Ballet Imperial/Who Cares? Paris Opera Ballet, February 10, 2023.
I had a great time during intermission, which bodes ill for what will follow.
This double-bill ballet evening supposedly counterpoints “masterpieces” from contrasting moments in time — 1941 and 1971. Yet the two pieces, new to the Paris repertoire, were danced almost interchangeably in terms of rhythm, attack, and, indeed, inventiveness. After an exhausting series of Swan Lakes during December and January, how on earth did the once perfect but a now obviously under-rehearsed corps manage to be consistently out of line almost throughout these two little “easy” American ballets? I did everything possible not to groan aloud.
« Look at all the captivating fascinating things there are to do”
“Look at all the pleasures
All the myriad of treasures we have got.”
Sometimes these days, Balanchine ballets can seem like dusted off museum pieces that refuse to come to life. But as Balanchine knew, anything can come alive if the music is right. Ah music. All music has an emotional (albeit not necessarily narrative) arc. Perhaps part of my “meh” reaction to this double-bill might be laid at the doorstep of the Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Paris under Mikhail Agrest’s restrained baton: schoolroom tidy for the Tchaikovsky piano concerto, then utterly lacking a drop of razzamatazz for the Gershwin.
Ballet Imperial, aka Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto #2 in the US
You can see every tree almost saying “Look at me!”
“What color are the trees? “ “Green!”
“What color were they last year?” “ “Green!”
“And next year?” “Green!”
“It’s a bore.”*
No concerto – even if you re-re-name it Number Two for NYCB after having gotten rid of the sets and costumes for that original thing first entitled “Ballet Imperial” – is ever about “I show up, play fancy, and then go home.” Alas, that was the feeling that dominated both in the pit and on stage on Friday night.
With the exception of the always just-right and delicious Marine Ganio [who can lay claim to the title of most overworked and underrated dancer in the company], the other minor soloists proved cautious, self-conscious, or just plain stiff (special mention to Silvia Saint Martin).
Oh and yes, there she was. Ludmila Pagliero was all pulled up: a pliant partner, a soloist lit from within, with nowhere to go during so much of the dull and predictable choreography.
But Paul Marque came to the rescue and caressed his ballerina in masterful gently-landed lifts [even that super-awkward one in attitude front where she falls back and then hops on pointe with bended knee. It’s always been an ugly one]. Marque was marvellous in returning his partner to the ground as if she were as light as an autumn leaf. You could sense that he had his own narrative thing going on and bravo to him.Marque did his responsive best as the token male who represents one finger in the cat’s cradle/labyrinth of females-with-connected-hands movement. Just how many times did Balanchine do this “signature move” in his works? I would have preferred that the Paris Opera Ballet offer “Theme and Variations,” which uses the same themes and patterns but which has a spine. That ballet would have given the blossoming Paul Marque more of a chance to shine.
This thing called Ballet Imperial went on and on and nowhere. Some fouettés were offered up at some point. Woo-hoo?
“Don’t you marvel at the power of the mighty Eiffel Tower?”
“How many stories? “ “Ninety!”
“How many yesterday?” “Ninety!”
“How many tomorrow?” Ninety!”
“It’s a bore.”*
A backcloth with a vaguely New Yorker-style cover illustration of skyscrapers is now a dated cliché. But at least it was less hard on the eyes than that dull cyclorama, predictably blue and bland since early television recordings. (And which had been deemed sufficient for the previous ballet).
In 1971, this ballet claimed to pay homage to beloved Gershwin musicals of the past. And for a generation or two afterwards, often an audience member would hum along.
Clearly no youngster in this audience had ever heard of Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire [both still alive and venerated in 1971] or…George Gershwin. So did the under age fifty audience pay attention? Kinda.
OK there is nothing a conductor can ever do about the Balanchine’s beloved and somehow sublimely tacky orchestrator, Hershey Kay. Except maybe, give up and give in to that old “ba-da-boom” of Broadway melodies. Here George Gershwin’s jazzy swoop just bumbled along in the orchestra pit. If dancers have no air under their feet, they cannot fly.
The first part is a medley/mash up of relatable tunes, created to give kids in the corps about 15 seconds of fame. Their moments are totally fleeting, kind of as pointless as confetti. After the corps has sufficiently increased the running time [which included some haplessly missed marks], Mr B. begins to unleash the mini-soloists. A loud “yes” goes out to the swoop and charm of Seohoo Yun and to the natural swing and flow of Roxane Stojanov .
Then all these other people show up. [Apparently, this has always been a ballet in two parts. To me it was always just shapeless].
“But think of girls!”
“It’s either yes or no
And if it’s no or if it’s yes
It simply couldn’t matter less.
It’s a bore.”*
As to “the” Fred and Ginger/Gene and Cyd avatars… I preferred Léonore Baulac and Germain Louvet later, alone in their solos, rather than together. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong in what they do as a pair, lovely lines. They clearly like each other, dance to each other. But as far as a couple goes, you never sensed that shiver of desire. Alas this description applied to whomever the cheerful and charming Louvet ended up dancing with. It’s weird, he’s a generous and well-meaning partner and fun to watch but here he just didn’t connect to anyone. Watching Louvet was like watching Eleanor Powell, an asteroid, a comet, doing her own marvellous things. Who remembers who her partners/satellites were? Who were Louvet’s? (F.Y.I. Baulac/Colasante/O’Neill).
Hannah O’Neill, on her own in “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” rode on whatever inflections she could glean from the lackluster conducting with poise and discretion. Léonore Baulac’s solo “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” had snap but could have been bigger, in the sense of more openness out of the hip. Valentine Colasante’s “My One and Only” was luscious and beautifully outlined, but read as oddly unmusical, so unusual for her. (N.B.: leaden orchestra’s fault). In his solo then, Germain Louvet, finally liberated from the females [and I am sure he doesn’t think about it this way, but is he just better when he dances unhindered?] proved very smooth, silkily, and jaunty. Nevertheless, he lacked that mysterious “something else” a Gene Kelly, or a Georges Guétary, or a Louis Jourdan, brought to their musicals back in the day.
I did not even try to score a ticket for another cast. Worse than that, I had come home from the theatre, written the above, printed it out, and put it in a drawer. Who’d care?
“Look at Paris in the spring when each solitary thing is more beautiful than ever before.”
“It’s a bore.”*
Quotes from *Lerner and Loewe, “Gigi.” Look up either the Broadway version from 1951 or the MGM version by Vincente Minelli from 1958.