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Charles Jude's American Dream

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 14 October 2001 - On their first visit to Paris, Charles Jude and the National Ballet of Bordeaux presented a buoyant, light-hearted and very successful new reading of Coppélia at the Chatelet.

Based on E. T. A. Hoffmann's macabre story, Der Sandmann, Jude's version conjures up New York in the 1950's, with its shiny chromium motor cars, fast food bars, sleek-haired Mafiosi and high-rise apartment blocks. Without changing a note of the music nor scarcely a detail of the story, Jude has set his ballet in the musical comedy world of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. It's not that the star dancer/director has 'rejuvenated' this most traditional of French ballets, premiered at the Paris Opera in 1870, but that he has created something entirely different, letting his fertile imagination and sense of fun run riot.

"I've just fulfilled my childhood fantasies", Jude told me over a grenadine at a pavement café overlooking the fountain at the Place du Chatelet. "I grew up in Vietnam where we were very pro-American and I was submerged in American culture which I loved. It's not a coincidence that the opening scene of Coppélia brings echoes of Jerome Robbins first choreography, Fancy Free (1944), which later became the musical On the Town. I've always been fascinated by the era of musical comedy which I dreamed of turning into classical ballet."

Coppelia
Coppélia

Indeed, Fonzy (Franz in the original story) , and his joyful companions are sailors on shore-leave waylaying the pretty waitresses at the corner pizzeria when Fonzy's roving eye spies Coppélia on her father's balcony, and his heart balances between her and his fiancée, Swanie (Swanilda). Small wonder the spirited Swanie, seeing what he's up to, determines to break into Coppelius' workshop to check out her rival.


The old burgomaster from the traditional version has become a white-uniformed ship's Captain, Coppelius does not lose his key but the remote control device of his high rise flat, and the more usual Eastern European peasants are replaced by colourful immigrants who joyfully add rock and roll and tangoes to the traditional mazurkas, waltzes and czardas .


Each character has a warm, immediate impact upon the audience, and the mime is exceptionally vivid, particularly when Swanie in her little pink dress, a cross between West Side Story's Maria, and the young Bardot, incites her panicky friends into the elevator to investigate Coppelius' mysterious domaine.

An extraordinary second act is dominated by the magnetic presence of Jude as Coppelius,who, he told me, had regretfully abandoned the idea of cutting someone in two. Instead, he performed nifty little conjuring tricks, staged by magician Gérard Magix (the French David Copperfield). Swanie, irresistible disguised as the doll Coppélia 'comes to life' and causes utter chaos amongst the robots, while the audience, helpless with laughter at the headless dolls, the pair of legs in high-heeled shoes zooming around pushing a barrow of flowers, and the bodiless head trying to slurp a goblet of wine brandished by an abandoned arm, suddenly falls into subdued silence as the disquieting Coppelius, who has been trying to breathe life into his robots, is overcome by the very automatons he created.

Coppelia
Coppélia

The final pas de deux, imbued with emotion, is sublime, and the ballet ends with the wedding of the happy couple surrounded by all their cheering friends.

Jude has accomplished the entire staging with finesse, elegance and a sure eye for detail with not one gesture over the top, and the scenery by Guilio Achilli, complete with gas station and a lighted elevator is both effective and picturesque. The inside of Coppelius' home almost ressembes a surrealist painting.

Outstanding performances besides that of Jude included the exquisitely danced Swanie of Hélène Ballon, partnered by the boyish Brice Bardot, while the excellence of the corps de ballet in both acts reflected the impeccable training of Francis Malovik.

"Each rôle in the ballet seemed to lend itself to a different dance style", Jude told me. "The heroine is strictly classical and neo-classical, her boy-friend jumps out of a Hollywood musical, and Dr. Coppelius, somewhat of an Italian gangster U. S. style, is contemporary, as is Abderam in Rudolf Nureyev's restaging of Raymonda. Among the many things Rudolf taught me was that there were roles in classical ballets that could be adapted to different styles to bring out the personality of the character concerned."

Coppelia
Coppélia: National Ballet of Bordeaux

Two names occur repeatedly in any conversation with Charles Jude. Alexander Kalioujny, his first teacher, and Rudolf Nureyev, with whom he was closely associated from the beginning of his career. Jude, Nureyev's favourite dancer, created nearly all the principal roles in the great Russian 's ballets and travelled all over the world with him for over twelve years.

"I'm working along exactly the same lines as Rudolf and planning to go where he wanted to take dance in the future", the director of Bordeaux told me. " He taught me all I know and his influence on what I'm doing now is enormous. When I want to create a rôle, I listen to the music, think of my years with him, and my head is filled with countless images and movements. You have to take from others to give to the next generation. Once you know how to listen to music, you have to understand how to make the dancers move. I can handle pas de deux, even pas de six, but handling large groups of up to forty is a very tricky business, and I'm still learning."

The star, who has quietly transformed a small, provincial troupe into an excellent company in its own right, second to none, became a choreographer quite by chance. When the person asked to restage Nutcracker never turned up, the general director Thierry Fouquet merely told Jude to get on with it.

"It was less a question of finances, than the fact we couldn't find anyone else", he said . "All the time I'd spent with Rudolf absorbing the way he functioned, plus my work with people like Lifar, Balanchine, and Robbins, and contemporary choreographers including Cunningham and Tetley, had left its mark. When I staged Nutcracker, I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it, setting it in the colouful cartoon world of Tin-Tin. After all, it's a children's ballet.

"Bordeaux is a classical company with a strong classical base, and so the repertory has been enlarged to include Sleeping Beauty and Giselle, the nineteenth century masterpieces you can't really touch, alongside contemporary pieces, but for me, ballet has to have a story, and I want to make people dream, so next on my schedule is a new look at Cinderella, set in the world of "haute couture", and a large production of Swan Lake, for which I'm using sixty-five dancers.

We're also presenting a Serge Lifar evening, with Petrushka, Icare, and Suite en blanc, and Nijinsky's L'après-midi d'un faun, and then John Neumeier is re-staging his Magnificat with us, in conjunction with the Ballet of Nancy.

I hope there will be a lot more creations. The subjects for ballet are limitless, and I've so many ideas. There's something beautiful in every form of dance, whether modern or classical, and I'd best define my own style as simply saying I'm a choreographer for dance, where predominance is given to the 'artiste'. What matters is that dance is the star."

The National Ballet of Bordeaux was accompanied by The National Orchestra of Bordeaux and Aquitaine directed by Thomas Rosner.





Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She contributes to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.com.

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