has no shortage in the passion department — if anything, the opposite! But more important, as the ballet progressed, she displayed that greatest and rarest of acting gifts — she seemed to be responding and reacting to her progressive partners and in a way suitors, her temperament changing based on what they gave her. Thus, to Jose Martinez’s Frollo — he’s the supposedly tormented arch deacon whose passions get the best of him and wreak the death ultimately of Esmeralda and her suitor Phoebus, a captain of the guards — she teases a little, but is ultimately and reliably cold. (I say “supposedly tormented” because Jose Martinez’s portrayal, while using his pristine dancing articulation, particularly his scissory legs, to great effect to portray his evil, was otherwise one-dimensional. One didn’t see any struggle.) She instantly warms to Phoebus (Karl Paquette, physically the spitting image of ABT’s Ethan Stiefel) when he rescues her from Quasimoto (who is reluctantly pursuing her on orders of Frollo, who has become obsessed with her), but as instantly draws away from him when he is easily seduced by harlot-dancers (rather ridiculously costumed with obviously false huge breasts) in a tavern, who strip him until he looks like a Chippendale. But it’s not too hard for him to convince her of his devotion, and he strips her too, which is followed by a slow seduction scene haunted by Frollo, who, when he’s not meditating on his murderous course, constantly insinuates himself into the duet in place of Phoebus, who seems not to see him until Frollo stabs him.

But it’s Quasimoto who ultimately, gradually, wins her heart, and in revealing the effect he’s having on her Gillot is savoringly subtle. She begins to question her fear of him when he turns from pursuer to potential rescuer, early, in the world of shadows amongst the cut-throats and other undesireables, tentatively reaching an arm out to him as he hunches protectively between her and the mob. With careful, mindful ceremony, she glides towards him on pointe, her hands cupped with food or water after he is beaten by Phoebus’s men. When he almost savagely (though gratefully) laps the sustenance from her palms, rather than shirk at this contact, she sends her hands twinkling up, the separated fingers quivering. (The splayed fingers by the way is a leitmotif, perhaps the main, for Petit. Everybody, from Quasi to the other principals — Frollo often turning away from the others and gripping his back — to the corps who reacts to the action by shaking their arms and hands up, freezing them, and lowering them, uses the motif.) Far from recoiling, this reaction in her hands, reverberating down her body to her on-pointe toes as she glides away in the scene’s final moment, indicates that he has affected her.

In the church, Esmeralda has finally made the journey from pitying Quasimoto to seeing him as a playmate. When she does display compassion — for example, on beholding him repeatedly trying to straighten his spine and flourish his arms like a swain, only to crumple — it’s no longer pity, but the true empathetic sorrow of a woman for her lover. Again, here her own body reacts, her spine slumping ever so slightly, but enough in her otherwise straight-up body to make the point.

It’s an exquisite duet, which ends with as close an indication of coupling as is possible, as he lifts her on her back, she wraps her arms around his neck, nestles her head on his, and flexes her legs out at his side as he flexes his arms, before he, this time, doesn’t crumple but gently lowers himself and bends his back, placing her lengthwise on it, before setting her to the ground and leaving her to a contented sleep.

Alas, it’s not to last. Frollo and fate intervene as soon as he leaves her, the priest torturing her (and, perplexingly, tormenting her mentally as well — with her and with all, in fact, Frollo seems to have the power of a wizard who can direct people just by his will, Myrtha-like, in this scene making her dance herself to exhaustion…. I didn’t quite get this power, whether he had it and why) and this time, removing her from the sanctuary and delivering her to the gallows.

It’s a tragic moment, but somehow the duet Petit has created, and which Gillot and Romoli gave so convincingly and with such chemistry last night, made us almost forget the gallows by the time the ultimate moment arrived a moment later, and we saw Quasimoto lift his dying bride, flinging her arms around him repeatedly while he walked heavily upstage into the light coming from the rafters, until her head finally dropped to one side, her hair under it. The moment was at the same time tragic and triumphant, signifying that she was his bride, and that they both found love before she died.

The Paris Opera Ballet performs Roland Petit’s “Notre-Dame de Paris” again tonight, Thursday and Friday 7:30 p.m., and Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m.

Relationships, Shallow & Wise: When a Body Meets a Body at New York City Ballet

By Alicia Chesser
Copyright 2000, 2019 Alicia Chesser

(Editor’s note: Chesser, connecting ballet to life. Can ballet be relevant? You bet. First published on the DI on June 2, 2000.)

