Impulstanz: Ballet de l’Opera de Paris à Vienne – Baroque, Bel, Balanchine, Brown

After a week of rain and flooding, the sun broke out on Thursday at last to coincide with the opening of the Impulstanz festival. The Opéra de Paris were the opening guest company and brought an extremely diverse programme to the Burgtheater.

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O zlotony / O composite – Legris, Dupont, Le Riche

I had seen some of these pieces in Paris when I was there and even reviewed them. But to see them in the Burgtheater was very different. While the Burgtheater is a substantial traditional theater, it is about half the size of the Palais Garnier, the principal residence of the Opéra de Paris. For some of the pieces, they worked much better in the closer quarters. For other pieces the smaller venue didn’t work as well.

The opening piece was Bach-Suite 2 danced by Kader Belarbi, based on Rudolf Nuriyeev’s own Bach Suite premiered in 1984.

On a bare stage sits a cellist in 18th century costume – contemporary to Bach. He begins to play and very shortly thereafter a noble looking man strides onto the stage. He is also in costume contemporary to the music – a long frock coat shimmering in rich Bordeaux hues.

To the sounds of Bach’s Cello-suite No.3 the man begins some very precise and small steps and quickly launches into ever more complicated footwork. The dance is based on early ballet and court dancing of the 18th century. We are taken on a tour of dance of the time with a certain modern fluidity.

Christophe Coin played the suite impeccably and with style. In the Burgtheater his solo cello carried much better than in the massive Palais Garnier. Mr. Belarbi also seemed far less lonely within the smaller stage.

But despite a more appropriate space and the fine technical execution on both sides, the Bach-Suite 2 eventually languishes and grows dreary. The piece sorely lacks an emotional through line to retain our engagement and finally the dance becomes the mere moving of feet.

But before the audience reaches that states there are many fine moments where one admires Mr. Belarbi’s grace and poise, as a clear model image for the gentleman of parts of that age. His own grace gently reminds of the original purpose of courtly dancing: to demonstrate to the modern woman (circa 1750), what she might expect of a man. A clear exhibition of his physique in motion, signals of what she might expect from him in more intimate circumstances.

At its best when watching Mr. Kalerbi’s elegant footwork in Bach Suite 2, one can imagine oneself royally instructed by one of Jean-Jacques Casanova’s dancing masters. At worst, it is just a little bit dull. Vienna’s Burgtheatre is a far better venue for this particular piece than the Palais Garnier as the elaborate footwork and small emotions are sometimes entirely lost for most of those in attendance in the Paris hall.

It is a peculiarity of Vienna that there are dozens of young men dressed in blues and yellows and red coats like that that Mr. Kalerbi wore, wandering the city hawking tickets to nightly performances of Mozart. While this makes his baroque garb more familiar to the eye, I was not the only audience member to imagine that Mr. Kalerbi might whip out a ticket book at some point.

The second piece of the programme took us immediately to the other end of the spectrum. Recently enfant terrible of contemporary French choreography, Jerome Bel, was invited to stage a piece at the Opéra de Paris. Veronique Doisneau is that piece.

Veroniquedoisneau Jerome Bel

Veronique Doisneau as Veronique Doisneau

Jerome Bel’s work can be pretentious and vapid, often based on some kind of a sight gag (his T-shirt piece where the performer takes off fifty different t-shirts in a row each with a different slogan, changing attitude and character with each different shirt) than any consequential feeling. So I was rather dreading what Jerome Bel might do with the Paris Opera.

Again, as in Bach Suite 2, a single dancer enters the stage. She is carrying a bottle of water, a tutu and some pointe shoes. She comes to the center of the stage and puts down her things and speaks to us. Her name is Veronique Doisneau. She is forty-one and one year away from retirement. She is a dancer at the Opéra de Paris. She has a husband and two children. She makes 3500 euros/month.

Her voice is slow and deliberate, her articulation exact. As she speaks to us, it is as if she were speaking to children. She explains her place in the strict hierarchy of dancers within the opera. She is a mere sujet, sometimes soloist, more often corps-de-ballet. With great candour, she tells us it is because she was both too fragile (a back operation at 20) and just not gifted enough to rise higher.

We are astonished that an entire life and an entire career could be summed up with such brevity.

At this point, the piece takes an unexpected turn. Veronique Doisneau begins to talk about her childhood love for dance and classical ballet, a passion which sustained her through her long but uneventful career. She has always wanted to dance the role of Giselle. She never did but she still knows the partition by heart. She puts on her pointe shoes and tutu and dances the opening dance of Giselle with Prince Albert for us alone. She sings the music and tells us when she is to be lifted.

