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By Patricia Boccadoro

VERSAILLES, FRANCE, 28 JULY 2010 — The mingled fragrances of over a hundred different perfumes permeated the air as well-shod spectators in the manicured gardens of the Chateau of Versailles sipped their champagne. With the setting sun giving a golden glow to the ancient roof of the palace, the show began early in the famed Bassin de Neptune, the artificial lake situated in the fifteen thousand hectares of gardens and park where, from 1664, King Louis XIV held his open-air theatre, opera, ballets, fireworks, and equestrian displays. It provides a splendid background for dance and music.

Each summer, Versailles invites artists to recreate the festivities of the Grand Siècle on an immense stage built out in the centre of the lake and after the success of Snow White last year, the French choreographer, Angelin Preljocaj, was invited back to pay his own special tribute to Les Ballets Russes.

Ballet Preljocaj: Noces
Photo: JC Carbonne
Photo courtesy of Ballet Preljocaj

Preljocaj, of Albanian parents, rose to fame after his successful reinterpretations of the early twentieth century ballet classics, particularly those of Les Ballets Russes. He created Parade and Spectre de le Rose for the Paris Opera in 1993 after his brilliant version of Noces, a small, intimate masterpiece created five years previously. Accordingly, as a tribute to Les Ballets Russes, Noces was chosen to open the programme in Versailles.

The version created by Nijinska for the Ballets Russes in 1923, set to Stravinsky’s phenomenal score, is a four-part work telling a story and showing the ritual of a Russian wedding in a peasant village. But in his own disturbing version, Preljocaj has concentrated on the primitive, savage aspect of the music, giving only a loose interpretation of the original scenario.

Inspired by old Albanian arranged marriage traditions, and seen as a rape, the mood is set the moment the dancers appear on stage, by turn tender or violent in accordance to the changing rhythms of the music. The men, as befits prospective bridegrooms, wear dark trousers, with white shirts and ties, while the girls wear attractive, short, swirling dresses. Five benches serve as scenery.

A highly expressive, atmospheric work, it was not ideally suited to the grandiose setting, where, moreover, the jumping of fish in the water behind the dancers distracted the many children present, children who subsequently worried about the white chiffon dolls symbolizing the brides falling into the water. The distances between the five couples on stage and the spectators, particularly those seated on high, were too great. Programmed in front of some three or four thousand spectators, much of the impact of this dramatic and exceptional ballet was lost.  

At its creation by Nijinsky in 1913, The Rite of Spring, depicting a group of people sacrificing a virgin to the arrival of spring, was and remains an outstanding work. It has only been equaled by the creations of Maurice Béjart (1959), and Pina Bausch, (1975). But few choreographers have been able to resist the pull of Stravinsky’s score, and countless versions now exist. Preljocaj’ is one too many.

Ballet Preljocaj: Le Sacre du  Printemps
Photo: Régine Will
Photo courtesy of Ballet Preljocaj

Programmed in the second part of the show in Versailles, it begins as an illogical muddle of steps where the theme from the opening movement, when six women come on stage and drop their knickers to the ground, is sex. Far from being intellectual, innovative or even titillating, it is boring. Watching six women weaving their way around the stage with their underwear around their ankles and their private parts blowing in the wind was not particularly uplifting. And when the men arrive and the six couples dance together, the choreography was all too reminiscent of sequences in Noces, created fifteen years previously, but seen only half an hour before.

The women, in short, provocative little skirts, dance around a bit with the men who in turn discard their brightly coloured shirts. The women seduce them, lie on the floor jerking their bottoms up and down, writhe around upon rocks and so forth in choreography which is all a little feeble compared to the powerful, churning score. At one point, the twelve dancers stump hunchbacked around the stage resembling nothing less than Disney’s seven dwarfs. Preljocaj has accustomed us to better than this.

Having so few members of his company on stage with only six grassy mounds as scenery was also a mistake, for these twelve dancers couldn’t hold the stage, and one could only wonder why the choreographer did not adapt his work to the circumstances and double the number of people in his ballet.

However, from the moment one of the girls, for reasons that were not quite clear, has her clothes ripped off and starts dancing frenziedly around, a genuine atmosphere was created. As much as it seems bizarre to have had a naked girl, in this case Virginie Caussin, excellent, cavorting around in the dark in the park with three or four thousand people looking on, Caussin, increasingly vulnerable and almost in a state of delirium, pushed herself to her limits, giving the choreography everything she could. Her frenetic dance to the increasing violence in the music generated a distinct tension and a certain respect and the ballet which had begun with subdued giggles ended in a shocked silence.

But the last ten minutes of the work didn’t fit in with the rest. The ballet lacked continuity. Was this a gang rape and, in ignoring the aspect of a pagan fertility rite, were we simply watching sexual games?

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She contributed 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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