Le Lac des cygnes at the Palais Garnier on December 7, 2016
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. [Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 1]
And sometimes even an enchanted princess is in want of a suitable husband. Myriam Ould-Braham, my swan on December 7th, lasered a pensive and inquisitive gaze at the sleeping prince during “Siegfried’s Nightmare, “ the prologue to Nureyev’s version for the Paris Opera Ballet. Just before getting caught in the clutches of Dr. Evil, she tried to touch the man of her dreams but could only use her eyes, the arch of her neck, and a roll of the shoulder. This episode – a moment where the Prince slumbers decoratively – became Sleeping Beauty in reverse, as if a happy end were still in sight.
Barely into Act 1, I then voted too for Mathias Heymann’s Prince Desiré [yes, I am making this mistake on purpose] whose every movement designated him a paragon of the decent values and that strange unease with reality that a strict upper-class upbringing imposes. A prince charming, a misunderstood Darcy, his arms reached out and his hands said “welcome” to all, yet he’d clearly been taught that his place was to stand quietly apart from the crowd.
Siegried and Odette’s encounter in Act II again seemed like something out of Jane Austen. Restrained and almost evasive pantomime conversation, tentatively articulated hope, was embedded in perfectly chiseled but un-fussy movement. When Ould-Braham shyly grasped Heymann’s hand and slowly brought it to her cheek, I felt that very intimate shock that can happen when someone French you are attracted to finally asks if they might call you “tu.” While I adore the memory of adamantly passionate and feisty ballerinas like Makarova, let’s leave some space in the room for drama queens who whisper rather than shout. Experiencing such performances can be no less intense.
Ould-Braham chose to understate the obvious – flappyflappyswanny arms were put on indefinite hold. But her gorgeous giant arabesques — replete with arms unfolded from the bottom of her back, more Nike than bird — will find their way into textbooks, despite not being poses at all, not vogued, but soft and breathing.
I often tell people unused to ballet: look, all the movement is metaphor. So if a man’s line perfectly follows the woman’s a split second later, his arms and legs seeming to be inspired by her, it means love. But this is rare, and this is what I witnessed. Heymann’s movements flowed through and beyond Austen’s painfully joyous comment: « I must learn to be content with being happier than I deserve.”
Then I gloated, watching Ould-Braham silkily rip apart the so-old cliché that nice girls don’t have it in them to be a Black Swan. Just give ‘em a tube of scarlet lipstick and yell: “123 go!” The Act 3 pas de deux became a real “dance-off.” Heymann – completely “on” — soared and floated: hey, is this his dream or is he just dreamily perfect? Then Ould-Braham opted for an all too rare series of simple but perfectly cooked fouettés with such a soft and controlled landing that I “oohed.” When Ould-Braham’s Odile softly puckered a teasing air-kiss at our fellow just before launching into the great big arabesque hops backwards, she totally reflected her partner’s – and our — willingness to be awed by her slinky grace and charm.
This pair must have worked long and hard in the studio to strip away all the corny and crass flourishes that encrusted themselves onto these two roles. Circus tricks can be tremendously entertaining, and entertaining an audience is what you want to do. But why not pare it all down once in a while and go back to the pure beauty of the basics? A Jane Austen attitude does indeed suit the personalities of these two artists.
If you think that “To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love,” sounds a bit tepid, I found that this pair’s quiet and un-gaudy and sandpapered approach gave new life to our beloved old warhorse. Restrained ardor can be titanic in its own way, dear reader, and can teach us — most unexpectedly — that it is what we have hungered for.