Notes and Editorial Reviews
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Ten years after his death, the Paris Opera Ballet payed homage to the American choreographer who considered the Paris Opera as his second home after New York City Ballet. The three pieces performed here illustrate not only the diversity of the choreographer's repertoire and sources of inspiration, but also his love of music and his all-embracing attitude to the performing arts. Jerome Robbins brought new energy to classical dance, introducing 20th century urban rhythms, confirming its status as a modern entertainment form and instilling it with the interrogations of contemporary theatre. En Sol, set to Maurice Ravel's Concerto en sol,
follows no particular narrative line or dramatic effect. Echoing the music's jazzy invitations and light-heartedly copying Broadway style, this is a light and joyous piece for two soloists and an ensemble. It provided Jerome Robbins with an opportunity to reveal the relaxed, fluid feel so emblematic of his style.
In the Night and The Concert are two tributes to Frederic Chopin, each in a different register. Seeking to free the composer from the commonplaces that have often belittled his music, Robbins transforms Les Nocturnes into In the Night, a long and poetic pas de deux built like a metaphor of love in all its states. The Concert joins the ranks of the few comic ballets in the history of dance. Taking as its point of departure images inspired by some of Chopin’s more fancifully entitled scores, Jerome Robbins' piano recital is a comic plea for the cause of human vulnerability.
The fact that, at the very same period, he was contributing to the renewal of the musical by bringing a tragic side to his West Side Story, only underlines his insatiable thirst for originality and his immense talent for freely combining genres and styles. Lastly, Benjamin Millepied, who made his dance debut with Robbins in New York, dedicates his second creation for the Paris Opera Ballet, Triade, to the choreographer. "Dance is composed of human relations", Robbins used to say. A worthy heir to his master, Benjamin Millepied matches this credo through a fruitful dialogue with composer Nico Muhly.
R E V I E W:
TRIBUTE TO JEROME ROBBINS
Marie-Agnès Gillot, Florian Magnenet, Laëtitia Pujol, Audric Bezard, Marc Moreau, Clairmarie Osta, Dorothee Gilbert (dancers)
BEL AIR 070 (DVD: 111:00) Live: Paris 9/2008
The Paris Opera Ballet staged these four works in 2008 to honor the 90th anniversary of Jerome Robbins’s birth (he had died 10 years earlier). Robbins had always led a dual existence, one as the most innovative of choreographers for what became known as the American “show” dance style, and also as one of the more innovative choreographers of ballet. He did the former to make money, the latter for his own pleasure, yet they always influenced one another, and in the end Robbins himself influenced such people as Jacques d’Amboise, Lester Horton, and Twyla Tharp. Perhaps the best example of Robbins’s cross-styled choreography here is
essentially a summertime beach fantasy set to the music of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. Moves that one immediately recognizes as part of our show music lexicon go side by side with traditional ballet moves, postures, and
It’s been thought that Robbins first began to mix his dance metaphors, so to speak, during his stint as a 20-year-old in an artists’ work camp (Tamiment) led by Max Liebman, where he worked with the up-and-coming comedians Danny Kaye and Imogene Coca, though he also came under the wing of Mikhail Fokine about the same time and in 1940 was accepted into the corps de ballet of the newly formed Ballet Theatre.
The level of dancing seen in this film is magnificent. Judging by ballet videos I’ve seen over the past 20 years, what was considered spectacular in 1990 was considered the par for star dancers in 2000, and considered average for members of the corps in 2010. Nearly every ballet company on video, with the exception of the La Scala ballet of Italy, has come so far up in quality that it’s astounding, and Paris seems to be the best of all. I attribute this in part to the groundbreaking work that Rudolf Nureyev did with the company in the mid-to-late 1980s, raising up not only the technical level of dancers but, more importantly, the overall expectation of what the corps could do and a perennial drive to always become better. That, combined with the exceptionally high level of dance training nowadays, has led to most dance companies being able to pull off things that would have been considered extraordinarily difficult a generation ago.
grabs the eye as much for the mixing of dance metaphors as it does for the way the moves are executed. Male dancers, especially, do leaps that angle the legs in a way that shouts Broadway rather than Fokine or Ashton (although Ashton himself was not entirely immune to Robbins’s work; some of his later ballets incorporate a little of the American’s style). The choreography still looks fresh because it was conceived as timeless, and if the men do many moves that remind one of show dance, the women are far more balletic, being on pointe a great deal of the time and looking as if they should be in tutus even when they’re just in bathing suits. I’m sure there was a time when this choreography was not merely controversial, but annoying to balletomanes, but we are so far past that point that we now simply see it as great 20th-century dance. Regardless of the venue he was working in, Robbins always filled space well, and that is no exception here. In a sense, the star of this ballet is the corps, although
Marie-Agnès Gillot is cast in one of the lead roles.
