La Dame aux camélias, Chopin-Neumeier, Paris Opera Ballet, Palais Garnier, December 7th and 14th, 2018.
In Alexander Dumas Jr’s tale, two kinds of texts are paramount: a leather-bound copy of Manon Lescaut that gets passed from hand to hand, and then the so many other words that a young, loving, desperate, and dying courtesan scribbles down in defense of her right to love and be loved. John Neumeier’s ballet seeks to bring the unspoken to life.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire/That on the ashes of […] youth doth lie […] Consumed with that which it was nourished by./ This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,/To love that well which thou must leave ere long.”
Shakepeare, Sonnet 73
On December 7th, Léonore Baulac’s youthful and playful and feisty Marguerite evoked those posthumous stories on YouTube that memorialize a dead young person’s upbeat videos about living with cancer.
Normally, the bent-in elbows and wafting forearms are played as a social construct: “My hands say ‘blah, blah, blah.’ Isn’t that what you expect to hear?” Baulac used the repeated elbows-in gestures to release her forearms: the shapes that ensued made one think the extremities were the first part of her frame that had started to die, hands cupped in as if no longer able to resist the heavy weight of the air. Yet she kept seeking joy and freedom, a Traviata indeed.
The febrile energy of Baulac’s Marguerite responded quickly to Mathieu Ganio’s delicacy and fiery gentility, almost instantly finding calm whenever she could brush against the beauty of his body and soul. She could breathe in his arms and surrender to his masterful partnering. The spirit of Dumas Jr’s original novel about seize-the-day young people came to life. Any and every lift seemed controlled, dangerous, free, and freshly invented, as if these kids were destined to break into a playground at night.
From Bernhardt to Garbo to Fonteyn, we’ve seen an awful lot of actresses pretending that forty is the new twenty-four. Here that was not the case. Sometimes young’uns can act up a storm, too!
Tired with all these, from these would I be gone,/Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.
On December 14th, Laura Hecquet indeed played older and wiser and more fragile and infinitely more melancholy and acceptant of her doom from the beginning than the rebellious Baulac. Even Hecquet’s first coughs seemed more like sneezes, as if she were allergic to her social destiny. I was touched by the way she often played at slow-mo ralentis that she could stitch in against the music as if she were reviewing the story of her life from the great beyond. For most of Act One Hecquet seemed too studied and poised. I wanted to shake her by the shoulders. I wondered if she would ever, ever just let go during the rest of the ballet. Maybe that was just her way of thinking Marguerite out loud? I would later realize that the way she kept delicately tracing micro-moods within moods defined the signature of her interpretation of Marguerite.
Only a Florian Magnenet – who has finally taken detailed control of all the lines of his body, especially his feet, yet who has held on to all of his his youthful energy and power – could awaken this sleeping beauty. At first he almost mauled the object of his desires in an eager need to shake her out of her clearly-defined torpor. Something began to click.
The horizontal swoops of the choreography suited this couple. Swirling mid-height lifts communicated to the audience exactly what swirling mid-height lifts embody: you’ve swept me off my feet. But Hecquet got too careful around the many vertical lifts that are supposed to mean even more. When you don’t just take a big gulp of air while saying to yourself “I feel light as a feather/hare krishna/you make me feel like dancin’!” and hurl your weight up to the rafters, you weigh down on your partner, no matter how strong he is. Nothing disastrous, nevertheless: unless the carefully-executed — rather than the ecstatic — disappoints you.
Something I noticed that I wish I hadn’t: Baulac took infinite care to tenderly sweep her fluffy skirts out of Ganio’s face during lifts and made it seem part of their play. Hecquet let her fluffy skirts go where they would to the point of twice rendering Magnenet effectively blind. Instead of taking care of him, Hecquet repeatedly concentrated on keeping her own hair off her face. I leave it to you as to the dramatic impact, but there is something called “telling your hairdresser what you want.” Should that fail, there is also a most useful object called “bobby-pin,” which many ballerinas have used before and has often proved less distracting to most of the audience.
When thou reviewest this, thou dost review/ The very part was consecrate to thee./The earth can have but earth, which is his due;/My spirit is thine, the better part of me.
Of Manons and about That Father
Alexandre Dumas Jr. enfolded texts within texts in “La Dame aux camélias:” Marguerite’s diary, sundry letters, and a volume of l’Abbé Prévost’s both scandalous albeit moralizing novel about a young woman gone astray, “Manon Lescaut.” John Neumeier decided to make the downhill trajectory of Manon and her lover Des Grieux a leitmotif — an intermittent momento mori – that will literally haunt the tragedy of Marguerite and Armand. Manon is at first presented as an onstage character observed and applauded by the others on a night out, but then she slowly insinuates herself into Marguerite’s subconscious. As in: you’ve become a whore, I am here to remind you that there is no way out.
On the 14th, Ludmila Pagliero was gorgeous. The only problem was that until the last act she seemed to think she was doing the MacMillan version of Manon. On the 7th, a more sensual and subtle Eve Grinsztajn gave the role more delicacy, but then provided real-time trouble. Something started to give out, and she never showed up on stage for the final pas de trois where Manon and des Grieux are supposed to ease Marguerite into accepting the inevitable. Bravo to Marc Moreau’s and Léonore Baulac’s stage smarts, their deep knowledge of the choreography, their acting chops, and their talent for improvisation. The audience suspected nothing. Most only imagined that Marguerite, in her terribly lonely last moments, found more comfort in fiction than in life.
Neumeier – rather cruelly – confines Armand’s father to sitting utterly still on the downstage right lip of the stage for too much of the action. Some of those cast in this role do appear to be thinking, or breathing at the very least. But on December 7th, even when called upon to move, the recently retired soloist Yann Saïz seemed made of marble, his eyes dead. Mr. Duval may be an uptight bourgeois, but he is also an honest provincial who has journeyed up from the South and is unused to Parisian ways. Saïz’s monolithic interpretation did indeed make Baulac seem even more vulnerable in the confrontation scene, much like a moth trying to break away by beating its wings against a pane of glass. But his stolid interpretation made me wonder whether those in the audience who were new to this ballet didn’t just think her opponent was yet another duke.
On December 14th, Andrey Klemm, who also teaches company class, found a way to embody a lifetime of regret by gently calibrating those small flutters of hands, the stuttering movements where you start in one direction then stop, sit down, pop up, look here, look there, don’t know what to do with your hands. Klemm’s interpretation of Mr. Duval radiated a back-story: that of a man who once, too, may have fallen inappropriately in love and been forced to obey society’s rules. As gentle and rueful as a character from Edith Wharton, you could understand that he recognized his younger self in his son.