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.

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The Lutèce Diaries, 20: American post-moderns in Paris or, how Rosemarie Castoro carved out hallowed spaces in the sexist space of the art world

Rosemarie Castoro in Beaver's Trap studio performance 1977 polaroid estate of rosemarie castoro jpegRosemarie Castoro in a 1977 studio performance of her work “Beaver’s Trap.” Besides the sexual innuendo, the title also refers to the English translation of the artist’s Italian last name. Polaroid. Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London · Paris · Salzburg. ©The Estate of Rosemarie Castoro.

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

“I’m not a minimalist. I’m a maximist.

— Rosemarie Castoro (1939-2015)

Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation so that we can continue this work. Please designate your PayPal donation in dollars or Euros to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Special thanks today to DI co-founder and long-time supporter Jamie Phillips, who like Rosemarie Castoro created art for many years on the 100 block of SoHo’s Greene Street — where the Dance Insider was born in 1998.

PARIS — The first headline above echoes the way a mentor has characterized these meanderings. If I plead guilty, I could still do with more of Gene Kelly’s aplomb and serendipity in dancing with, wooing, and landing Leslie Caron from the quays of the Left Bank to a Beaux Arts Ball misplaced on the Butte Montmartre. Instead I keep feeling like Henry James’s Lambert Strether, who in “The Ambassadors” has more luck scoring a set of Victor Hugo at a bouquiniste’s Seine-side stand then scoring with an older Frenchwoman who finally rebuffs the middle-aged Boston Brahmin with a dose of Old World cynicism. So after a month — that’s a month too much — of having my American optimism sucked up by the Old World specimen in question, on Saturday I limped up the hill to Belleville, down the hill to a Place de Republique where 30 yellow-flag waving Kurds outnumbered 20 yellow-vest brandishing demonstrators and into the narrow ancient streets of the Marais. If there was too much American signage for my taste — I don’t care if your window boasts that “Our donuts are really fabulous,” would anyone really pay 6 Euros for a krispy-kreme sized beignet and a thimble-scale cup of coffee? — the angst produced by encroaching American cuisine was worth it for the delight of dancing with the Judson-era American artist Rosemarie Castoro on the four floors of the Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac (it’s like a mini-museum except it’s free), where through March 30 curator Anke Kempkes has mounted an extraordinary multi-media (Castoro excelled in all of them) exhibition on the artist who was like Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Robert Rauschenberg and Allen Ginsberg rolled into one.

rosemarie castoro photo portraitArchival Photograph, “Rosemarie Castoro Portrait,” 1965. Vintage B&W photograph. 19.25 x 15.5 cm (7.58 x 6.1 in). (RC 1121). Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London · Paris · Salzburg. © The Estate of Rosemarie Castoro.

Just emerging s I am from break-up, you-just-waisted-my precious-time hell (see above; and click here if you might be the cure), of course the work that moved me the most in Rosemario Castoro: Wherein lies the Space was a quotidian journal that Castoro kept in 1970, when she was in the process of breaking up with fellow artist Carl Andre. (Who would later be charged with — and acquitted of — second-degree murder in the 1985 death of his wife Ana Mendieta after she plummeted from the window of the couple’s 34th-floor apartment at 300 Mercer Street. Mendieta was recently the subject of a major retrospective at Paris’s Jeu de Paume museum; Andre — many of whose exhibitions since Mendieta’s death have been picketed — is included in the Ropac Gallery’s current minimalism show at its space in nearby Pantin, where it hosts a conference on the subject Saturday. RSVP to laura@ropac.net.) Using a stop-watch, Castoro notes how much time simple tasks like opening the door to her studio or carrying a canvas from point x to point y take. If the language is straightforward, the emotional suffering she was going through is nonetheless suggested; for example, in the fact that it takes her 35 minutes to eat an ice cream cone.

Rosemarie Castoro Self-Portrait in Studio 1980 jpegRosemarie Castoro, Self-Portrait in Studio 1980 jpeg: Rosemarie Castoro, “Self-Portrait in Studio,” 1980. Polaroid. Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London · Paris · Salzburg. ©The Estate of Rosemarie Castoro.

In addition to writings, sculptures, paintings, and installation photos, the exhibition also includes the projection of Yvonne Rainer’s 1966 “Carriage Discreteness,” which features Castoro walking determinedly across the stage in its premiere moments, whence my one frustration: Instead of showing the video in a darkened room as is customary, the gallery projects it on a white wall in broad daylight, making it difficult to actually see anything. (You can watch an excerpt here, but ignore the text below the clip as there are some inaccuracies.) The accompanying documentation helps situate Castoro in her milieu and in her epoch: A blow-up of a gathering at her home at 112 Green Street includes an appreciation from Lawrence Weiner, while the program from a performance by the New Poets’ Theater at the Unit Playhouse (157 W. 22nd Street) — with a $1 admission price to see a stellar cast — offers this quaint promise: “In case of sufficient demand there will be a further performance at 10h15 p.m.”

