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Trances in Toulouse

Toulouse, La Halle aux Grains

Toulouse, La Halle aux Grains

« Eh bien dansez, maintenant! ». Toulouse. Ballet du Capitole. Saturday, June 27th.

“The fever called ‘Living’/ Is conquered at last.”

As Johan Inger’s “Walking Mad” began, I suddenly recalled an old cartoon. A sage, replete with toga and sandals, points his staff at an X in the corner of the map of a university philosophy department. The caption asks: “why are you here?”

Demian Vargas, trench-coated and bowler-hatted, wandering near the front row, has clearly lost his map. This Magritte-like apparition soon clambers up on to the stage as Ravel’s unsettling “Bolero” begins. We — and a company of beings seemingly even more feverish  and seemingly more broken –will seek the answer together.

 Out of the dark depths of the stage, an evil and fleet-footed protean wall sneaks up on him. As does a vision in white, Solène Monnereau, who makes concentrating on scooping up the limp T- shirts littering the floor a Bauschian moment.  Briefly distracted by our hapless intruder, she lets herself be scooped up by the deft Valerio Mangianti.  The mere touch (and then real power) of Mangianti’s hovering arms cannot be resisted. Why is his persona wearing a house dress? I leave it you to figure out, but the dress does let you see how deeply his movements are rooted in the ground and spiral up from a sure place.

The wall keeps flapping around, rolling, falling, re-configuring itself, dextrously manipulated from behind. To be banged on, clung to, slipped around, grasped, almost scaled, resisting all attempts to breech it.

Sooner or later, you arrive at one certainty: being alive is not meant for the faint-hearted. It gives you fever. Our guy, now divested of his trench-coat – and many bowler hats will now flow through the hands of his new posse – has either found his way to insane people or to a world of his own feverish imagination. This condition is often surprisingly jolly Inger’s kinetic choreography keeps playing sly switches on your expectations of “what should come next.”

Indeed, this bitter-sweet ballet is full of fun surpises. Inger’s vocabulary clearly developed while devoting his own body to Kylian’s world. Lurch your mid and upper-body forward and a partner will grab you under the arms and swoop you around in grande seconde plié. He also makes deft use of Forsythe’s – “pick a card, any card” [i.e. any part of the body] free-style.  Push off of or onto any point of an opposing body, including your own, and see where you end up. But these moments come an go. Nothing here feels derivative or predicable or old hat.

Walking Mad. Julie Loria.Photographie David Herrero

Walking Mad. Julie Loria.Photographie David Herrero

The group dons pointy noses, and also nurse them atop their heads. More lost laundry and more fevered figures come and go, each finding a new way to be annoyed by the amorphous wall. Matthew Astley, both goofy and pure of line, attacks each step as if dance had been invented by Beckett.  Julie Loria – restless to her fingertips — in a red tremble, sets the guys atremble too. You want to both laugh and cry, then, when Loria slaps herself into the corner of the wall (now a pointy imploding wedge) and tries to pull her own shadows back into her orbit.

That wall means everything and nothing. We are all mad or being alive means being mad. You have choices to make. Will you accept life in the form of a madhouse or a funhouse?  Do you want to go it alone or dare to try to pull another into your body and mind?

But, alas, there’s more. And this has been bothering me. Boléro, especially as stopped and restarted here in very unexpected ways, can cover about 15 to even 25 perfect minutes. Inger, and the dancers of Toulouse, made this musical warhorse seem fresh and new and pure and precisely as weirdly logical and illogical as it should be. Why did he have to add an appendix?

 “All that we see or seem /Is but a dream within a dream.”

 For his finale — a so sad and sobering, utterly unfunny and intense duet of irresolution – Inger could have even used another overused stalwart: silence. Alas, no.

Instead, way back in 2001, he fell on one of Arvo Pärt’s throbbing and repetitive scores, which have rapidly become even more of a dance world cliché than Boléro.  At this point, someone needs to lock them up in a wall-safe.

Ravel’s Bolero repeats itself — and how! – but, especially as teased apart as in the soundscape for the first part of the ballet, it launched the dancers on a crazy journey. Pärt’s music just sits in place and goes nowhere. Given Inger’s intelligence in constructing the giddily vivid first part. I am sure he intended to sober us up, to make us feel as trapped as Juliette Thélin and Demian Vargas. This pas de deux further distills the desperate need to escape over that wall. These two worked their bodies into tender and somber places and chiseled away at each moment. Simply holding out a coat to the other, a tiny crick of the neck, epitomized how small gestures can be enormous. They sucked the audience down into their vortex of a dream within a dream. Despite my irritation with the music, I was gulled too. This expressive, expressionistic, parable of “alone-together” reminded me of Gertrude Stein’s purported last words: “What is the answer?” The room stared at her. Silence She picked up on that. “Then, what is the question?”