The second ballet in this set,
is not actually Robbins’s work, but choreography by Benjamin Millepied, who worked closely with the American from the age of 16. The music is also newly minted, a pretty modern score composed by Nico Muhly, and it’s as interesting as the choreography. Millepied describes it as
On the Town-
influenced, although here we have two male and two female dancers—at least, in the beginning. Toward the end, a third couple suddenly comes out of the wings and joins them on stage. Like Robbins’s own work, Millepied’s ballet is just a generalized dance, showing four people who simply interact out of pure emotion; it “doesn’t tell a story and hardly ever makes a point; it’s just an excuse for talking about human relationships and feelings.” But Millepied pushes the balletic envelope here even further than Robbins did. His dancers swoop and dive on stage, crossing each other to create fascinating patterns despite the minimal number involved. Further, the use of an almost black, night-like set works to his advantage. At one point one of the male dancers, wearing dark slacks, dances with only a pale spotlight on him. The effect is that we focus on his face, hands, and arms, the only flesh-colored items in the spotlight, which create their own unique pattern. The introduction of a third couple in the last stage of the work adds to the ability to fill space, even if it confuses the story somewhat. At one point, a female dancer “sits” on pointe, held only by the arm of her male partner, a gravity-defying stunt. At another, there is an arabesque that appears to be even more incredible than many yoga-inspired positions: A female dancer leans backward on the floor, her knees bent and her body held in a perfect rectangle by just one arm, similarly bent underneath her, leaning on that one elbow. One is reminded how much of modern dance, from the time of the Ballets Russes to the present, is influenced by and incorporates geometric designs. The stars of this production are Gillot, Laëtitia Pujol, Audric Bezard, and Marc Moreau.
Next comes Robbins’s
In the Night,
one of his purely classic, romantic ballets, set to Chopin nocturnes. Both the costumes and the choreography are more traditional here, with only occasional touches of the show dance style for which Robbins became famous. This could quite easily be the work of Ashton as much as Robbins. Again, the choreography is sparse, centered on six solo dancers who work in pairs; again, it is extremely difficult and challenging dance, requiring each of those six dancers to be an
Even so, the choreography is quietly difficult, most of the technique requiring slow and careful interaction, grace, and delicacy of movement. As a result, the viewer is drawn in to the details of the dance. It lacks the flamboyance and sheer
joie de vivre
of classic Robbins, yet is much more classical. The dancers are all principals of the company, Clairemarie Osta, Benjamin Pech, Agnes Letestu, Stéphane Buillon, Delphine Moussin and Nicolas le Riche (whom I’ve seen before in other works, and he is outstanding).
The finale of this marvelous evening is one of the very few really comic ballets ever staged,
When Robbins first presented this back in the 1950s, it was alternately reviled or misunderstood, sometimes by the same people. The liner notes say that it was, to some extent, influenced by the silent film series
The Perils of Pauline,
but from a late 20th-century perspective, you could really only view those films as unintentional comedy, not melodrama. Moreover, Robbins himself admitted that he tried to make the humor in
as much like cartoons or comic books as possible. There is a very strong feeling of early
magazine in this ballet, which begins with an extraordinarily fussy pianist, fiddling with the height of her piano bench and the touch of the keyboard before she even begins playing. (I must interject here that I actually saw a
pianist, in concert, do exactly this kind of fussing around before playing, back in the 1970s.) As she plays Chopin, the members of the audience arrive on stage, one by one, carrying pale blue folding chairs which they quietly unfold and sit on. There is the Male Aesthete, there for the artistic “meaning” of it all; two women who sit behind him, comically crossing their legs in exaggerated ballet style, who immediately open their handbags to fish out hard candy to suck on; the Female Aesthete, so Devoted to Art that she has to sit right by the piano, one elbow in the cabinet of the instrument, soaking it all in like a sponge; the Art (Ms.) Androgyne in her horn-rimmed glasses and wide male-styled stride, who sits right behind the Female Aesthete; and the “odd couple” consisting of the woman who wants to be there and the husband who couldn’t care less. The latter is so bored by it all that he pulls out a newspaper and starts reading. (Since this is France, of course the paper is
But confusion is right around the corner. An usher arrives, checking people’s tickets, and discovering that most of the audience is in the wrong seats. A highly amusing round of musical chairs ensues, including one moment when Ms. Androgyne pulls the chair right out from under the rear of the Female Aesthete, who is so wrapped up in the piano that she never notices, but continues to sit in midair, her feet on pointe! The menfolk then carry the womenfolk (now dressed in tutus) on stage, where they engage in an “improvised” ballet of their own. Of course, some of them are purposely out of step, the worst being Ms. Androgyne (still in her horn-rimmed glasses as well as a tutu), who keeps ending her turns on the outside of the group, facing the wrong way. Eventually they pull each other together in a semblance of unity to take their final bow, though one dancer in the right rear
has her arms curved the wrong way for even that!
More comedy ensues, particularly from the Married Couple. There’s one bit where the wife is sitting, watching the pianist, while the husband sneaks up behind her with a knife, but it does no damage—it’s only a rubber prop. He pushes on it, assures himself that it’s soft rubber, then pokes himself in the stomach with it, only to have it penetrate him as he limps offstage. In another bit the husband, still with a cigar in his mouth, cavorts about the stage in a goofy-looking butterfly costume, appearing for all the world like Groucho Marx in a ballet. He is, of course, joined by the Female Aesthete, with whom he does a romantic dance until the Wife suddenly returns and breaks it up. This sort of thing goes on until the end, and it is obvious that Robbins was having great fun with this piece.
Naturally, the audience falls out laughing at this, and there is a tremendous roar of applause at the end. Somehow, I can’t help but feel that Robbins’s own spirit was there that night. You almost hoped he would come out from the wings and take a bow; he certainly deserved it!
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Works on This Recording
Triade by Nico Muhly
Paris National Opera Orchestra
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