There is a strange and wonderful appropriateness in the choice of ideal role. Giselle suffered and then died alone from her unrequited love. Veronique Doisneau’s own lifelong passion for dance has left her without ever the occasion to dance the role of her dreams.

As she finishes the four minute excerpt, Veronique Doisneau is breathing heavily. We can hear the effort to breathe in the microphone close to her chin. The illusion of grace and effortlessness which classical ballet creates for the audience is totally shattered. Her winded brings us yet closer to her vulnerability.

Then Veronique Doisneau speaks of the choreographers with whom she enjoyed working (often the dead ones, Petipa, Balanchine, but also Merce Cunningham) and ones with whom she disliked working, even citing Maurice Béjart and Roland Petit by name. She takes off her pointe shoes to demonstrate Merce Cunningham’s technique of working in silence.

Her own dancing is so fine and sensitive, it is hard to imagine that she is not good enough to dance the roles she might want. We feel tragedy of the second-line dancer in perhaps a top rank company.

There is one section of a ballet which she loathes, the second act of Swan Lake where the Swans have to stand still in difficult poses for so long. So long that she feels like screaming and exiting the stage.

Veronique Doisneau puts back on her point shoes and her tutu and calls finally into the house for the technician to put on the phonogram.

And she dances a ten minute excerpt from Lac de Cygnes. Dance is perhaps to exaggerate. True to her word, she only moves for about 30 seconds of the ten minutes, the rest of the time she is stuck rigid in uncomfortable poses.

The peculiarity of the soundtrack is that it is from a recording of a ballet performance. So when Veronique Doisneau makes her single legged steps across the stage we hear all the rest of the swans thumping on the floorboards, as one-legged as she. Finally she is drowned with applause of this past audience who are enthralled with this scene which nearly kills the corps-de-ballet.

A sharp and ironic reversal of perception.

At this point I felt the hand of Jerome Bel. Until now everything has been fast-moving and quite emotional, but the Swan Lake scene seemed quite pedantic and very out of step with the passion for dance which Veronique Doisneau shares with us.

After Swan Lake, she talks again about how her admiration for certain great ballerinas kept her going through difficult times: Yvette Chauvire and Natalia Makarova.

Jerome Bel’s intentions throughout the piece are perhaps less than honorable, seeking to take ballet down a notch or three. He is mocking of classical ballet with ten minutes of tedium from Swan Lake from the perspective of the corps-de-ballet. Clear demonstrations of the exertion involved in the weightless grace we perceive in the audience. Making the dancers banal and ordinary folk with salaries measured in euros and frustrated ambitions.

But the fundamental humanity and passion of Veronique Doisneau wins out over Bel’s irony. And we spend a half an hour in the intimate company of someone who might have been a great artist had she been a little less fragile, had she not had a back operation at 20. Veronique Doisneau shares her passion for dance with us that is what we take away.

Fifteen-love, Paris Opera over Jerome Bel. I hadn’t seen Veronique Doisneau in Paris but as a solo piece it was no doubt much more powerful in the comparative intimacy of the Burgtheater. The irony of Veronique Doisneau alone in front of the tradition and weight of the institution of the Opéra de Paris herein perhaps shed some of its irony for the better. She would certainly seem far more lonely and somewhat absurd on that enormous stage.

The third piece on the programme is the strangest piece from Sergei Diaghilev’s famous Ballets Russes which I have ever seen: a very early Balanchine choreography by the name of Apollon. The music was penned by Stravinsky.

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Apollon – Jean-Guillaume Bart

However neither Stravinsky or Balanchine seemed to be much in form in 1928 if we were to judge by this piece. Apollon is supposed to be a representation of Apollo (Jean-Guillaume Bart) with Terpsichore (Nolwenn Daniel), Kalliope (Mélanie Hurel) and Polyhymnia (Dorothée Gilbert). They are all dressed in white with the three women in very short tunics over white leggings all looking very girlish.

There are some silly objects which get picked up and put down – a player’s mask, a scroll and a flute. The women flash the objects in front of their faces before doing their solos so we can be really clear about who is oratory and who is the muse of the theatre.

While the women acquit themselves reasonably well under the circumstances – running around with nary a clear emotion in site and a lot of silly pantomime to manage – Jean-Guillaume Bart leaves us cold. For some reason, he chose to play his part with an artificial smile pasted on his face throughout the piece akin to what one finds in provincial performances of Don Quixote.

His dancing was acceptable but devoid of interest behind such a relentlessly cold facade.