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“Keeping time, time, time./In a sort of Runic rhyme,/To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells/from the bells, bells, bells.”

Cantata. Tabatha Rumeur, Julie Charlet, les musicienne du groupe ASSURD et ensemble. Photographie : David Herrero

Cantata. Tabatha Rumeur, Julie Charlet, les musicienne du groupe ASSURD et ensemble. Photographie : David Herrero

Maybe singing and dancing and banging on something are the answer after all, according to Mauro Bigonzetti’s Cantata.

Instead of a moving wall, here we had an ambulating wall of oaky and resonant sound provided by the powerful voices and bodies of the Southern Italian musical collective ASSURD. Weaving in and out amongst the dancers on stage, the singers’ voices and instruments cried, yelled, lullaby-ed, coaxed, spat, spangled. And, along with the dancers, managed indeed to help us understand why we needed to be here, in Toulouse.

At first, you kind of go: uh, oh. Chorale singing, an accordion being squeezed onstage by a small and loud barefoot woman, women dancers who twist alone and twitch if lifted. Back on the ground, they return to poses that make them look like arthritic trees that died from thirst. After a bunch of men dump them in a pile atop each other, the women continue to squirm, bite their hands, and put fingers in their mouths to pull at the skin of their faces. Ah, got it, Southern Italy. Tarantula bites. Means more madness, eh? But these gestures – just at the moment when I went “uh oh” yet one more time – continued down a Forsythian path, setting off major locomotion.

The tammurriata and tammorra, like Ariadne’s thread, will lead our dancers back to the world of the living. Honey, the tinkly “tambourine,” as we know it from Balanchine, Mère Simone, and Bob Dylan, has nothing to do with the Kodo-ish propulsion of these gigantic hand-held objects. The rhythms are strict, not shimmied or approximate, nor is the dance. And what a fun sound to try to use your body to interpret!  Do a conga line bent over on your knees: march forward with your elbows hitting the ground like feet, chin in hand, then slap the floor with your palms. Feel your weight. Now we’re going somewhere.

Cantata. Béatrice Carbone. Photographie : David Herrero

Cantata. Béatrice Carbone. Photographie : David Herrero

Here couples don’t yearn to scale any wall, they merely try to rise above any limits and then return to stamp at the soil of the earth. Women step all over men’s recumbent bodies, and evolve from being manipulated to being manipulators. Arms reject swanny elegance: chicken wings preferred. A black-widow sunflower, Beatrice Carbone, all curled arms and cupped fingers, distances herself from the crowd. A duet: hands hit together, or try to. Dancers repeatedly find calm by taking the hands of others and brushing them over their faces. Avetik Karapetyan continues to remind me of the explosive and expressive Gary Chryst of the Joffrey. Maria Gutierez shimmies and shines in a new way every time I see her.  The action transforms itself into a raucous and joyous frenzy.

At the very end, the company blows us a kiss. And you want to stay right here.

Why Toulouse? Kader Belarbi’s company of individuals, and the opportunities his keenly-chosen repertory gives them, provides the best answer of all.

Quotes are from Edgar Allan Poe. “For Annie;” “A Dream[…]”; “The Bells ».

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Toulouse: Roses Bloom Beyond Paris (2/3)

DAY ONE: THE BALLET DU CAPITOLE, TOULOUSE (evening of October 25)

Photo Patrice Nin / Théâtre du Capitole

Photo Patrice Nin / Théâtre du Capitole

LES MIRAGES (Lifar/Sauguet/Cassandre)

“Then you shall judge yourself,” the king answered. “That is the most difficult thing of all. […] If you succeed in judging yourself rightly, then you are indeed a man of true wisdom.”

Everyone who teaches a class on Existentialism should simply force the students to watch these two ballets – Les Mirages and Les Forains — and then tell them to hide all those hundreds of pages by Sartre under their beds along with their ripe underwear. Next assignment: go sit in a café and watch those passing by over a glass of the cheapest wine on the menu. Just what are all these people on the sidewalks running after? Love? Money? The moon and the stars? What do they think they will find in the end?

The story of Les Mirages is very much as if, say, a rather more ripe little prince had landed in a never-never-land filled with women, should have known better, and realized – a bit too late — that there’s no place like home. The fresh intensity of the Toulouse company’s interpretation kept me wondering – even if of course I knew – what would happen next.

