Paris Opera Ballet
December 8, 2007
by Marc Haegeman
copyright 2007 by Marc Haegeman
Rudolf Nureyev never made it easy for himself or his dancers. The only thing that awaits Clara in his production of the “Nutcracker”, revived by the Paris Opera Ballet this December, is some fiendishly difficult choreography. The performance I saw at the Opéra Bastille on December 8 wasn’t one you wanted to reward with sweets and colourful presents, even if in a period once again riddled with social conflicts, strikes and canceled performances at the Opera, one is prepared to cut the dancers some slack.
Unlike earlier performances of “Nutcracker” in this run, this was fortunately the complete ballet, with costumes, sets, lights and snowflakes. Still missing, though, was a definite sparkle to brighten up the greyish atmosphere which somehow pervaded the whole evening, and I’m still not sure whether the difficult circumstances were to blame or simply that this is presently the company’s best answer to a version which seems to elude it.
Rudolf Nureyev mounted his version of Tchaikovsky’s last ballet for the Paris Opera twenty-two years ago, following previous stagings for Stockholm, London, Milan, Buenos Aires, and Berlin. His “Nutcracker” is a direct descendant of the old Soviet productions he knew best, in particular Vassily Vainonen’s 1934 version for the Kirov Ballet, which elaborates on Alexander Gorsky’s idea to focus on Clara and remove the character of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Fairytale and magic have all but disappeared, while everything we see after the party is a projection of Clara’s dream. It’s not a particularly delightful dream in Nureyev’s hands, but rather one that claims to dig deep into the psyche of a young girl. He transforms family members and guests into menacing rats and bats and has Clara fall in love with an older man, since the handsome white prince who seems to be her only rescue takes on the traits of godfather Drosselmeyer. Small wonder young Clara wakes up profoundly puzzled.
The trouble with this production is that once the dream begins the narrative becomes so disjointed that many a patron will leave the theatre puzzled as well. Of course it is a divertissement, but eventually one is left wondering whether it is Clara’s dream or rather Nureyev’s desire to create another anthology of difficult choreography within the framework of a great classic, which is the true pretext for this production. He staged a succession of images that follow Tchaikovsky’s musical sequence yet without much dramatic coherence. The scene changes are abrupt and it never really becomes clear where Clara and the prince are heading to. Who is to understand that we see the parents and guests appear one by one in the lackluster national dances? And why is the Waltz of the Flowers danced in rococo costumes and powdered wigs when the rest of the story plays around 1900?
Another major drawback is the lack of musicality of Nureyev’s approach which distances his version from its Russian model. His obsession with intricate footwork ignores Tchaikovsky’s flow and obvious musical hints. Nowhere more painfully so as in the first duet of Clara and the Prince following the battle with the rats, where he responds with yet another cascade of entrechats, pas de chats and ronds de jambes. The pas de deux is generally more convincing, although here too he seems more concerned with getting as many difficult combinations squeezed into the mere six minutes than with the broad surge of passion which Tchaikovsky expresses. In any case, the cast I saw seemed mostly at a loss as well. It takes two brilliant personalities to make us forget the holes in the narrative and disentangle Nureyev’s fussy choreographic schemes, yet Premier Danseurs Mélanie Hurel and Stéphane Phavorin weren’t able to secure either.
Hurel and Phavorin probably didn’t have much time to rehearse together. They tried their best, but their duets lacked fluency and often looked insecure and improvised, while Phavorin brought the 2nd Act pas de deux on the brink of disaster when he dropped his ballerina during a lift. With none of the leading soloists possessing the technical assurance and aplomb to give brilliance to Nureyev's choreography, it becomes an ungainly and even pointless exercise. Phavorin made a fine, somewhat predictable Drosselmeyer, but he was totally miscast as the Prince. It’s not just a matter of mastering the steps, it’s also about manner and theatricality. When Nureyev wants him to make a grand gesture during or to finish a combination – and there are many in this ballet – Phavorin underplayed it as if he was afraid the effect would be too big. And for all her Gallic sang-froid, Hurel couldn’t prevent the choreography from looking a mismatch either.
Some of the best moments of this evening where left to the corps de ballet. Although far from being the impeccable ensemble the Paris Opera is famous for on this outing they brought flashes of delight during the Waltz of the Snowflakes, one of the few moments where Vainonen’s spirit is still present and Nicholas Georgiadis’s outsized sets suggesting the park of the Imperial Palace in St. Petersburg seem appropriate – elsewhere they looked curiously drab and badly lit. Pupils of the Ecole de Danse de l’Opéra brought some life in an otherwise none too eventful and monochrome party scene. The greatest joys were ultimately to be found in the pit where American maestro Kevin Rhodes obtained excellent results from the orchestra.
Photo, of the corps de ballet in the Waltz of the Snowflakes, courtesy of the Paris Opera Ballet.