NEW YORK — When non-balletomanes ask me what makes dance valuable in the modern world or how it could have any relevance anymore, I often say that it’s important for us because of its unique ability to teach us about human relationships. We are, after all, beings who live in space and time; we know each other first by meeting a body, and we want to know more the moment that body — the eyes, the hands, the smile — responds to ours. These are the simple realities of human interaction about which dance has something to tell us. Last night at New York City Ballet, there were three statements put forward about such matters: Balanchine’s “Agon,” the premiere of Kevin O’Day’s “Swerve Poems,” and Jerome Robbins’s “I’m Old Fashioned.” It was an inspired bit of programming: I learned something about what a shallow relationship looks like by looking at a couple of wise ones.

The O’Day piece showed its youth in more ways than one. It’s actually a rather pretty ballet (O’Day was standing behind me at an intermission, telling someone not to worry, it’s a very light piece) — simple blue costumes and bare legs, with Arch Higgins and Albert Evans in ballet-class skirts for some reason; pigtails on some of the women and a shock of short red hair on Stacey Calvert; lovely lighting; and a minimalist set composed of a big black curtain upstage and a smaller white one stage left that kept moving up and down at random. The opening trick is a fun one, featuring a sort of cliff-edge at the back of the stage. Tom Gold starts out the piece as the spastic sprite amidst a company of very swervy kiddos who begin in a big group hug; he’s zipping and leaping every which way, and suddenly he slides backwards on his stomach and disappears (audience gasps!) into the floor. He’s the life of the party, the fun equivalent of what Peter Martins gave Damian Woetzel to do in “Slonimsky’s Earbox.” (See Flash Review 2, 5-4: Tears for the Ballet.) Then it’s many minutes of woozy tripping from the kids, grouped in twos or fours or sixes — they really did remind me of the people at the parties I used to go to in high school, where everyone was a smidge tipsy and trying awkwardly to get each other over to their side of the couch.

There was lots of very cool dancing here — the astonishing Abi Stafford and Carrie Lee Riggins got the moves and the groove especially well — and lots of steps, lots of moving in and out and popping up and being dropped and carried (plus some rather blatant “echoes” of steps I’d just seen minutes before in “Agon,” a lift lifted straight from “Serenade,” and a “West Side Story” bit for the marvelous boys). But one question kept coming to mind: What’s the reason for these steps? Why this way rather than that? Most of all, what are these people doing together? I couldn’t see a mind behind the ballet, couldn’t see any logic to the progression of events. Wendy Whelan and Philip Neal looked like the chaperones of this party; Whelan seemed to be aching for more time, more space to move in, for the bustle to quiet down for just a second so she could reflect. I was feeling much the same way. These wispy relationships, this periodical hugging, this randomness dressed up to look like a savvy comment — enough. This is what the depressing Gen X phenomenon known as the hook-up looks like set to music.

Actually, John King’s music (for violins, viola, cello, and bass clarinets) was the star of the show; it reminded me of Philip Glass’s harsh, tender string quartets, strangely moving in a way that O’Day’s dance never quite came to be. The audience, incidentally, knew it should have been over about seven minutes before it was. Gold reappeared and did his sliding thing again, the crowd started clapping in recognition of a nice full-circle ending, but then there came more slurpy boys and girls, until there was another false conclusion and yet more pretty slurping (this time, God knows why, unacccompanied) before they finally just sort of ran out of steam and stopped dancing. Don’t get me wrong: This is a perfectly lovely, if long and increasingly boring, ballet with some truly touching moments (I’m thinking here of Calvert and Evans lying on the floor, she on her side on top of him on his side in a sort of fetal position). But it’s a ballet with a teenager’s sensibility about human relationships: tender, smart, and beautiful in its way, but lacking a center and a purpose.

“Agon” presented a group of human beings who had somewhat more to say to each other, and somewhat more with which to say it. It was an unusually lively and endearingly imperfect performance. This wasn’t the normal cast, and there were definitely some unsure moments, most surprisingly from Damian Woetzel, who’s usually so sure of himself it’s scary. Here, in the Sarabande, he lacked Peter Boal’s expansiveness and picture-perfect poses; instead we got a solo with lots more slinkiness. Jennifer Tinsley and Deanna McBrearty were refreshing in the Gailliard; McBrearty especially was wonderfully flirty, her head peeking out from under her arm from time to time, her little jumps purring and winking. She’s a very expressive dancer, without being obvious. It was Kathleen Tracey in the Second Pas de Trois where we usually see Whelan or Maria Kowroski. Tracey looked like she was trying to move with Whelan’s force in those potent opening leaps, but it just wasn’t working. She couldn’t get any propulsion, and the effect was jarring. The men were, well, competent, if a little slow to respond.

