Archives de Tag: Henri Sauguet

Toulouse: Roses Bloom Beyond Paris (2/3)


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.


*         *

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


“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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“Oh Frabjus Day! “* A Ballet treasure hunt awaits in Toulouse and Bordeaux.

Lifar Brecker

Serge Lifar posing for Arno Brecker. (Rohrbach)

During the weekend of October 25-26, the Balletonautes will visit both Bordeaux and Toulouse in the quest to reconfirm just how these regional companies in France have been re-awakened by the touch of two dancers whom the Paris Opera Ballet once cradled in its arms: Charles Jude and Kader Belarbi.

The programs will include:
By Roland Petit: Les Forains (in Toulouse)
By Serge Lifar: Les Mirages (in Toulouse); Suite en blanc; Icare; Le Faune -solo version- (in Bordeaux).

“Then the bowsprit got mixed with the rudder sometimes.”*

But, before I can even think about reviewing this renaissance beyond Paris, I find I must justify these directors’ choices of ballets. If a program includes Serge Lifar and Roland Petit – Jude and Belarbi’s forefathers –then some nasty old cobwebs that continue to stick in the craws of Anglo-Saxon critics must be addressed.

Prior to moving to France, I must admit that all I knew of Petit’s work basically consisted of Nureyev and Baryshnikov on film in “Le Jeune Homme et la Mort,” and all I knew of Lifar were photos of yet another guy wearing a hairnet in books about the Ballets Russes…not a live ballet in sight. Why?

Petit is easier to defend: if you dismiss him for being too obsessed with expressive yet highly-expressionistically-stylized narrative (woo!), then please take yet another look at his contemporaries such as Agnes de Mille and Antony Tudor, or at the vehicles created endlessly for Sergeyev and Dudinskaya in the 1950’s. They are all of the same era, they all find their way into the same confusion of post-war emotions and the need to act out. They are all one, and none of them should be relegated to the dustbin.

“For the Snark was a Boojum, you see” *

The case for Lifar proves harder to argue on generational/geographic terms.

After attending a promotional talk a while back for his book about artists who did anything to stay alive during the Occupation, I asked Alan Riding to talk to me a little bit more about Serge Lifar. He proved quite dismissive and quite curt: “oh, so you only care about the ballet!?” His bored sigh became audible. Next!

This kind of thing can get exhausting for me too. And I should have expected it. Arletty, Cocteau, Colette, oohCoco Chanel, many painters, even Drieu de la Rochelle (especially since the latter had the good sense to kill himself) are at least taken seriously as artists by those like Riding. But somehow Lifar, even if construed as an idiot-savant as dancers usually are, has never has been allowed to move out of limbo.

Sometimes I feel that ours is an art ostentatiously flattered while both dismissed and despised by these arbiters of taste. Dancers and choreographers are too often considered the stupidest people on the planet, yet the same outsiders continue to hold ballet to a standard way, way, above that granted to others.

I am on risky ground here, but when snarky critics continue to dismiss Lifar (because he kept the Paris Opera Ballet alive and warm and fed and focused on their art during the Occupation) also feel entitled to glorify Céline’s sordid rants as great art…that attitude makes me think we all need to think a bit more carefully about many things, art included…

“His intimate friends called him Candle-ends/And his enemies Toasted Cheese.”*

It gets worse. The race to the summit years before, immediately upon Diaghilev’s death, has not helped Lifar’s case either. Imagine the fistfight with Boris Kochno in 1929, as he and Lifar each pummeled each other front of Diaghilev’s corpse as laid out by the ever-practical Chanel.

Worser [sic] there is another – related – reason why there is no way to begin any discussion of Serge Lifar’s choreographic legacy if English is involved. Since the 1930’s, we have been feeding off of the great and long-hanging shadow of Mr. B’s virulent and never-ending revulsion for Serge Lifar. As if it was Lifar’s fault that he inspired Balanchine’s to create the strong and deeply masculine steps of Apollo and The Prodigal Son?

As the other candidate for director of the Paris Opera Ballet gig soon after Diaghilev’s death, Balanchine came undone, –as Ellis Island could have undone him as well: he slipped in to the US despite a history of tuberculosis — and the Paris prize went to Lifar. In my volume of “Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets, Revised and Enlarged Edition” from 1977, Lifar only gets mentioned in a kind of afterthought list as, “oh, by the way,” the guy who premiered some Mr. B’s most immortal male characters, no inspiration required. And not once does Lifar ever come to the fore as that prolific choreographer left behind in France, generous and protective of – and inspired by — the talents of his dancers, such as Yvette Chauviré or Michel Renault.

Balanchine’s rancor against the person who once inspired him the most remained as sharp as a knife unto death and perhaps informed his oft-cited utter dismissal of male dancers (in public statements, at least). Mr. B. still had to deal with men, and, oh, good lord. Man = if straight you are my competition for the pretty ballerinas who might inspire me; if gay I will pretend that you do not inspire me. Whatever. Man, I will give you glorious steps to dance but I will always claim they mean nothing, and then shout loud and proud that you are not “dance” because “dance is woman.”

Of course I adore most of Balanchine’s ballets. But there are days when playback of the Balanchine vulgate just exhausts me. So:

“What I tell you three times is true”*

The art déco steps and chiseled expressiveness that Lifar carved into them deserve a chance, as do Petit’s short stories, so much more subtle than you would assume. What a weekend awaits! Petit and Lifar via Jude and Belarbi : another generation of danseurs keeping ballet alive. Their combined lifetimes of work now breathe new life to a new generation of dancers. Dancers male and female, their kith and kind. I can’t wait to see how the dancers of both Bordeaux and Toulouse will astonish me, as they have before.

* All quotes from: Lewis Carroll, “The Hunting of the Snark”

Ballet du Capitole de Toulouse. Programme Lifar-Petit: Wednesday, October 22nd to Sunday, October 26th.
Ballet de l’Opéra de Bordeaux Programme “Icare… Hommage à Lifar”: Friday, October 24th to Sunday, November 2nd.

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