Rosemarie Castoro_Group Photo_Studio in Soho_New York_Polaroid_1969_© The Estate of Rosemarie Castoro_Rosemarie Castor, Group Photo, Studio in Soho, New York, 1969. Polaroid. Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London · Paris · Salzburg. ©The Estate of Rosemarie Castoro.

Speaking of demandes — in French, “requests” — mine to the Ropac Gallery for a few images was met with an unexpectedly generous helping of photographs of Castoro in performance and of her most famous installations, sculptures, paintings, and poems. So I think I’ll just shut up now and let Rosemarie Castoro dance across your screen. (If you’re in Paris through March 30, you can even score your own images and informative text; in lieu of the standard one-page information sheet, the gallery offers visitors a free, generously illustrated booklet.)

Rosemarie Castoro studio polaroidRosemary Castoro, Studio Polaroid. Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London · Paris · Salzburg. © The Estate of Rosemarie Castoro.

… But not before a little rant: Given all the Judson-era hype to which I’ve been exposed since I began focusing on dance 27 years ago, including six living in the heart of Greenwich Village (next door to Electric Lady Studios), I was troubled that I’d never heard of Rosemarie Castoro until stumbling into a gallery in the Marais…. and that it took an astute Parisian curator to make up for the superficial curating of a museum in Castoro’s hometown, the Museum of Modern Art, which completely left her out of all the hype it sent out on its recent Judson exhibition. Besides MoMA’s curatorial laziness, a hint to the reason for the larger historic oublie is provided by an Art News cover displayed in the Ropac show which, over a group photo of female artists, ironically asks the question: “Where are all the good male artists?” An answer is suggested by a comment the choreographer Sara Hook made years ago at a New York roundtable discussion on the challenges faced by female dance-makers. In her own eclecticism an artistic descendent of Castoro, Hook pointed out that whereas a male dance star retiring from the stage can simply announce, “Voila, I’m a choreographer,” and the critics who ogled him on stage flock to see his work (that last part is my analysis) female dancers are expected to prove it. In other words, they don’t shout as loudly as their male counterparts. (Living up the street from the Centre National de la Danse, which recently changed its name to the Centre National for l’Art and la Danse — a standard clearly left out when the building, which looks more like a prison than a dance or art center, was designed — I also have to ask why, as far as I can see by its programming material, a center for *art* and *dance* has completely left Castoro out, missing a golden opportunity to coordinate performances with the Ropac, whose Pantin facility is right across the Ourcq canal from the CN “and A” D. Do we really need three months of Xavier Roy — another over-hyped male choreographer?)

All the more reason to shout about Rosemarie Castoro.

Rosemarie Castoro_Studio Performance_ca 1971_Polaroid_© The Estate of Rosemarie Castoro_300dpiRosemarie Castoro, Studio Performance, circa 1971. Polaroid. Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London · Paris · Salzburg. ©The Estate of Rosemarie Castoro.

rosemarie castoro performingChoreography and performance featuring Rosemarie Castoro and Frank
Calderoni, February 11-18, 1963. Pratt Institute, 1963. Vintage B&W photograph. 5.1 x 7.6 cm (2 x 3 in). (RC 1130). Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London · Paris · Salzburg. ©The Estate of Rosemarie Castoro.

Rosemarie Castoro flashers third avenueRosemarie Castoro, “Flashers.” Installation view at 780 Third Avenue, New York, 1984. B&W print on photo paper. Print: 11.7 x 17.8 cm (4.6 x 7 in). (RC 1049). Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London · Paris · Salzburg. © The Estate of Rosemarie Castoro.

rosemarie castro socrates sculpture parkArchival photograph: Rosemarie Castoro, “Ethereal Concrete,” Socrates Sculpture Park, Long Island City, NY. Installation view with children, 1986, 1986. Vintage B&W photograph, 35.4 x 27.7 cm (13,94 x 10,91 in). (RC 1149). Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London · Paris · Salzburg. ©The Estate of Rosemarie Castoro.

rosemarie castoro painting oneRosemario Castoro, “Red Blue Purple Green Gold,” 1965. Acrylic on canvas, 182.2 x 361 cm (71.75 x 142.12 in). (RC 1118). Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London · Paris · Salzburg. ©The Estate of Rosemarie Castoro.

