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American Ballet Theatre in Paris

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 15 October 1999 - Three very different companies were presented at the New International Dance Festival of Paris this year : the Ballet National de Marseille with its new artistic director, Marie-Claude Pietragalla, who inherited an established troupe without any repertoire, the Ballet de la Comunidad de Madrid, founded in 1996, and where teacher / director / choreographer Victor Ullate, hampered for the moment by financial considerations, is in the process of creating a repertoire, and the American Ballet Theatre which possesses one of the richest repertoires in existence, from the nineteenth century classics to works by Balanchine, Robbins, de Mille, Tudor, Tharp, Morris, as well as works by the most outstanding European choreographers. None was more eagerly awaited than the American troupe, currently celebrating their sixtieth anniversary , back in France after an absence of eleven years.

An opening gala in the presence of Madame Jacques Chirac and Her Majesty the Queen of Spain was followed next evening by a mixed programme of five pieces beginning with Nacho Duato’s Without Words, a hauntingly beautiful plotless ballet created for the company in 1998.

The neo-classical piece, where the leitmotiv was the placing of a hand in front of the mouth, a gesture reflected in the photographs projected on a screen onstage, was accompanied by six songs of Franz Schubert adapted for the cello by Mischa Maisky. The yearning ,evocative music carried the dancers far beyond the limitations of words in a succession of solos, pas de deux and pas de trois which merged together in an unbroken flow of movement.

The transcendent interpretation of the eight dancers, including stars Amanda McKerrow and José Manuel Carreno, led the audience to believe that they were in for an exceptional evening. Not so. The rest of the programme fell sadly short of its early promise.

When a company goes on tour, they obviously want to show off the whole range of their repertoire, presumably the idea the administration had in mind when they programmed two rather flashy display pieces, the first an extract from Petipa’s Corsaire for three ballerinas, and the second, Variations for Four by Anton Dolin, a glittering but grotesque piece of male virtuosity not danced since 1972.

What is hard to understand is why these works, and in particular Dolin’s contribution written in 1957 for Gilpin, Flindt, Godfrey and Prokovsky (a sort of male equivalent to the legendary ballet created for Taglioni, Grisi, Cerrito and Grahn back in 1845) were not danced by the company’s stars. Three pretty blondes with neither the style nor the technique coped as best as they could with the nineteenth century Petipa, while in a company blessed by brilliant male virtuosi, one could only wonder at the absence of Julio Bocca, Jose Manuel Carreno, Angel Corella, Eithan Stiefel and Vladimir Malakov. Did they ALL dance the night before ?

Marcelo Gomes is an excellent member of the corps de ballet, but for the moment, is he really ready to take over the role of the great Danish star, Eric Bruhn, creator of the ballet in New York in 1958 ? If such a work must be presented, then it has to be danced by four stars every night.

Sandwiched between these two pieces Julie Kent and Robert Hill did their best with Kudelka’s short and somewhat pointless pas de deux, Cruel World .

Nevertheless, anticipation remained high in the auditorium. Angel Corella, who won all hearts in Paris when he carried off first prize in the International Dance Competion here in 1996 was dancing the leading role in Billy the Kid (choreography Loring - music Copland), the mythical 1938 work which had disappeared from the repertoire for many years. After sitting through it, one understood why only too well.

Certainly not a ballet and neither a musical comedy nor theatre, it could possibly be described as a cartoon without a story. Few were those in the audience, if any, who understood why or how the hero had killed the twenty-one men referred to in the programme, and whether the growing disappointment of those watching who had hoped in vain to see at least some bravoura dancing transmitted itself to those on stage, or whether the latter transmitted their lack of conviction to the spectators it is hard to say.

One of the dancers who left the theatre on the double bumped into my daughter who was waiting for me outside. Believing her to be one of the many who had miserably trailed off, he raised his hands to the sky, "I, know, I know", he wailed , "It was awful . If I had been in the audience, I would have left early too. "

Questionable choice of repertoire

The dancers themselves cannot be condemned for empty choreography. When a company is capable of dancing the Duato work the way they did, there can be no excuse for the rest of the evening. One can only question the wisdom of the choice of repertoire and casting .

On September 24, 25, and 26, (matinée and evening) , Don Quixote , choreography after Petipa and Gorsky in the restaging by Kevin McKenzie and Susan Jones first performed in New York in 1995 was shown with three different casts.

I saw Eithan Stiefel in the role of Basilio, the barber-hero. He danced with lightness and technical assurance, but his jerky head movements in the first part of the ballet, and unnecessary fussy additions to his jumps in the second part were very off-putting. Neither was he helped by his partner, Julie Kent, mis-cast as Kitri, and without the sensuality, warmth, and the playful touch so essential to the role. Because they were not enjoying themselves, nobody else was either.

The decor (presumably a version adapted for touring) was out-dated, and the costumes unattractive. Except for a few magical moments when the gipsy couple, Erica and Herman Cornejo erupted on scene, the whole production, lacking passion, sparkle, and joy, spluttered out like a damp squib.

The dancers also had to contend with the difficulties of performing a traditional ballet, requiring large numbers of people on stage at the same time in the limited space available. The Théatre des Champs- Elysées, one of Paris’ finest theatres, is more adapted to welcome smaller contemporary troupes. Moreover, the Orchestre de Colonne, led by ringmaster Ermanno Florio played disgracefully. No company on earth should be subjected to the indignity of this kind of accompaniment.

Video : Don Quixote , featuring a documentary on the making of the film, A Little Bit of Don Quixote. 1999, International Arts, Inc. Also available on C D from ABC Classics

The best film version of this joyous ballet remains that which Rudolf Nureyev danced in, directed , filmed, and choreographed, (after Petipa) in 1973, now restored and re-issued. Featuring Nureyev, Lucette Aldous, and Robert Helpmann with the Australian Ballet. The State Orchestra of Victoria is conducted by John Lanchbery.

Available through Kultur Video in the U. S. A.

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