While both Nolwenn Daniel and Mélanie Hurel danced well, Apollon was not helped by their physical resemblance, both petite and quite fair – it was difficult to distinguish between them. The distribution would be improved by significant variation in the three muses. Dorothée Gilbert a little taller and much darker stood out. But even Mlle Gilbert did not seem to have the sensitivity and vulnerability she showed when I saw her in O zlozony / O composite last year in Paris.

Even musically one felt trapped in a musical from the 1950’s. The dancing only started to improve and attain a modicum of sincerity towards the end after Apollon broke a sweat. But we were just minutes from the end of the piece.

The final pose of the four dancers together with eight limbs fanning out on all sides as if from a single being was extremely graceful and beautiful. All in all Apollon is a cliché of a certain public perception of what ballet is about: pretentious and pretty and vacuous.

I still haven’t figured out why this particular ballet was resurrected by the Opéra de Paris with the help of the George Balachine Trust. While it is somewhat reassuring to realise that neither George Balanchine or Igor Stravinsky were infallible geniuses, both artists have much greater works that could be brought back into repertoire..

It’s not clear if Apollon would be better on the vast Palais Garnier stage or in the relative intimacy of the Burgtheater. Apparently the premiere in 1928 did take place on the Palais Garnier stage.

Fortunately, the best piece of the evening was saved for last. O zlozony / O composite is the choreographic and musical collaboration of Trisha Brown and Laurie Anderson with costumes from Elizabeth Cannon.

O zlozony / O composite is a recent creation whose premiere took place in December of last year.

Curiously the costumes are quite similar to Apollon. All three dancers are clad in white. But the O zlozony costumes are more heavily styled with thick white arm bands on all the performers arms, offering a minimalist futurism. And here, rather than three demoiselles dancing alone for the attention a single man as in Apollon, it is one woman held and lifted by two men who turn and turn around her.

The interaction is palpable throughout the piece. We are accompanied by the constant and dreamy whispering of a Slavic woman’s voice in Polish. Apparently her sensuous divagations are based on poems from Edna St Vincent Millay and Czeslaw Milosz. What matters to most audiences is the atmosphere rather than the words themselves. The minimalist music and the voice are wonderful to hear. After hearing it twice, I hope to be able to acquire the recording.

The backdrop of the stage is a starry sky, a photograph by Vija Celmins, which seems to extend into forever. Or at least it did in the Palais Garnier. Here the intimacy of the Burgtheater does not allow the same endless expansiveness that the night sky had on the Paris stage. One also felt that some of the dancing was constrained somewhat by the confines of the smaller stage. There was greater isolation and greater import when the dancers came together.

The three performers, Aurélie Dupont, Manuel Legris and Nicolas Le Riche were all extremely natural. The men effortlessly transported their partner throughout the many and complicated lifts. All three dancers are étoiles – the best that the Opéra de Paris can offer.

Aurélie Dupont’s performance was less ethereal than that of Dorothée Gilbert, but full of strength and grace. Aurélie Dupont has the powerful lines of a swimmer with strong shoulders and some sculpted curves which is far more agreeable in modern dance than the anemic look so frequent nowadays in the Paris Opera and most of the other major Western ballet companies. Her build resembles some of the famous antique statues of Diana/Artemis.

Mlle Dupont’s performance is convincing on an emotional level, she seems to be genuinely within the psychological voyage of her character with her two companions. In the past if one were to find fault with the dancing of the étoile Aurélie Dupont, it would not be for her steps but a certain hardness of shell and shallowness of performance often found in classical dancers. J-G Bart fell into this in Apollon. Apparently Aurélie Dupont herself attributes the progress in emotional interpretation to her work with Angelin Preljocaj and Pina Bausch. It is wonderful to see this kind of ongoing development in an artist at the height of her powers.

Nicolas Le Riche was as wonderful and solid as in Paris, while Manuel Legris was also excellent. The men’s roles are more understated as they turn around the woman and collaborate on the complicated lifts. As the lifts are most often as three, and involve extensions and twisting, the communication and timing must be perfect as it was.

O zlozony / O composite evoked rousing applause from the audience.

A resounding end to a highly eclectic and fascinating evening – Baroque, Balanchine, Bel and Brown. It is quite a compliment to the Impulstanz programmers that they were able to assemble four of the six male étoiles (Kalerbi, Bart, Legris and Le Riche) of the Opéra de Paris for Bastille Day in Vienna.

Every time I see them I am always astounded at how good the ballet of the Opéra de Paris is whether it be classical work or modern. There is no other company which can cover so much ground so well.

The quality of performance is supported by a superlative level of dedication. Even after the second showing of O zlozony / O composite in Vienna, ballet master Fabrice Bourgeois worked with his three étoiles for fifteen minutes after the performance on refining several of the lifts and releases.

Credits: All photos by Icare.

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