Kowroski appeared, all legs and eyelashes, with Jock Soto in the pas de deux. This was a dance between an older man and a young nymphette: she was challenging and teasing him, he was downright intoxicated. There was a great moment where Soto, having grasped the point of Kowroski’s shoe, just let go of it suddenly in a gesture that said, “wow, what IS this girl?” Kowroski was enjoying the attention; when she had to reach waaay down to get hold of her ankle so she could lift her leg waaay up behind her, you could tell she was taking her time for the sake of his agitated pleasure. It was the first time in a while that she’s been fun to watch. And I saw something new in the final movements: a floor full of deranged court dancers. That’s how it should look! All the way through, the dancers looked a bit like people playing dress-up, and in an odd way it worked. These are court dances stripped down, sped up, turned inside out, and gone a little batty in the halls of modernity — you see the old-time arrangements of courtly manners radicalized, and most of all you see the blood beneath the forms.

If “Agon” shows human relationships at their most extreme — exposed, anxiety-ridden, trying to keep a hold on things — then “I’m Old Fashioned” shows us the grace. It’s been a long time since I was as moved at the ballet as I was during Whelan and Nikolaj Hubbe’s pas de deux last night. Here, at last, were adults encountering each other in the fullness of who they were — pensive, cautious at times, a little goofy, totally in love. What made it so moving was that she, this whole woman, was responding to him, this whole man, and vice versa; because we could see them thinking, their gestures had depth and purpose, and their smiles when they looked at each other were all the more welcome and authentic. They were ENGAGED; you could see them really meeting each other in the moment. An extraordinary moment it was, too — I’ve rarely seen Whelan so deep and alive, as if she was letting us into her secret world. How wonderful it was, at the end of the evening, to be told a story about dignity and respect and graciousness, a story of adults encountering each other, and one that, in its very simplicity, whispered a truth in the ear of the audience, and carried us away. That’s ballet with a soul, ballet for OUR souls, and it couldn’t be further from the sweet immaturity of Kevin O’Day.

Time to board the ark? All aboard avec Malandain Ballet Biarritz at the House of Danse (review in French and English)

malandin noe coverMalandain Ballet Biarritz’s Miyuki Kanei and Daniel Vizcayo in Thierry Malandain’s “Noé” (Noah). Photo copyright Olivier-Houeix and courtesy Maison de la Danse.

par Anne-Charlotte Schoepfer
Copyright 2019 Anne-Charlotte Schoepfer

(English version follows. Today’s online publication of the complete review, in English and French, is sponsored  by Freespace Dance. See Freespace Dance perform and then party with the company February 23 at the Space at Yoga Mechanics in Montclair, New Jersey, lovely this time of year.  More info here.  To find out about sponsorship opportunities with the Dance Insider, the leading voice for dancers since 1998, contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com .)

LYON — Les vingt danseurs du Malandain Ballet Biarritz provoquent un déluge à la Maison de la Danse avec leur nouvelle pièce “Noé,” vu le 26 decembre. Thierry Malandain, figure de la danse néo-classique en France, s’est souvent approprié des grands classiques de la littérature pour ses pièces. Les plus récentes étant “La belle et la bête” en 2016, “Cendrillon” en 2013 ou encore “Roméo et Juliette” en 2010. Avec “Noé,”(Noah) il relève le défi encore une fois et il réussit à faire d’un mythe religieux un puissant un ballet moderne plein d’humanité.

La pièce, qui dure 1h10, est plus abstraite que les dernières adaptations dans le sens ou elle est moins racontée et collee a l’histoire. La narration est moins présente, ce qui permet de moins diriger le spectateur et de plus le laisser vaquer à son imagination. Pour illustrer le déluge, un grand rideau de perles turquoises entoure une scène entièrement bleue. Ce décor simple et efficace crée par Jorge Gallardo met les corps en valeur.

Et quels corps… La technique des danseurs de la compagnie est précise et poignante. Il y a bien des tableaux dans l’écriture du spectacle mais les chorégraphies s’enchainent dans un rythme effréné, on est totalement emportés par les mouvements. L’écriture chorégraphique est précise et saisissante : les corps s’entremêlent dans des pas de deux renversants et ils traversent l’espace avec une force fulgurante. Le style est dans la continuité du travail du chorégraphe : une base classique forte et une réinterprétation des mouvements plus moderne. Il utilise par exemple des techniques de sol très contemporaines. Les changements de formation sont vifs et pointus. Le génie de Thierry Malandain se trouve dans sa gestion de l’espace scénique.

