MaggioDanza – Ballet Blanc: Les Sylphides/Ballet Pathetique

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Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

The Florentine company, MaggioDanza, offered a double program under the title Ballet Blanc, alluding to the days of the long white tutu, softer arms and hands, drastic inclination of the head and light as air bourees–in short, the classical ballerina stereotype. Indeed, there is something breathtaking about layers and layers of gauze engulfing the ballerina’s legs as she leaps across the stage and the way the fabric billows and floats in the air when she spins. The dancers of MaggioDanza embodied this phenomenon in Giorgio Mancini’s adaptation of Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides.

In 1907, Fokine’s initial creative seed premiered as a short work entitled Moonlight Vision performed by Anna Pavlova in St. Petersburg. He later expanded his concept to Chopania and in 1909 the final product, Les Sylphides, premiered in Paris. Plot is non-existent. “The poet,” the male danseur, searches for his ideal of Love and Beauty in the kingdom of the Sylphs (or in his imagination?) guided by the romantic strains of eight Chopin piano pieces.

Choreographing during a time when the limitations of classical ballet were being criticized, Fokine reintroduced the Sylph, an ethereal maiden clad in a long white skirt and tiny wings; a prototype present in Giselle fifty years earlier. Trained by the Imperial Maryinsky Ballet School of Russia, Fokine is known for branching away from rigid and flashy technique and for experimenting with the evocation of feelings through movement alone rather than through plot.

The gem of the afternoon was the pas de deux, danced by Umberto De Luca and Claire Pascal to Chopin’s “Valse in C sharp minor.” The “poet” presents his “ideal” in a series of dramatic lifts as she beats her legs high in the air, perpendicular to the ground. The languid and melancholic nature of the “Valse” amplify the mysterious mood as she eludes his attempts to capture her. He holds her wrists as she sautes in arabesque, as if preparing to flee, and she leads him running in diagonal circles around her, still pinned to his wrists.

The pianist, Francesco Novelli, elongated the tempo to accommodate the dancers quite often, sometimes compromising the musicality of Chopin’s composition. For the pas de deux, however, the rubato and lingering at the end of phrases worked very well. Both dancers and music melded into one, embodying the elusive beauty that is firmly embedded in dreams and fantasies.

The finale, with soloists and corps soaring to the “Grande Valse in E flat Major,” returned to the lively and joyous atmosphere of the introductory work, complete with the fun and pleasure of watching white tutus fly through the air while the muses smile. The curtain closes on the same pose as the opening, a symmetrical portrait of classical ballet poses.

The second dance on the program switches sharply from the romantic maidens of Fokine to a corps of seven bare-chested male dancers clad in ragged strips of long white tutus. Neither were they light and airy either, celebrating the ethereal splendor and beauty of classical ballet. Ballet Pathetique, instead, choreographed by Jorma Uotinen, gave a new perspective to ballet as an art form and more importantly to those who are the conduits–the dancers.

The work begins with a lone dancer trotting hunched over an empty silver plate almost using it as a mirror. Slowly, the others cluster together with their plates in hand and stand rocking back and forth in silence until Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Pathetique begins. Unlike most ballets, here it does not matter if the corps is in unison or not because each member is a soloist with his own problems, pains, thoughts and vulnerability, telling his own story.

Uotinen incorporates the behind-the-scenes as part of the performance. One minute the dancers are dancing as if in a real performance and the next they are succumbing to their personal issues. At the end of one movement, they run in a wide circle giving up their plates for a leg, back or neck injury and then slouch-trot off stage. In the next movement they run in a circle displaying the various poses of a proud principal male roll: the carriage of a crown atop his head, arms spread to envelop his beloved, arm bent clasping his pretend cape. During the more melancholy music they wither to the ground, but with the return of the musical theme the lights become brighter and they plaster smiles on their faces with “the show must go on” practically printed on their foreheads.

Perhaps because there have not been many modern ballets created solely for male dancers or perhaps because Uotinen intended the reference, the dancers resembled those of Matthew Bourne’s all male Swan Lake not only in their costume, the white shreds of bottoms with bare chests or and darkly painted eyes, baggy and wounded, but also in some of their arm gestures. One arm bent right angled over the head with the other arm outstretched is one of Bourne’s classic swan poses. Also, sometimes the dancers bend their wrists into their arm and form a cone with their fingers as if about to bite. In another instance they mimic various classical female swan poses. Like a real corps they form a perfect line on opposite sides of the stage, but instead of changing sides gracefully, they bumper car each other before falling to the ground. Some do not get up again while the others busy themselves massaging their feet.

The dancers pause for a moment of anger, pain and prayer before the grand finale of a diagonal jumping line. Audio-produced applause brings modest smiles to their faces and a bouquet of flowers to their arms. They curtsey generously parodying the prima ballerinas and their melodramatic displays of emotion in front of the audience. One is left on stage holding the silver plate. Then the “blue ballerina,” danced by Angela Rosselli, appeared dancing over the strewn flowers. Her blue wig, dusty and stiff, rained white powder as she shook her head in confusion and disbelief. She moved slowly with contorted and trembling legs as if she were on a tight rope or as if she could not remember and had to feel her way. She found brief moments of ballet dancing and the other moments were spent as an insane Giselle or a suicidal Juliet.

The corps of men return in suits with big yellow balloons tied to their backs which reach high over their heads. They cluster together in silence around the “blue ballerina” and rock in silence, using their top hats instead of plates placed over their heart. Yellow balloons, multi-colored flowers, the blue ballerina, black and white suits, the formally stark stage becomes very surreal and vibrant at the end of the work as the ballerina reaches out for something and the lights fade. The portrait may have changed shape and color, but the message remains the same. What began as an illusion of tired and desperate dancers on the stage became a reality.

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