« La Pastorale ». Théâtre National de Chaillot. Malandain Ballet Biarritz. Choreography, Thierry Malandain. Music by Beethoven. December 13th 2019.
When the charming little rat from the film Ratatouille bites into a piece of tomme de chêvre de pays! and a ripe strawberry at the same time, he starts to feel pulsating energy and a multitude of colors begin to swirl around his head. He can even taste the flavor of fireworks. Whenever I get lucky enough to attend a ballet by Thierry Malandain, the tasty dance he weaves out of layering the infinite possibilites of flavorful steps always makes me feel like a Rémy at his happiest: some unexpectedly new and perfect combinations will certainly enliven my palate.
During his newest ballet, La Pastorale, twenty of the Malandain Ballet Biarritz’s magnificent dancers (first clad in slate-grey overdresses, then white shifts, then flesh-colored body-stockings) offered the audience a rainbow of imagery. Whether they swirled about with the same determination as the gods and goddesses of Greek myth or evoked creatures from the sea, the air, and the earth, what struck me was their iridescence.
In the first section, danced – sung by the body? – to Beethoven’s The Ruins of Athens, the dancers must negotiate a child’s flattened out and only horizontal jungle gym. Twenty-five spaces enclosed by metal barres are their playground. A recurrent motif: a full spine roll keeps being used to get under or over the waist-high barriers in order to embark into the next cube of defined space. Suddenly, the colors and the flavors hit me. I saw bluish and glistening dolphins at play, curving their backs and cresting the waves. But I also saw tawny cats and green caterpillars and black bats and long-tailed brown sloths as agile as birds on a wire, all of them caring little about the rules of gravity as is their wont, slinking and swinging themselves around their natural domain. Even if the staging is by definition frontal, the dance feels very “in the round.”
The second section, which took on Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (#6, in F major/Opus 68/1808), lifted the jungle gym up off the ground and let the dancers inhabit all the space of the stage. One travelling lift where a dancer’s legs are splayed across the shoulders of another swept my mind back to a childhood memory, a time when starfish had once been easy to find on the beach and were always gently placed back into the ocean. While watching Malandain’s groups roll in and roll out on the stage, I began to feel I could almost taste the sea: orange-red coral waving at me, purple and green sea-anemonies scrolling their tendrils in and out, and even a pair of prickly sea urchins (or stingrays? You decide).
As always with Malandain’s poetic humor, echos (not “quotes”) pay homage to the ecosystem of ballet. Here you will enjoy all of his references to the manner in which classic ballets took inspiration from how ancient mythology viewed our world, now paid forward: the Faun’s amphoric nymphs, Apollo’s overloaded chariot, the shape of the attitude as inspired by Mercury…indeed, Alexander Benois’s sets for Daphnis and Chloe could have served here.
Upon returning home, I dived back into my ancient copy of Grove’s Dictionary and found the following description about why Beethoven’s music works for us:
Beethoven’s ground pattern was first-movement form, an elaborate and by this time an advanced plan of procedure that made special demands upon its melodic material; to meet its purposes he chose subjects or themes that were apt for processes (repetition, dissection, dissertation, allusion and all the rest) by which fragmentary ideas could be worked into a continuous texture or argument. Beethoven brought into the type a variety, a significance and (for the craftsman) an expediency far beyond the inventive range that had served the needs of the previous generation […] Beethoven at his most reiterative is developing a line of symphonic thought, sometimes with great intensity.
If this description of what Beethoven wrought back then doesn’t describe what Thierry Malandain does today, I will now eat my hat. Along with a strawberry.
You can still catch La Pastorale at the Théâtre de Chaillot until Thursday the 19th.