L’inspiration pour l’interprétation des danseurs a de multiples facettes : tantôt puissante et bestiale pour illustrer les espèces animales présentes dans le bateau, tantôt légère et poétique avec par exemple l’amour d’Adam et Eve.

Tout le ballet est chorégraphié sur la musique de Rossini “Messa Di Gloria.” Ce qui rend les corps encore plus présents lorsqu’ils se mêlent aux voix puissantes de l’œuvre liturgique.

J’ai vraiment apprécié, pour une compagnie néoclassique, que tous les danseurs soient mis en valeur équitablement dans un esprit de groupe et de communion. Il y a bien sûr une hiérarchie au sein de l’histoire comme avec les deux rôles principaux : Noé interprété par Mickaël Conte et Emzara interprétée par Irma Hoffren. Mais ces derniers ne prennent pas toute la place dans l’histoire. Les autres interprètes sont aussi importants et les ensembles avec les vingt danseurs réunis restent les moments les plus émouvants de la pièce.

Je pense que c’est par ces détails que Thierry Malandain réussit à moderniser la technique classique et à adapter une telle œuvre aujourd’hui. On est loin du cliché religieux et on est totalement saisi par la dimension humaniste et
universelle de l’histoire.

malandin noe oneMalandain Ballet Biarritz’s Hugo Layer and Claire Lonchampt in Thierry Malandain’s “Noé” (Noah). Photo copyright Olivier-Houeix and courtesy Maison de la Danse.

By Anne-Charlotte Schoepfer
Copyright 2019 Anne-Charlotte Schoepfer

LYON — The 20 dancers of Malandain Ballet Biarritz provoked a veritable deluge at the Maison de la Danse with their new piece “Noé” (Noah), seen December 26. Thierry Malandain, a fixture of the French neo-classical dance scene, has frequently appropriated the major classics of literature for his work, most recently the 2016 “Beauty and the Beast,” the 2013 “Cinderella” and the 2010 “Romeo and Juliette.” With “Noé,” Malandain is once more up to the challenge, succeeding in weaving a religious myth into a powerful ballet full of humanity.

The dance, which clocks in at just 70 minutes, is more abstract than Malandain’s previous adaptations in the sense that the choreography is more or less simply sketched out and pasted on to the history. The narrative element is less present, which enables the spectator to feel less manipulated and let the imagination take off. To illustrate the flood, for example, a grand curtain of turquoise pearls surrounds an entirely blue stage. This simple and efficient scenery, created by Jorge Gallardo, highlights the bodies.

And what bodies! The dancers’ technique is precise and poignant. The composition of the show certainly includes fixed tableaux but the choreography flies by so swiftly, with one gesture shifting into the next, that we’re swept away by the movement. The choreographic composition is precise and gripping: the bodies intermingle in jaw-dropping pas des deux and traverse the space with lightning force. The style is in the continuity of the choreographer’s usual approach, built on a strong classical base and a reinterpretation of more modern movement, for example by tapping into contemporary floor techniques. The changing of space is sharp and shrill. Thierry Malandin’s genius  finds itself in the way he manages the stage space.

The inspired interpretation of the dancers reveals many facets: at times powerful and animal — for instance when it comes to depicting the animals present on the ark — at others light and poetic, as in the portrayals of the love between Adam and Eve.

The entire ballet is set to Rossini’s “Messa Di Gloria,” rending the bodies that much more present when they mix it up with the powerful voices delivering the liturgical oeuvre.

I really appreciated seeing a neo-classical company in which all the dancers were equitably put on the same plane in an ensemble spirit of communion, harkening the spirit of Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. There’s certainly a hierarchy when it comes to the narrative, as with the two principal roles: Noah interpreted by Mickaël Conte and Emzara by Irma Hoffren. But these last don’t take up all the space in the story. The other dancers are equally important and the ensemble sections, with 20 dancers reunited on the stage, remain the most moving moments of the dance.

It’s with details like this that Thierry Malandain has succeeded in modernizing the classical technique and in adapting such a substantial oeuvre today. We’re a long way from the religious cliché and completely gripped by the humanist and universal dimensions of the story.

Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak, with Anne-Charlotte Schoepfer