Roses Bloom Beyond Paris: A Tale of Music and Dance in Toulouse and Bordeaux (1/3)

ABOUT ORCHESTRAS AND THOSE WHO DO AND DO NOT UNDERSTAND WHAT THE FOX MEANT BY “TO BE TAMED.”

“May I sit down?” came now a timid inquiry from the little prince. “I order you to do so,” the king answered him… [all citations are from Antoine de Saint Exupéry, “The Little Prince,” translation by Katherine Woods, 1943.

I can still taste the music. Henri Sauguet’s deep and melodious melancholy for Les Mirages and Les Forains. He seemed to have dipped a finger into Satie’s cocktails yet have shaken off those drops of bitters. Honneger’s wild score for Icare went down like a Black Russian: “just what is in this tasty thing? Percussions only? I had no idea they could be so varied and so peppery and creamy.” Debussy? Sauternes, golden and daring to be swallowed whole. Lalo? Shots of vodka, invigorating and intoxicating. These ridiculous analogies? Due to the utter involvement and unblemished playing of Toulouse’s Orchestre National du Capitole and the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine.

Each group was led by an enormously committed conductor — Philippe Béran and Nathan Fifield, respectively— who actually watch and respond to what the dancers are doing. There is no shame in slowing down or accelerating, in picking up a nuance, while playing all the notes faultlessly, is there? After years of irritation with the sloppy rhythms and false notes served up by the Paris Opera’s orchestra whenever even some of its titular members deign to park their bottoms in the pit, here I could actually enjoy the dance — without wincing. More than that, I could savor the music completely dry. Conducted with force, yet sensitive to each flavorful layer of instrumentation, all the music for once really supported the dance. For two performances, I thought I was back at Carnegie Hall after too much champagne: when the music is so good you start to imagine little groups of dancing figures float across the proscenium.

But here I just needed to stare at the stage to make the music sound even better. My eyes could drink in the dancers of Toulouse and Bordeaux. While it’s too late for any Anglophones to catch this series of performances, the next time you come to France maybe you should seriously consider checking out what’s on in these cities located only a few hours from Paris. Don’t go unless the ballet or opera is on and let yourself be lifted up in the air by real, not recorded, music. Unlike the U.S., here we still have regional companies that present offbeat programs – no yearly, automatic, soul-deadening, demeaning, Nutcrackers in sight – even if Bordeaux and Paris have scheduled some for this December, that’s for the pleasure of playing around (in Paris, Nuts only shows up randomly every once in a while).

Or so I thought.

“We do not record flowers,” said the geographer. “Why is that? The flower is the most beautiful thing on my planet!” “We do not record them,” said the geographer, “because they are ephemeral.”/ “My rose […] perfumed all my planet. But I did not know how to take pleasure in all her grace.”

Alas, the hat passed around stage near the end of Les Forains turns out to be more timely than one would wish. So much great potential in regional theater turns out to be utterly underfunded due to political short-sightedness on the part of local and central government. These “geographers of nothing” seem to have become blind to why the ballet, from the era of Louis XIV until very recently had never been considered a luxury for the res publica, but a reservoir for national pride. Ballet was born in France! All these regional companies should not be facing the same existential struggle as American companies.

Have we learned nothing, then, since the 1940’s? These two companies – and others — need to be watered and protected, like the beautiful plants they are. Kader Belarbi and Charles Jude — despite the impatient and stingy hand of bureaucracy — choose ballets and dancers that do indeed prove that they both see from the heart.

Tomorrow and after tomorrow, I will tell you precisely how I spied not one perfect rose, but two.

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