Wanted: Pas de deus ex machina

12 Sep

Photo ©Opéra national de Paris/A. Deniau (I think!)

When I reviewed Paris Opera Ballet’s La Source for SeattleDances, I initially left the theater wondering what the heck I was going to write about, and subsequently found myself exceeding the word limit by quite a bit. Somehow I have even more to say, though I think I covered enough of what I thought about La Source in my review. Still, I can’t rave enough about how much I love Jean-Guillaume Bart’s choreography—the musicality and details are exceptional, and inevitably, I began to think about Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon, who are heralded as this generation’s torchbearers of classicism. I’ve seen handfuls of ballets by both, both on film and with my own eyes and while I do admire both choreographers greatly, I have to be honest—Bart’s La Source, which is essentially his debut as a choreographer (I’ve read that previous pieces were only for students), was a home run, and impressed me in ways that neither Ratmansky nor Wheeldon did the first time I saw any of their ballets. The opening scene of La Source, featuring a band of swift elves and awakening nymphs, had me completely drawn in—from the unusual set, to the delicious allegro for the elves, with shades of Bournonville and Ashton, but still very much in Bart’s unique voice.

Opening scene of La Source, featuring Matthias Heyman as the green elf, Zaël:

I was sold on Zaël from the get-go (not to mention that gargantuan pas de chat he does as he enters!), as the character also provides some comic relief a la Puck and is just generally delightful. Petit allegro served as the motif for the elves throughout, and Bart’s sequences are so creative, miraculous, and charming—using a number of my absolute favorite steps—that when they’re paired with the elegance of French schooling, they achieve divinity. It’s quite interesting that Bart is able to downplay virtuosity without hiding it, such that the most difficult movements can look so natural and so fitting in a certain phrase. In the above clip, one of the subtleties I loved was the series Zaël does beginning at 4:10, where the first jump is a cabriole where the rebound is delayed. I remember seeing French dancers do this before—finding fifth position in air and holding that shape before opening the legs and the effect is stunning. I don’t know if the French have a specific term for it, but they certainly make a distinction between a cabriole with an immediate rebound (which they also perform at 5:17) and this delayed cabriole (or perhaps hybrid “assemblé-pas de poisson” for the pedants out there—what shall we call it: Assembloisson? Pas de poissemblé?).

Unfortunately, the rest of La Source proved to be difficult. Not every classical ballet has a great story behind it, and I thought having seen my fair share and reading the plot synopsis would be enough to follow the action, but I was completely confused. I went with a friend who is also a dancer and seasoned ballet-goer and she too was lost, and when we talked about it, we realized anyone who would’ve seen La Source as their first experience with ballet would have been even more confounded, and possibly turned off by the experience. I mentioned the obscurity of the magic flower in my review, and if you think about The Dream or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the love-in-idleness flower casts a very specific spell—to make one fall in love with the first creature they see, something that is made very clear throughout both ballets. However, the magic flower in La Source is ambiguous—it heals people, teleports nymphs into palaces, freezes time…one would think it omnipotent, and yet it doesn’t save Naïla from death. Lack of common sense is just too prevalent, when you have a nymph sacrificing herself for a hunter who never reciprocates her love, and he himself in love with a woman he barely knows and doesn’t have affection for him either. When this is stretched over two hours of beautiful dancing with no mime, it becomes a very long two hours, especially when the presented characters fail to strike an emotional chord.

