Sunday, October 21, 2012

Dance, Dance, Dance Little Lady

I think it can be agreed that dance - classical or modern - is an extremely expressive form: the movement of bodies and gestures can transmit a full range of emotions.   In narrative ballets the story is usually a very simple one and the emotions basic: Prince is bored, Prince goes hunting, Prince sees swan, Swan becomes human, Prince falls in love with Swan, love is thwarted by Evil Sorcerer, Swan is heartbroken, Prince and Swan die.  However if the story then involves the signing of a political alliance between two kingdoms, the warnings of a egalitarian cousin about economic troubles in the Kingdom, the nasty Countess who becomes the cast-off mistress because the Prince's father has found religion and a marriage is unconsummated because of phimosis things get a little more difficult for the dance creator and the dancers.
With a gesture that has appeared throughout the ballet Marie-Antoniette (Melody Mennite)
faces her fate with a new found dignity and acceptance.

And that is the problem with Marie the new (2009) full-length ballet based on the life of Marie Antoinette that the Houston Ballet brought to the National Arts Centre this past week.  There is just too much narrative and unless you were versed in the sociology-political-cultural  history of Europe in the 18th century you could be excused for being a bit confused.   When it is necessary to read the costume colour-coding published in the programme to identify characters then there is a problem. In a video introduction to Marie  choreographer (and company director) Stanton Welch remarks that he came up with the idea of a ballet based on a small segment of Marie-Antoinette's life then he found he "couldn't leave things out and the ballet grew and grew, until it became basically an abstract telling of her whole life".  Perhaps given the complexity of the tale he was trying to tell he should have stopped at the first "grew".

Now I can see my dear Simonetta raising an eyebrow and asking: but what about the great narrative ballets of the 19th century?   At the time they were created the gestures of pantomime were part of dance, drama and opera and audiences had a full understanding of them.  The scores of many of the 19th century ballets are filled with arrangements of melodies that would have been familiar to audiences - giving them an aural clue as to the action.  As the fashion for musical pastiche faded - even in the 1800s critics where complaining about the lack of original music in ballet scores - and stage acting became more natural lengthy pantomime sequences fell from favour and stories became more basic i.e. Prince is bored etc.

Melody Mennite as Marie-Antoinette
Today the language of pantomime - other than that practised by those irritating Marcel Marceau-want-to-bes who one can only wish would be trapped in a real glass box - is largely unknown; and though the score for Marie arranged by Ermanno Florio was a  "pastiche" taken from the works of Dmitri Shostokovitch, it would take a scholar to identify the aural clues, if indeed any were intended.  As a sidebar it would be interesting to see what sort of musical clue would/could have been used for poor Louis' medical condition.  Now "pastiche" is not a word I would have ever thought I'd write in the same sentence as the great Russian's name but it was an extremely beautiful score - how could it not be - and I only wish there had been a recording of it available.  It was a bit like  "Shostokovitch's Greatest Hits" in the style of the old Leopold Stokowski recordings.

But back to the dance.  It is when it is dealing with the most basic situations/emotions that Welch's choreography is its most successful.  Those are the four pas-de-deux for Marie and the two men in her story - Prince and Princess timidly approach their marital bed, Queen flirts and falls in love with toy boy, Queen sadly parts from toy boy, heart-broken Queen parts from husband.  When dealing with the court intrigues, the dissolute antics of Marie and her coterie and the pending unrest around them Welch does some interesting things but more often then not there was a temptation to laugh or at least snicker at some of the goings-on.  It would appear that the most outrageous things going on at Le Petit Trianon were bun fights, baguette sword fights, a penchant for gaudy pastel clothing and a bit of champagne guzzling.  Perhaps if the unrest that was rife in the country had appeared on the edges of the scene it would have had more impact but as it was it just seemed like mindless fun in the high-school cafeteria.  And initially when the revolution did break in on the insular world of Louis and Marie costuming and movement made it look more like a Zombie Apocalypse than the French Revolution.  However as the second act came to an end the intensity and tension suddenly built and carried over to the final act.

   An excerpt from the bedroom pas-de-deux from Act I of Maire: Melody Mennite 
and Ian Casady.  The music is from Shostokovitch's piano concert #1.

Much of that intensity came from Melody Mennite's Marie.  Never off-stage except for costume changes - and a few of those happened on stage - her Marie had a certain blandness for most of the first two acts but with her fall came a new depth in both her character and her dancing.  Also at this point Welch choreography gained in complexity and depth.   The earlier pas-de-deux - one with Ian Casady's Louis XVI as the Royal pair coupled was a little twee but did end in a touching kiss on the cheek that more than all the previous lifts and pirouettes told the story of Marie's relationship with Louis.  And that was one of Mennite's strengths - as well as being a technically fine dancer she is a fine actress.  This was more than apparent in the beginning of Act Three as Marie, stripped of all finery, sat with her back to the audience and was menaced by the crowd and the damning Citizen's Committee.  Her very stillness conveyed the terror and resolve of a woman who knew already what her fate would be.  The two pas de deux with Count Axel Fersen (Connor Walsh) had a sense of eroticism but it was the final pas de deux of parting with Louis that highlighted Mennite's ability as both a dancer and an actress.   The heart-break was palpable and the fact that we as an audience sat in silence for several beats before showing our appreciation spoke of the effect it had.

The company surrounding the three principles is a solid one however none of the dancers stood out from the crowd (Welsh's crowds were busy ones).  What did stand out where the production values - designer Kandis Cook had obviously given a generous budget and spent it lavishly but tastefully and with good effect.  As already mentioned the score was exceptionally beautiful and well-played by the NAC Orchestra under Jonathan McPhee.  And the mere fact that in this day and age of cutbacks to the arts worldwide that the company (61 dancers strong) could bring a production on this scale to us is a wonder.  But given what was being presented I can be forgiven for wishing that more resources had been put into creating a better piece of narrative dance.  As I said perhaps Welsh should have stopped at that first grew or when his piece grew to the size it had, taken a pair of judicious pruning shears to it and cut it back to the basic emotions.

21 October -  1910:  HMS Niobe arrives in Halifax Harbour to become the first ship of the Royal Canadian Navy.

1 comment:

David said...

Storyline ballets do falter, in my experience, when there's too much narrative. Even Kenneth Macmillan with his Anastasia should have resisted adding two acts to the brilliant asylum third. And this sounds de trop - though of course I'm curious to know exactly what Shostakovich was used, as it might be a bit short on the lyric aspect.