Photo by Gene Schiavone, of Roberto Bolle and Julie Kent in Lady of the Camellias, taken from ABT website.
I was so busy last week carting pounds and pounds of books back and forth from the Javits Center – and killing my back and shoulders in the process, that I haven’t had time yet to figure out how to reinstall my Disqus system, which means you still can’t comment here, unfortunately. Sorry! I was going to wait to write about ABT’s Lady of the Camellias (and their other ballets I’ve seen) until I had the comments system up again, and until I’ve seen the second Lady cast, but I just have a few things to say now, mainly prompted by the critics, as usual.
This ballet, by John Neumeier, the artistic director of the Hamburg Ballet, is based on – and closely follows – the 1848 novel by Alexandre Dumas, Fils, which in turn is based on the tragic true story of a beautiful and rather famous Parisian courtesan, Marguerite Gautier, who falls in love with a young rich Frenchman, Armand Duval. The story is told in flashback and through various viewpoints and utilizes a play within a play to create theme (or a ballet within a ballet — in this case Manon, which tells the same doomed story of a prostitute and her lover), but this complicated structure doesn’t seem to confuse since the basic story is pretty clear. Though she initially rejects him when they meet at a performance of Manon, Marguerite eventually falls for Armand, and is torn between her role in society and her love for him. Armand is by turns angry, jealous, smitten, in love, and finally devastated when Marguerite terminates her relationship with him, due to pressures from the powerful Duke and Armand’s upright father, then dies of tuberculosis. Neumeier, an American who, like William Forsythe, has for most of his career worked in Germany, made the ballet in 1978, but this is the first time ABT has performed it. The novel has previous incarnations in the opera La Traviata and the Greta Garbo movie Camille.
I saw not Tuesday’s opening night but Thursday’s performance, by the same cast as opening night: Roberto Bolle as Armand, Julie Kent as Marguerite, and Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg as the “ballet within the ballet” dancers from Manon, Manon and Des Grieux. My first thoughts are: I loved Neumeier’s Death in Venice (based on the Mann novel) and I loved this as well. He really knows how to make a theatrical ballet, how to grab you and make you feel like you’re in these characters’ story. The settings are extravagant and specific, evocative of the 19th Century, the costumes are plush, and good use is made of the front edges of the stage, where the dancers come to reflect on the onstage action or to carry on with their own drama outside of the main action. The music is all Chopin, both orchestral and piano, and often the pianist is onstage; at times he actually becomes a character in the drama, interacting with the others, making music while they dance, and whom the characters may tease, or stop from playing to create a commotion. There were so many things to watch — the characters on the front side of the stage, the ensemble dancing in the middle, the pianist. It created a world. And the ballet within the ballet was done very well too: a red curtain masking the back half of the stage parted to reveal David and Gillian in heavy makeup and 18th Century garb, and they danced a Manon pas de deux as the others reacted — Armand falling for the beautiful Marguerite as Marguerite began to identify with Gillian’s Manon.
And then the beautiful partnering between Marguerite and Armand becomes front and center whenever it happens. Many critics are finding the choreography vulgar and crass but I didn’t. I thought the many sweeping lifts were beautiful and evocative of that world – this isn’t Romeo and Juliet, it’s the story of a courtesan and her very passionate lover, so it makes sense for Armand to lift Marguerite high above his head in adulation one moment then bring her down and place her on the floor the next. At times it reminded me of Kenneth MacMillan (both his versions of Romeo and Juliet and Manon) without copying him; the lifts were original. At one point, Armand holds his arms out in a T shape and Marguerite wraps her arms around his from behind. It looks like she’s on a cross. Or at times he’ll pick her up by holding onto her lower arms, which she’ll hold down. It looks like she’s a prisoner and can’t move – which she is in a way. And then there are lifts where she’s lying on her side, like he’s glorifying her.
Also, some of the choreography reminded me of Tudor, such as when Marguerite is begging for acceptance from Armand’s father and she circles around him repeatedly on pointe, or where a character will show hesitation and conflicted feelings with the almost Swan Lake-like rapid fluttering of a foot or by going in one direction, then with intentionally awkward rapidity, stopping and going in the opposite.
And I loved some of the floor choreography. At one point, Marguerite and Armand are sitting opposite each other, back to back, legs extended out, and they lean back and lovingly wrap their necks around each other’s side to side. So sweet.
I don’t know, look at some of these NYTimes slides and see if you think “vulgar” or original, evocative. Critics are also saying the choreography is severely lacking in musicality. To be honest, I didn’t pay much attention to that. I thought Chopin was evocative of that era, that world, as was the choreography, but I didn’t pay attention to the ways that the movement complemented the music. In general I don’t think a certain movement has to hit a certain beat; sometimes movement can play with a rhythm, question it, or work against it for effect. I don’t even think movement needs music. But I’ll pay attention to the music and movement when I see the ballet again next week.
I’ll also write more about the dancers’ interpretations after I’ve seen the second cast.