Thus, I found myself wondering a few things: What makes for a successful story ballet? Why do we crave them so much? Why haven’t we had a truly great one in so long? These are far from new questions as the dearth of new narrative ballets seems to always be on the mind of balletomanes worldwide. The saying goes that there is a human need to be told stories, and something I pointed out in my review was that the art of choreography is a transmissible folklore, very much like an oral tradition. Stories, fables, idioms, etc. are passed from one generation to the next and sometimes bits are kept/altered/lost, and ultimately, provide the greatest gift by teaching us something about ourselves, or re-illuminating emotions that we’ve already experienced. The typically favorite romantic and classical ballets fulfill this at basic levels—betrayal and forgiveness in Giselle, naivety and exploitation of innocence in La Sylphide, fragility in Swan Lake, hopes and dreams in The Sleeping Beauty, and arguably more, though I tend to think these are the most successful at really connecting with audiences. For example, it’s not that the modern woman (or man!) fantasizes about BEING an Odette, but I can easily imagine a person today relating to her fragility, someone who has perhaps felt vulnerable in her/his life, and would simply hope that someone could love her/him even in that state. Advertisements today bombard us with images that “confidence is sexy” and thus, outwardly attractive, but what about the times you feel insecure? Is it perhaps in our weakest moments that we need to feel loved the most? Questions like these keep Swan Lake relevant.

When it comes to the next “wave” of great story ballets, I look to Ashton and MacMillan, who created a fair number of ballets between them, though there are a few that have truly achieved “classic” status in my mind, based on frequency of performance by companies worldwide. We have Ashton to thank for Cinderella, La Fille mal gardée, and The Dream, where he delighted us with themes of escapism, youth, romance, the fickle nature of love, and many spritzes of humor. MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet and Manon have permeated into countless repertories, and he gave us insight into love, hatred, desperation, lust, corruption, and grief. The truth is, we see bits of ourselves in those characters, which is why the events within the story mean something to us. An art like ballet works an incredible magic when it draws empathy from people, and it’s fascinating when you find yourself affixing to an unlikely character, or having a change of heart after repeated viewings. The following is a statement of the obvious, but the more multi-dimensional a character is, the more chance a dancer has to resonate with an audience in presenting that person, hence, an innate love for character development.

After a certain drought, we find ourselves today depending on Ratmansky, Wheeldon, and now Bart, but the re-doing of lost classics and the seeking out of fairy tales that have yet to be done has become a bit banal. Is it enough to love the score and see the steps, or simply have a desire to do a particular ballet? Are any of these choreographers so moved by a particular story, that they can’t rest until they express it in dance? As it is, the above trio of men have been creating ballets that audiences do enjoy, but are they relevant to what audiences want (need)? Have their experiences as accomplished dancers prevented them from really being able to understand the general public? How does one negotiate choreographing for dancers, a dance audience, and people? With the Balletomanes librettistis being a critically endangered species, who will communicate the relevant stories to choreographers? Could choreographers themselves benefit from creative writing workshops—not to write publishable short stories, but to reveal something new about the process of character development, of crafting a story arc, driving a plot, etc.? I have no idea…though I suppose asking difficult questions is a place to start.

Oh well—more Zaël!

4 Responses to “Wanted: Pas de deus ex machina”

  1. Carla Escoda September 23, 2012 at 9:48 pm #

    Love these clips! But you ask an unanswerable question: “have these new choreographers been creating ballets that are relevant to what audiences want (need)?” Did Jerome Robbins or George Balanchine know what audiences wanted/needed? Or did they just give shape to ideas in their heads, using music that moved them? The fact that their work ended up pleasing so many people is not because they did what audiences wanted them to do. If Ratmansky, Wheeldon, Bart et al listened to focus groups they’d be giving us 90-second pieces packed with 6-o’clock extensions, barrel turns, and dancers in sequins. Ratmansky apparently REVERES Shostakovich… so we know we are going to get a lot of Shostakovich from him. Preljocaj on the other hand was moved by a very grim piece of fiction based on a true act of violence… so we get a dark ballet from him set to narrated text. Wheeldon wants to remake Cinderella… which you know is not going to be some Disneyfied piece of fluff but probably something modern and funny. We need ALL these geniuses to do whatever moves each of them. Because sitting through an entire season of warmed-over Balanchine, or all-Mark Morris, or any single choreographer – no matter how brilliantly performed – is as unsatisfying as a low-carb diet.

