MONACO DANCE FORUM – December 2009-January 2010

CENTENARY OF THE BALLETS RUSSES 9 December 2009 – 3 January 2010

It is only fitting that the most extensive of the current centenary celebrations of the Ballets Russes should be given in Monte-Carlo. It was here, in 1911, that Serge Diaghilev found a home base for his company, attracted, no doubt, by the presence of the royal family and a coterie of aristocrats and wealthy potential patrons. In January of each year the company reformed at the Opera House and, as we have seen from Sarah Woodcock’s meticulous schedules in the Dancing Times, spent four to five months performing, rehearsing and creating many of the most important ballets of the 20th century. Diaghilev surrounded himself with his ‘cabinet’ of composers, artists and writers of the time to collaborate with the company’s choreographers. Today’s resident choreographer is Jean-Christophe Maillot, director of the Ballets de Monte-Carlo and initiator of the current season supported by the organisation of the Monaco Dance Forum and under the patronage of Princess Caroline. The huge, modern Grimaldi Forum with its numerous auditoria, exhibition spaces, conference rooms, spaces for rehearsals and dance classes, is a perfect setting for this ambitious event made up of 90 performances, 600 performers and 19 premieres. There is also a non-stop programme of conferences and discussions, classes and workshops with visiting teachers and choreographers, exhibitions and films. 

On entering the Grimaldi Forum, one is confronted by William Forsythe’s installation City of Abstracts which sends video projected images shooting across the huge screen, and inside the huge foyer, two men and a woman calling themselves, Forsythe Artist Performance, earnestly clambered all over each other and around and over huge wooden blocks, surrounded by a crowd of onlookers, presumably setting the scene – that anything can happen. The centenary season is split into three parts, Christmas 2009, Easter and summer 2010 and each section is devoted to a theme; this first section showing that the Ballets Russes continues to inspire choreographers has inevitably brought forth a plethora of new versions of L’Après-midi d’un Faune and Sacre du Printemps, major works of the early years. I managed to see six versions of Faune in one day, in a performance devoted solely to Nijinsky’s first ballet, given in the more intimate surroundings of the Opéra Garnier. Eric Vu An, former principal dancer with the Paris Opéra Ballet, and now director of the newly titled Nice Ballet Mediterranée, made a return to the stage in a carefully reconstructed version of the original choreography with Léon Bakst’s original setting. The curious walks and poses were recognisable from the photos but there was little of Nijinsky’s half-man, half-animal quality or of the sensuousness which made the work so outrageous at its premiere. A version by the Ivory Coast dancer and choreographer, Georges Momboye, was  sensual and supple but well controlled and another solo version by Thierry Malandain, director of the Biarritz Ballet, and impressively danced by Christophe Romero, proved that fifteen minutes of erotic movement can be a long time. Jean-Christophe Maillot’s version, entitled Fauves or Wild Beasts, is a duet for his principal dancer, Bernice Coppetiers and Gil Roman, now director of the Béjart Ballet Lausanne. Initially encased in tiny rooms, which also become booths, reminiscent of Petroushka, the work evolves into an erotic game, full of wit and humour, well sustained and beautifully performed. The final work of the programme, Silent Cries, a 1986 ballet by Jiri Kylian, only owned a place in the programme by using Debussy’s music. The programme was introduced by Didier Sandre, a well-known actor, reciting Mallarmé’s poem, the inspiration for the original ballet, and the following ballets were interspersed by readings from Nijinsky’s letters to Diaghilev and writings about Faune by Rodin, Jean Genet and others.

Obviously, these two works by Nijinsky attract today’s choreographers because of their controversial, erotic elements, and versions of both Faune and Sacre by Marie Chouinard, and performed by her company from Montreal, were conceived with no holds barred. The company dressed in black briefs, the women topless, performed in an orgiastic frenzy of simulated sex with enormous energy and commitment, which sadly became pointless and repetitive. Claiming to receive her choreographic inspiration from “unknown wavelengths that call out to me”, Chouinard also surprised by coming on stage for the final curtain call, falling to her knees and kissing the stage floor. The audience loved it all. Alonso King’s Line ballet from San Francisco, Karole Armitage with her company from New York, George Momboye from Africa and Josette Baïz from nearby Aix-en-Provence, all presented their versions of Sacre, along with a Japanese Bhutto version by Carlotta Ikeda and Ko Murobushi. Other performances included In the Spirit of Diaghilev, recently created for Sadler’s Wells Theatre. The major international company to visit Monte-Carlo was the Hamburg Ballet, presenting John Neumeier’s 2000 production, Nijinsky. Taking as a starting point Nijinsky’s final performance in the ballroom of a St Moritz hotel, where he shocked the high society audience with a tragic Wedding with God, Neumeier’s ballet recreates many of the key moments of his tragic life as well as his most famous roles. With what appears to be a cast of hundreds, a multitude of costumes, scene follows scene, often bathed in gaudy green, red or yellow lighting effects. It was difficult to identify the many characters flitting across the stage and in the quieter moments, the main protagonists often danced out to the audience rather than to and with each other which would have heightened the drama. In all, I found the total looked more like a West End musical than a serious ballet.        

The Ballets de Monte-Carlo’s contribution included Jiri Kylian’s version of Les Noces, entitled Svadebka, created in 1982 for NDT. The striking setting of massive wooden beams, opening up at the final scene to a bridal chamber, was effective for this primitive peasant wedding ceremony. There were many of Bronislava Nijinska’s signature steps and positions, the head cradled in the palm of the hand, the wide plies in second position, the corps grouping and regrouping, circling and wheeling, incorporated into Kylian’s reserved, unemotional choreography. In creating the original version Nijinska was apparently inspired by the revolutionary events taking place in Russia at that time, but Kylian’s wedding seems at odds with Stravinsky’s strident, confident score. The only concession to the title of Marco Goeke’s version of Le Spectre de la Rose was the stage floor scattered with rose petals; the dancers twitched and gyrated robotically, heads bobbing, arms and hands fluttering and flapping. As usual with Goeke’s ballets, the dancers are kept in semi-obscurity, but Nathalie Nordquist and Jeroen Verbruggen were outstanding, gallantly attempting to give the choreography an importance it sadly lacked. The time and energy Maillot has devoted to the whole season may have left him lacking in inspiration for a new version of Schéhérazade. I was not sure if he was making a parody of the Mikhail Fokine’s original ballet, creating a Folies Bergère-type revue or if he lost track of his intentions along the way. For a choreographer of many good and successful works, this was unexpectedly off form. A second programme included Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer’s attempt to reconstruct Nijinsky’s Sacre du Printemps and Balanchine’s The Prodigal Son. The excellent dancers of the Ballets de Monte-Carlo impressed as always.

If there was regrettably, and curiously, little evidence on show of Serge Diaghilev’s vision, energy and audacity in creating and nurturing the Ballets Russes over 20 years or of the magnitude of the company’s influence on 20th century dance, there was a series of discussions around the theme of Diaghilev and his collaborators and several interesting films from the Monaco Film Archives including those about Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova, Anton Dolin and Leonide Massine. The next part of the centenary season takes place from 27 March to 16 April and highlights what happened after Diaghilev and the next revolution in dance brought about most notably by Merce Cunningham and his collaborators. The Cunningham Company will participate, the Ballets de Monte-Carlo present Maillot’s new version of Daphnis and Chloe and Maurice Béjart’s 1959 production of Sacre du Printemps.  The Monaco Dance Forum will revive the ‘Springboard of Young Companies”, giving graduate students from all over the world the opportunity to perform in Monte-Carlo, to be seen by company directors, and the chance of obtaining that all important first job.