Rosemarie Castoro wordsRosemarie Castoro, “Untitled (Concrete Poetry),” 1969. Prismacolor marker and graphite on graph paper. Paper 27.9 x 21.6 cm (11 x 8.5 in). (RC 1107). Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London · Paris · Salzburg. © The Estate of Rosemarie Castoro. Another Castoro poem, similarly presented and displayed in the Ropac show, pays tribute to the conscienteous objector.

rosemarie castoro in front of wall spring street padPortrait of Rosemarie Castoro in front a ‘Free Standing Wall’ in her studio, Spring Street, New York, 1970. Vintage B&W Polaroid Photograph. Dated on verso: “1970.” 8.26 x 10.80 cm (3.25 x 4.25 in). (RC 1148). Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, Paris, Salzburg. ©The Estate of Rosemarie Castoro.

In case the Castoro exhibition has you thinking “Ca y est, women artists are finally getting their due alongside their male equals (and inferiors),” think again: Walking up the Street of the Old Temple in the Marais after catching the show, I ran smack dab into the most Lilliputian park in Paris, and whose one remotely adult attraction, a solitary ping-pong table, was surrounded by the smallest of those ugly green ‘off-limits’ construction barriers that continue to blight the city. A park named after the great surrealist artist Leonor Fini. Well, half-named after Fini, who shared the billing with the 17th-century salt tax profiteer who owned the property before the city bought it to house the Picasso museum. That ended up getting a much more luxurious space, while Fini — the woman — got (half) the left-overs. (The name of the park is something like “The Square of the Old-Salt-Leonor-Fini.”) Meanwhile Picasso, the second half of whose oeuvre any child playing in the Old-Salt-Leonor Fini square could scrawl or make with play-dough, is currently sharing his museum with yet another male artist, Alexander Calder, neither of whom can hold a candle to Fini. The fight is not yet over.

Everything you always wanted to know about dance & sex but were afraid to ask, 1: The 58 Group Sizzles at HotHouse

By Asimina Chremos
Copyright 2000, 2019 Asimina Chremos

(To receive the complete article, first published on May 19, 2000, subscribers please e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for one year for just $36/year or $21 or Euros for students, as attested to by a copy of your student I.D., by designating your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check, and receive full access to all new articles plus our 20-year archive of 2000 reviews by 150 critics of performances and art exhibits on five continents.)

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

Skin Games — Katherine Dunham’s Documentaries in Paris; Lauwers’s Racialist Stereotypes in Seine-Saint-Denis

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the DI on February 10, 2005, this piece is re-published today because incredibly enough given the community’s multi-cultural population, Jan Lauwers’s “Isabella’s Room” has been programmed for April at the theater MC93 in the Paris suburb of Bobigny in the county of Seine-Saint-Denis. (Perhaps the brilliant curators who thought up this idea can sell “Tintin in the Congo,” featuring Belgium’s most famous ambassador, in the gift shop. What they really should do is book-end Lauwers’s piece with Dunham’s more noble — and authentic — enterprise.) Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by subscribing or 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. Subscribe to the DI/AV for one year for just $36 ($21 for students) and get full access to our 20-year archive of more than 2000 reviews of performances and exhibitions from around the world by 150 critics. Paul Ben-Itzak is also available for French to English translating assignments and for DJing as MC World Beat.

PARIS — A colleague who’s also seen Jan Lauwers’s “Isabella’s Room,” a.k.a. “La chambre d’Isabella,” tells me he thinks the “‘quaint racial language is appropriate for the historic moment Lauwers was recreating.” Another respected colleague, the New York Times’s Margo Jefferson, sees merely pretension where I see tired racial stereotyping inherited from Colonialism. Reflecting on the needcompany dance-theater-music work, seen Tuesday at the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt, I can see the bases for both these opinions, and I wouldn’t take my colleagues to the mat on them. Yet while Lauwers’s bombastic work (in general) often seems pretentious, it is also intentionally provocative. So I think a visceral response to this visceral approach is valid. (And if Lauwers can dish it out, he should certainly be able to take it.) Here’s mine, recorded a couple of hours after the performance, followed by some reflections on the work’s thin dance content and on cultural appropriation and exploitation. Then we’ll finish with the tonic of authenticity, revisiting Katherine Dunham’s early documentaries of Haiti and the Caribbean.

It is past two in the morning here in Paris, and I should be asleep. But I am restlessly pacing. I am on edge because tonight at the Theatre de la Ville – SARAH BERNHARDT (whose corps at Pere Lachaise must surely be restless these days), the Belgian director-playwright and putative choreographer Jan Lauwers used his considerable dramatic gifts to suck me into a world where, before I knew it, I was hit with residual Belgian colonial racialism, grandmother-to-minor grandson incest/rape (at least that’s what they’d call it in the States), and a generally unremitting nihilism.