    • youdancefunny September 24, 2012 at 12:43 am #

      I actually do think Balanchine and Robbins had to have had an ear to the ground in a way–“want” was the wrong word, but I think “need” is appropriate. When I see their ballets, I’m filled with this sense that they NEEDED for people to see their work–Balanchine needed for people to see ballet with invigorated speed, abstraction, and far more sophisticated music, while Robbins needed for people to see dancers’ emotiveness in a very human way. I feel like they knew what the audience needed to see before the audience themselves did! It’s not that the audience should have a direct influence on the choice of creation because the choreographers should of course have freedom, but I think about how when Dame Ninette de Valois selected Sleeping Beauty as the ballet to reopen the Royal Opera House after the war, she responded to a public need to see something beautiful, with a message of hope, and I think choreographers have the opportunity to do something similar, to sometimes use their art not to exploit themes in current events, but to document a perspective of them or serve as commentary if appropriate.

      It’s interesting that you bring up Ratmansky/Shostakovich because Concerto DSCH is one of the most brilliant ballets I’ve seen with my own eyes! I can also confirm the Shotaskovich reverence–he said so at an interview I attended when he came to set it on PNB. Just like how Robbins’s Glass Pieces was a reflection of the vibrancy of New York, spoke of the beginnings of the digital age, and thus contains imagery still relevant to us, the themes of community and human interaction in DSCH I think endure. Unfortunately, the other works by Ratmansky I’ve found myself disappointed with. Of the Wheeldon ballets I’ve seen, I liked the cohesiveness and construction, but while I can say that I enjoyed his ballets, one of my personal litmus tests is to ask myself whether I would tell a non-ballet going friend that a certain piece was something they NEEDED to see–and I can’t say that I have. The same “this needs to be seen” I’ve felt in watching Balanchine and Robbins hasn’t appeared with Wheeldon, and only once with Ratmansky (Ratmansky’s world premiere ballets to Shostakovich symphonies have me very excited though!).

      It’s difficult because so much has been done already–choreographers don’t have the luxury to present something in a “new” light, only a “this” light which must be uniquely their own voice, and in most cases that voice hasn’t figuratively whacked me over the head with desperation or demands to be heard, something that becomes even harder when a choreographer chooses to overhaul a known story ballet.

      By the way, Carla, can I just say that I always look forward to your comments? An in-person conversation with you someday would be a real treat. 🙂

      • Carla Escoda September 27, 2012 at 12:49 pm #

        🙂 Dying to see Concerto DSCH. Wonderful point about Sleeping Beauty after the war. I hope choreographers never stop re-making the classics because they occasionally turn them into completely new and original works… though, of course, the magic often derives from the fact that, in the back of your mind, is the lingering image of the original. So your reaction to the new work is actually to the layering of new over old. Like the shock of Ratmansky’s stark all-white Firebird finale in contrast to the Fokine/Goncharova explosion of colour. Or the Swan Lake in a trailer park.

        Then there are the occasions when the revision is so engrossing and profound in its conception that it completely supplants all other versions – I’m thinking of Mark Morris’ Waltz of the Snowflakes in The Hard Nut. Ballet To The People’s policy is now to take a nap through that scene whenever she watches anyone else’s Nutcracker.

        You’re right: Balanchine and Robbins tapped into something that America NEEDED at the time. But I believe that was an accident!
        In this wonderful exchange http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/arts/art-shock.html?smid=tw-share#/#critics3 art critic Roberta Smith describes how Jasper Johns “whose flags and targets caused some of the biggest shock waves in visual arts in mid-20th-century America, denied trying to overturn the Abstract Expressionists. He respected them tremendously, but he wanted to make work that didn’t remind him of anyone else, and also — as he so poignantly put it — that he could not avoid making.”

  2. Aletha November 28, 2012 at 5:12 pm #

    Steve, you can see the list of Bart’s choreography on this interview http://www.augustevestris.fr/spip.php?page=article1&id_article=79 talking about hyper-extension, ballet technique, etc.
    Interestingly, (although unnamed in the article) he started the La Source project in 2006.

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