Bourrée Girl

What a difference a day makes

Posted in American Ballet Theatre, Classical ballet by bourreegirl on June 7, 2010

The other night a balletgoer grumbled at me as she settled into her seat at John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias, “I had to buy a separate ticket for tonight. I don’t know why they didn’t put this in my subscription. I want to see the new stuff.” Though premiered in Hamburg in 1978, Camellias (one in a whole bouquet of stage or screen adaptations of the novel La dame aux camélias, by Alexandre Dumas, fils) hadn’t appeared on a program at American Ballet Theatre until this season. So those of us who’d missed it when it was anything like “new” were now making do with “new to you.”

Having developed a recent antipathy to La Traviata, the operatic version of the tale, I wasn’t expecting to be deeply moved. In fact, consumptive heroines, at least as presented by Baz Luhrmann or Franco Zeffirelli, usually try my patience, no doubt in part because I’ve never had a chance to be one. (Ever get the feeling everybody would like you better if you were sick—in a way that made you thin, it goes without saying?) Verdi’s music is great, of course—though I don’t love it as much as one patron I met, who walked out of the ballet because she found she couldn’t bear to see the story of the courtesan Marguerite Gautier unfold on stage without it. In fact, for me it was Chopin’s music, with Neumeier’s choreography, and costumes by Jürgen Rose, that finally seemed to open the world of Dumas’ lovers and their real-life originals, the author and his lover Marie Duplessis.

I haven’t seen much Neumeier, though now I intend to; to me his work most resembles John Cranko’s, and can be most broadly described as dramatic—representative of a period (as I understand it, the 1960s and ’70s) when choreographers like Cranko and Kenneth Macmillan were turning the balletic vocabulary inside out to come up with new ways for lovers to throw themselves at each other or, pretty often, to their deaths. There are charming solos in the lighter moments, but the success of these ballets rides on partnering, and principals Roberto Bolle and Marcelo Gomes, whom I saw in the role of Armand, needed all their reputed skill for Camellias. The choreography also, in order to live, demands extraordinary flexibility, lyricism and expressiveness from the ballerina. Without these, the audience might well be left cold, as was New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay. I was fortunate enough to see a devastating performance by the St. Petersburg-trained international star Diana Vishneva as my introduction to the ballet. Macaulay was not.

Julie Kent, longtime and long-favored ballerina at ABT, is the Marguerite of this season’s advertising posters and Playbill cover, and she danced the role on opening night. I saw her the next week, after I’d already been stunned and stricken by Vishneva, and I can see why Macaulay thought the choreography looked uncomfortable. He had probably constructed his review, with all its philosophical musings, around this impression by the time he saw Vishneva himself, and didn’t want to throw his hard work out the window. Because he would have had to, if he’d wanted to address Vishneva’s performance at all.

Julie Kent is a beautiful woman, and the Times’ photos suggest that up close, one might be moved at least by the tiredness and anguish in her pale face and delicate sinews. Perhaps her physical limitations, the brittleness of her particular physiognomy (for this is the impression her performance leaves, despite her being so much less brittle, less limited, than the general population), even contribute a certain realism to the portrayal. Her Marguerite is a lovely, exhausted, and decidedly finite woman, with problems that are ultimately personal.

Diana Vishneva’s Marguerite is another thing altogether: the employment of an ideal, possibly boneless, instrument to create a portrayal with universal resonance. She is a pure and sorrowing spirit whose exquisite lyricism projects pathos to the standing room at the very top of the house. Believe me, I was there. She is a soul on legs—possibly your soul—and looking uncomfortable might be the only thing she can’t do. Proving Neumeier’s choreography to be not only possible but inspired is well and happily within her powers.

But is the choreography appropriate, readers of the Times review may ask. Is the ballerina asked to do too much—to go out of character, in fact—by steps that fail to respect Marguerite, or woman, or love? So Macaulay suggests. But complaints about the athleticism of the lifts (as inappropriate for a dying character) are unfair. As the critic certainly understands, dancers in a dramatic ballet must dance to express their passion. The ailing young lovelies in Tales of Hoffmann and Giselle, though strenuously enjoined to refrain, are ultimately permitted to sing and dance themselves to death respectively; and of course the tubercular Mimi and Violetta, for all their supposed difficulty in breathing, sing, in some cases quite vigorously, on till the bitter end of Bohème or Traviata, because in that medium singing equals being, as dancing equals being here. And, as Verdi’s Violetta clutches at life with renewed energy when the possibility of love, once lost, returns, Neumeier’s Marguerite twines herself hungrily around her lover, knowing their time is brief and unbearably precious.

For a taste of the différence Macaulay craves when things get rough, only watch the scene between Marguerite and M. Duval, as she acquiesces to his demand that she renounce his son, the beloved for whom she has already renounced everything else. The incredible gentleness of their contact, the total vulnerability of Marguerite in her surrender, the manifestation of tenderness greater than you dared believe was possible, will make you gasp.

But yes, such revelations depend on having the right cast, which may be harder to assemble for this ballet than for many others. This would not make the ballet itself any less great, though it risks disappointing more audiences. After seeing Vishneva, I was afraid to see anyone else (and should have been), even Marcia Haydée, who originated the role and (like Agnès Letestu of the Paris Opéra Ballet) can be seen performing it on video. Perhaps Haydée achieved an ideal expression of the choreographer’s intentions. Or perhaps even she failed to reach Vishneva’s transcendental heights. Unfortunately, video can so flatten a performance that it won’t be fair to judge by it. What we do have is one more chance to see Vishneva, tonight, until ABT or another company gives it to her to dance again.

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