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Vive Les Ballets Russes!
Thierry Malandain and Ballet Biarritz


By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 15 January 2002 - "I'm fascinated by the whole Diaghilev adventure", Thierry Malandain told me recently at a lunch given at the Opera of Massy, on the outskirts of Paris, where his company was appearing. "The ballets were so revolutionary and changed the whole way dance was viewed in the West", he continued, " Its impact was irreversible. Diaghilev brought together the greatest composers, painters, dancers and choreographers of the century. When you think that he worked with Stravinsky, Debussy, Satie, Ravel, Prokofiev, and Poulenc, while his designers were Picasso, Derain, Matisse and Miro, to name but a few... well I haven't the money to do that! No one has ".

In spite of the fact that Malandain heads the National Choreographic Centre* of Biarritz , he does not belong to that grey, drab, negative club of contemporary French choreographers who imagine that several people, stark naked and squirming around a darkened stage constitutes a ballet. Trained at the Paris Opera Ballet, he is a classical choreographer whose work, most refreshing and enjoyable to watch, is of much greater importance than it is actually given credit for.

Spectre de la rose
Malandain: Bolero
Photo: Olivier Houeix

"I'm not an innovator but more a renovator, if that's the right word", he said. "I take ballets from the past , and sort of play about with them, taking the music and the qualities of my dancers as a guide. Each piece I write is inspired from the original without being a copy, and the subject is treated from today's point of view. As I only have fourteen dancers, I don't write 'tutu' ballets which need to be staged by a much larger company, so I navigate between two worlds. Not being experimental, I suppose I'm considered a bit of an oddity."

The programme at the Opera of Massy began with Malandain's version of Pulcinella, a ballet first commissioned in 1920 by Diaghilev, choreographed by Massine, and set to music by Stravinsky. The scenery was by Picasso. However, the staging we saw, despite being fairly minimalist, had remained a commedia dell'arte ballet containing all the fun and liveliness of the original without falling into excess. With roles for everyone, the company threw themselves wholeheartedly into the action.

In contrast, L'aprés-midi d'un faune, set to a score by Debussy, was treated as an exciting solo where the Faun's sensuality was paramount. The original story of a faun lying on a rock, spying on a group of nymphs bathing has disappeared along with the scenery by Léon Bakst. Instead , the creature reposes upon a gigantic box of paper tissues; he nuzzles large mounds of soft crinkly handkerchiefs in evident delight, and the work rests on this solitary state of the simple gratification of his desire. The choreography, less static than that of Nijinsky who wrote the ballet in 1912 gives star dancer Christophe Romero ample opportunity to demonstrate his powerful virile leaps and considerable interpretative qualities.

The two new works completed the programme. In a company supposedly without stars, the French choreographer made intelligent use of the lyrical Magali Praud, an ideal choice for the young girl in Le spectre de le rose, set to the immortal score by Carl Maria von Weber. Hard to follow in the romantic footsteps of Karsavina and Nijinsky himself, the ballet nevertheless convinced by the delicacy of Praud's dancing.

Malandain: Spectre de la rose
Photo: Olivier Houeix

Finally the whole troupe shone in Boléro, a work which had nothing further to do with Ida Rubenstein for whom it was created and even less with any gypsies dancing on tables. It has, however everything to do with Ravel's music. Malandain has confined twelve dancers within a small space delimited by large transparent plexi-glass cubes, where, following the movements and emotional strains in the score, they gradually achieve their liberation.

"Ballets Russes inspired people then as they inspire now whether you re-stage the original works, or 'reinvent' the choreography as I'm doing today", he concluded.

*The immediate purpose of a National Choreographic Centre, subsidised by the Ministry of Culture, is to create new works which are often (to the detriment of dance these days), highly experimental.

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

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