Perhaps — perhaps — there are hints of hope among the despair. Perhaps, as in the work of other tragedians, the darkness is meant to set off the light. But how are we supposed to discern these signs through the barrage of blatant racialism and pointless violence? How am I to see anything but racialism when Lauwers gives us a heroine who, we’re told, was impregnated by a Black (I think the word Negro was used) performer on the Place Pigalle whose trick was that he could make his “erect p**** *** just by concentrating on it”? (The asterisks are mine, not an external censor’s; just because Lauwers has desecrated Sarah Bernhardt’s stage with this filth doesn’t mean we need to desecrate our pages.) How am I to find an island of hope on a stage whose dominating scenery is what we’re told is a “giant African penis,” on which the heroine hangs her gold necklace and lighter? How am I NOT to perceive racialism in a scenic environment which, in its blithe use and display of (what we’re told are) African artifacts, is probably committing at least one sacrilege, and has made me complicit in a sort of cultural violation? How did I feel regarding this in a sea of white faces? How did I feel when these fellow spectators giggled at the evocation of black p**** tricks?

I know, I know, I hear some of you saying: You dope, he’s not being racialist, he’s COMMENTING on racialism and Colonialism. I just don’t buy it. Jan Lauwers works in a milieu — Belgium — where one can still find vestiges of the Colonial attitude towards Blacks in mainstream postcard shops peddling images of them (thick lips, bug eyes) that make “Birth of a Nation” seem like it was produced by the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). In this context, the similar signposts in “Isabella’s Room” make it hard to receive this work as anything but racialist, nihilistic garbage.

lauwers oneNeedcompany in Jan Lauwers’s “La Chambre d’Isabella” (Isabella’s Room). Photo copyright Eveline Vanassche and courtesy MYRA.

It doesn’t help that Lauwers starts off with the often-mocking presentation of a variety of African artifacts, apparently, we’re told, “collected” by his late father. (The question of Colonial expropriation of such artifacts is not broached.) Perhaps he’s mocking the mockers, but what exactly gives him the right to expropriate another culture’s ceremonial objects for his own ceremonies? Especially given Belgium’s brutal colonial history.

“Isabella’s Room” is also advertised — at least in Paris — as a dance spectacle, and when it comes to integrating dance into his theatrical works, Lauwers hasn’t made much progress since the 1999 “Morning Song.” Jefferson, in her Times review, postulates that the dance here serves the same end as the songs, to “echo the characters’ conscious thoughts and unconscious dreams.” I don’t see this; I can find neither comment, interpretation, nor even counterpoint here; just aimless noodling, which might as well have been created outside of the text, in which the individual performers appear to have been left to their own devices, the choreography often devolving into what Jefferson accurately calls “Merce Cunningham and WIlliam Forsythe cast-offs.”

Except for six hours which she spends there in a vain attempt to save the life of her grandson Frank, the Isabella of the title in Lauwers’s piece is an Africa-fancying white anthropologist who never makes it to Africa. Katherine Dunham, by contrast, is an African-American interpreter of Afro-Caribbean dance — with Pearl Primus, the U.S.’s first — who began her career by traversing the Caribbean, on a Rosenwald fellowship, with a camera. Three of the resultant 1936 documentaries, “Trinidad,” “Haiti,” and “Jamaica and Martinique” were recently screened by the Centre Pompidou here in Paris, part of a festival on voyaging women documentary makers of the ’20s through ’60s.

All three films are brief but effective time capsules of the subject countries. “Trinidad” is the most purely dance document, capturing what looks (to this untrained eye) like a Vodun-like dance with its own vocabulary — one of the vocabularies that Dunham would go on to interpret in her concert form. (What a formidable example of scholarly rigor for contemporary choreographers who have the audacity to adapt a given ethnic style after taking only a few classes in it!) A vocabulary it clearly is, with one older woman, back curved, stomach contracted, seen to be drilling a snappy younger man in his footwork as a circle watches.

“Haiti” is a 15-minute masterpiece of a portrait and travelogue; one can almost feel the young Dunham falling in love with the country that still, nearly 70 years later, plays a central role in her life and work. She begins with a panorama of coastal mountains dominated by what look like the remnants of colonial fortresses. There’s also a cock-fight, in which she follows the flying fowl, then zooms in on a smartly attired man clipping his bird’s toe-nails. Eventually we’re taken — as if we were watching it from behind the barricades — to what could be a Carnival parade. Some of the participants are clad simply in their Sunday finest, some wear large masks in the shape of animal heads, others full-body costumes; two Carnival queens greet their ‘subjects’ from floats. Most are, to one extent or another, dancing, from the sharp dresser to the fluent four-year-old on whom Dunham trains her camera for a couple of minutes.

What emerges — aided by more recent musical field recordings which have been layered onto this silent film — is a poignant memory of Haiti just after the 1934 evacuation of U.S. troops. It’s perhaps a bittersweet memory in light of the U.S.’s recent intervention to help depose Haiti’s democratically elected President Aristide, but the filmmaker, at least, provides a much-needed model of an ambassador from our country who casts a curious eye, not a pointed finger at the rest of the world.