BALLETS NICE MEDITERRANEE- Deux Russes a Paris- April 2012

Dancing Times

Georges Balanchine and Serge Lifar, the last in a line of  illustrious dancers and choreographers with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, went on to become leading figures in the dance world of the 20th century; they were prolific choreographers, directing magnificent companies of dancers superbly equipped to perform their works. The title of the Ballets Nice Mediterranée latest programme, ‘ Two Russians in Paris’ refers to the brief, but crucially important period for the history of dance,  when shortly after Diaghilev’s death, and the demise of the Ballets Russes, Balanchine was invited to the Paris Opéra to choreograph a ballet to Beethoven’s score The Creatures of Prometheus. However, within two weeks he fell ill and had to withdraw from rehearsals, calling upon Lifar, his ex-colleague from the Ballets Russes, to take over the commission. Lifar, still an inexperienced choreographer, diffidently visited Balanchine daily at his bedside, demonstrating the day’s work and soliciting his comments and suggestions. Once Balanchine’s illness was diagnosed as tuberculosis, and a move to a sanatorium essential, Lifar completed the work, winning considerable success which resulted in his appointment not only as principal dancer, but alo as maitre de ballet of the Opéra Ballet, a post which had originally been offered to Balanchine. Lifar held the position for the next thirty years, re-forming and revitalising the company, while Balanchine spent several years almost ‘job-hopping’ until Lincoln Kirstein’s arrival in Europe brought about the offer to move to New York.

The programme in Nice opened with Lifar’s 1955 ballet, Romeo and Juliette to Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture. The already highly melodramatic score is matched with emotionally charged choreography, interspersed, as often in Lifar’s dramatic ballets, with curiously stylised posing, and simple classroom enchainements, –  a diagonal of brisés volés, a manège of coupés jetés, even leaving Juliet, on discovering Romeo’s dead body, to make a circle of piqués-turns around him before grabbing the dagger. Julia Baliet and Alessio Passaquindici did their best to breathe some drama into this condensed version of the story, but the ballet seemed badly dated. Balanchine’s Chaconne from 1976 is choreographed to music written by Gluck as a danced finale to his opera Orpheus and Eurydice, to which Balanchine added The Dance of the Blessed Sprits as a pas de deux for Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins. The opening pas de deux and scene for an ensemble of nine girls lacked any special interest, but the final ‘Grand’ pas de deux is a Balanchine masterpiece, stylishly and impressively danced by Sophie Benoit and Guido Sarno. Balanchine is quoted as saying about the 1956 work, Allegro Brillante, “it contains everything I know about classical ballet, in thirteen minutes”.  Remounted for the company, together with Chaconne, by former NYCB ballet mistress, Francia Russel, this work seemed as fresh as the day it was created, full of constantly inventive and playful choreography. Aldriana Vargas met all the challenges of the choreography created for Maria Tallchief, ably matched by César Rubio Sancho, in Nicholas Magallanes’ role. The supporting four couples were equally impressive.

It was perhaps overly ambitious of company director, Eric Vu-An, to expect his fairly new ensemble to cope with all the demands of performing works by these two exceptionally individual choreographers. Lifar’s choreography used to be a basic staple for dance students throughout France, the variations learned and practised by generation after generation. But with multi-national companies now the norm, these dancers cannot come to his very individual and demanding choreography with the same understanding, or even the same technical mastery. Former Opéra ballerina, Claude Bessy, mounted both the Lifar works in the programme, notably Suite en Blanc, the closing work. The opening tableau with the dancers filling the stage in their black and white costumes usually brings about a gasp of delight and a burst of applause from the audience, but unfortunately the dancers appeared to be struggling with the long sequences of dance which followed. The ballerinas’ showpieces, solos known as ‘The Cigarette’ and ‘The Flute’, and the man’s ‘Mazurka’, can be delightful when performed with real mastery. They are full of nuances and almost playful details, but without understanding and real technical skill they seem repetitive and even awkward, leaving one to wonder why this particular ballet of Lifar’s has remained so popular. However, memories of Yvette Chauviré, Rosella Hightower and more recently Nicholas Le Riche reassure that this work can be special.


© copyright Christina Gallea Roy

April 2012