In a smaller house, on a smaller stage, almost everything seemed magnified, larger than life: the music, the set, the costumes, the dancers.

The men of Toulouse are brawnier than those in Paris, and that physique brings us back to the 1940’s in a very positive way. More Jean Marais than Gérard Philipe, Avetik Karapetyan’s “Jeune Homme,” a faultless technician and obviously reassuring partner (five very distinct women at least, plus the random passerby!) brought that indefinable charisma that makes one of those “god I’m on the stage almost for the entire 45 minutes and I am playing a jerk and always turn to the right” roles seem like one of the best kinds of roles you could hope for. He gave an archetype a soul.

Les Mirages. Maria Gutierrez (l'ombre). Photographie Francette Levieux

Les Mirages. Maria Gutierrez (l’Ombre). Photographie Francette Levieux

Maria Gutierrez’s sharply-distilled, yet unsettlingly tender, L’Ombre – the clueless young man’s shadow, his shade, his subconscious, the truth about himself that he doesn’t want to face –was likened by Cléopold to a guardian angel. We both noticed the subtle way that she and Karapetyan seemed a microsecond off of the polished synchronization you get at the Paris Opera. And that opened our eyes. Suddenly the point of l’Ombre, to me, evoked Echo and her frustrations with a beloved Narcissus. She is unable to speak first yet ever condemned to always have the last word. More than saddened by her charge’s repeated follies – his chasing after Caroline Betancourt’s shifty bird of paradise, who moved so fast she blurred, or seeming to learn to breathe again while clasping Beatrice Carbone’s graciously swirling Art Deco curves to what he thinks is his heart – Gutierrez’s frustrated stabs at the ground with her toes, her wind-milling arms, her sudden still balances, all conspired to break my heart. I’ve never seen an Ombre so saddened by human folly. And the only way to do this is to turn off the Parisienne’s chic, to let go of irony. To despair, as one might have, in 1944.

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LES FORAINS (R.Petit/Sauguet/Bérard)

“It is such a secret place, the land of tears.”

I have a soft spot for Les Forains [The Carneys]. That’s when I first spotted –evening after evening – Myriam Ould-Braham seeming to glow as one of the Siamese twins in Paris. Here I couldn’t focus my eyes exclusively on anyone, for the passion of everyone on stage, including that of the “spectators,” became overwhelming. Did you know that Piaf needed to record a new song based on the mood and music after seeing this very ballet?

I wonder what more Piaf would have given that song if Philippe Béran had been conducting and she had seen this company.

The Toulouse dancers, even when “just watching” with little to do, redefined the phrase “I belong to a company.” That group feeling became completely electrifying and amplified the impact of this terrible story about the loss of hope: a starving family circus troupe along with some minor talents it has adopted, put on a show and then try to pass around the hat. Day after day after day. Roland Petit’s ballet, which premiered in March 1945, recounts just one of those hungry and hopeless days. It makes you feel like an overfed voyeur content to look through a spyglass at human misery, and who brushes it off while looking for a taxi.  Alas, this is one story that will never go out of date.

Les Forains.  Artyom Maksakov (le prestidigitateur) et Beatrice Carbone (la belle endormie). Photographie Francette Levieux.

Les Forains. Artyom Maksakov (le Prestidigitateur) et Beatrice Carbone (la Belle endormie). Photographie Francette Levieux.

Yet the ballet, like hope, can be delicious if danced by the likes of Artyom Maksakov (a generous and unusually youthful and hopeful Magician, heartbreaking in the subtle way he declined how his illusions of patriarchal strength was been chipped at and then shattered by an axe-like blow near the end – what an actor!); Alexander Akulov (not only a Clown blessed with ballon and élan but…what an actor! He almost convinced me that his character was called “The Narrator”); Beatrice Carbone (fearless as The Beauty Asleep, she seemed to galvanize the onstage onlookers with energy forged by many Kitris); and Virginie Baïet-Dartigalongue (as Loïe Fulller—who remembers Loie Fuller? — who literally set the stage the moment the weary beauty of her persona walked out on to it).

A rapt audience seemed to float out of the theater, their heads in the clouds still. Yet feet dragged, for this meant leaving Sauguet’s music and Toulouse’s dancers behind and returning to this mundane earth.  I yearned to doff my hat but, alas, it proved to be only a « boa constrictor from the outside » and needed time to digest these delicious treats.

[All citations are from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s « The Little Prince » from 1943, in its translation by Katherine Woods].

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