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.