Ra/Ro/Ba/Pk : Have a nice day!

P1010032March 29, 2016, Palais Garnier: Ratmansky, Robbins, Balanchine, Peck.

The evening was…nice. Lightweight. No, as corporate America calls it: “lite.”

“Oil, vinegar, sugar and saltness agree: to make out the dinner, full certain I am.”

During a short evening in Paris that seemed endless — marketed as an unprecedented resurrection of the New York piano-ballet “tradition,” (Oh really? Again?) — I slumped mournfully in my seat. The evening offered no sass, no fun, no spirit, no vinegar. Just niceties to nibble upon, that never dished out a full meal.

“Here lies David Garrick, describe me, who can/an abridgment of all that was pleasant in man.”

Just before dying in 1774, Oliver Goldsmith tried to respond to the actor Garrick’s joshing challenge that they write each other’s obituaries. Goldsmith entitled his version “Retaliation,” and it’s a fine and sassy and bitchy text. Indeed very New York ca. 1974 in spirit, where « piano ballets » had recently been born, and all of us were cynical about nearly everything.

I should probably not equate the Piano Ballet — as invented by Robbins and as a genre into which Balanchine took minor excursions — with a great hammy actor nor with Edmund Burke (whom Goldsmith likens to « a dish of tongue with brains on the side »). Yet I wondered, as the single or duo pianos continued to percuss no matter what, whether Ratmansky and Peck – in a program chosen by Millepied seemingly to retaliate against what he perceived to be a too French company (whatever that cliché means) — hadn’t simply added a last, but a most pale, page to the Balanchine/Robbins graveyard book. As the Trocks via Peter Anastos skewed it so right way back then: “Yes, Virginia, another piano ballet.”

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The only memory I had the next morning of either Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas” or Peck’s “In Creases,” was of Marc Moreau presenting joyous and swift and even almost ironic enjoyment of the steps both of them. But what were the steps?

“Who, too deep for his hearers, still went on refining/and thought of convincing, while they thought of dining.”

Beyond Moreau, I sat there thinking that both ballets were…nice. Pleasant, easy to digest, perfect for sucking up to a sponsor on corporate evenings. Indeed, this night at the Palais Garnier was one where, yet again, preparations for yet another privatized cocktail party shut off the Grand Foyer – and even the Avant Foyer — to the dismay of the little people, aka the normal ticket-paying audience. Perhaps not every idea “made in America” is worth celebrating.

Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas” with three utterly committed couples swooping about to Scarlatti did include some nice images. One was where the dancers seemed to form a lock around a dancer who served as a key. The piece served up many nice bits of “stop and go and go around in between.” But the dance ultimately provided no surprises nor did it offer any real technical challenges. Looked comfy, danced with utter ease by the gang of six dancers…nice. Channeled a bit of Robbin’s “Interplay” at one moment and then reverted back to a totally Scalieri to Mozart ratio by staying very on the music. I kept thinking it was over and then it continued to continue, sweetly, on. When the thing finally ended, I scribbled to myself: “ooh kay, we’ve finally finished off all the music. Let us kneel down then, then.”

“But let us be candid, and speak out our mind/If dunces applauded, he paid them in kind.”

If the Anglo media accords genius status to Ratmansky, and now Peck, I say fine but just don’t bash me on the head with it. For I have zero, zero, visual memories (and I am not that old) of the latter’s piece (except for a bit of grinning maestra, again, provided by Marc Moreau) as I sit here one day later. That normally doesn’t happen to me. And the thing only lasted 12 minutes, so who’s fault is this black-out? Not that of the dancers.

I should not have been thinking throughout Peck’s In Creases, “wow, instead of white ankle socks the men in this plotless ballet get black ones!” Nor that Philip Glass had invented easy-listening music. I sat there going: “Ah, Raveau; ah Guérineau, ah, Barbeau, ah Moreau…hiiiiii!” when I should have been thinking, “wow, I can’t even think at all.” The saddest thought? No reason to return to see the ballet again. It was nice. But it’s over.

Sandwiched in the middle, the “begats.” An homage to “Our fathers, who art in heaven” aka Robbins and Balanchine, whom Millepied as director seemed to imagine had never been danced here before.

“Who peppered the highest was surest to please.”

Robbins created the lightly camp “Other Dances” for a pair naughty and nice: Makarova and Baryshnikov. They clearly knew they had become larger than life and perhaps chafed at having been anointed ambassadors of the “Russian soul” by adoring — if slightly annoying — audiences. All those folklorish embellishments just served to add on to a, by then, tired in-joke about being defined as Slavic, Russian or even Polish – where is Latvia? – whatever. Being born in the USSR was all that they had in common as dancers and people, really.

Here Ludmila Pagliero used a neat trick of having her feet always hesitate a split second before caressing the surface of the stage, her keyboard, the way the greatest pianists’ fingers are sometimes are wont to do. And Matthias Heymann brought his elegant precision to the table and seemed to float above it.
But…

“Here lies honest Richard, whose fate I must sigh at/Alas, that such frolic should now be so quiet.”

…But both seemed to be missing something: a hammy awareness of, and a catering to, the audience’s expectations. Long before Instagram, Robbins had slyly implied this to the world out there beyond the steps he set. “Other Dances” is what today we could consider the selfie of two stars, replete with ironic hashtags. Neither Pagliero nor Heymann is a diva or divo, a full-out “monstre sacré” replete with attitude…not yet. For now, I cannot imagine Pagliero sweeping into a rehearsal studio in a floor-length mink, loosely waving a long cigarette holder while coiffed by a turban. Nor, for the moment, can I imagine Heymann tap dancing on TV with Liza or, like Nureyev, dealing with Miss Piggy in violent and hilarious ways. For the moment, their stage personas are too nice. But I hold out hope for both of them.

“And Dick with his pepper shall heighten the savour/Our Cumberland’s sweet–bread its place shall obtain.”

And so on to Balanchine’s short little piece of fluff, Duo Concertant. Myriam Ould-Braham’s fiery and delicate feel for space met Karl Paquette’s gentle, sweet, honest, moves. She relaxed into his superb partnering. Yet, while Ould-Braham does bring to mind Kay Mazzo’s spidery use of her limbs, here we could have used someone casting a Bézard, a Marchand, a Bélingard, a little bit of pepper, a hint of danger to match Stravinsky’s musical challenge. Two people listening to a piano and then going off to dance from time to time – is that totally undramatic, even a bit lazy on the part of the choreographer, or what? This lightweight thing needs a hint of spice, as in “Our Will shall be wild fowl, of excellent flavor”, to cite Goldsmith again. Peter Martins could seem as beautiful as Paquette at first, but Martins always turned out to be as cold as a herring, even slightly dangerous. Martins’s blonde hair hid a shark’s fin. Here, even in Balanchine lite, make it more wild, not nice.

“Our Dodds shall be pious, our Kenricks shall lecture/Macpherson write bombast, and call it a style/Our Townshend make speeches, and I shall compile.”

No. This rather nice program will not become part of my personal anthology, sorry…

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