Saturday, February 10, 2007

Marius Petipa

The Ressurection of the Swan....

"The Swan Lake" by the National Ballet Company (Lisbon) at the Teatro de Madrid this week.

The “Swan Lake” felt like “Le Temps Retrouvé” for me… Last time I was into classical ballet must have been two decades ago. Two Royal Ballet performances in more recent times were the exceptions that just underline the rule. (One, in London, was a last minute empty seat opportunity; and the other, in Moscow, was more a chance to boast about having been in the dressing rooms of the Bolshoi, courtesy the Duchess of Parma, or was it the Queen of Ruritania?) . I like modern dance and I have not much free time left for indulging the classical repertoire. How many Giselles, Swan Lakes, Bayadères can one swallow during one’s life? Is it not a question that at some point you hear yourself whispering “Been there, Done that”?

Think for a moment in Morris, or Bausch, or Bailey, isn’t that more exciting and interesting? The uncountable boutique dancing companies of modern dance are a much more appealing reality, as far as I’m concerned.

But it was not always like that, once upon a time. The first love interest of this blogger of yours was a classical ballerina, you see? Near anorectic-like slim, wide green eyes and the brains of a researcher in Immunogenetics, Lilith tried to pursue simultaneously two professional challenges. Ballet and Medicine. A PhD now, at some point of these post-adolescent youthful times she might have rather been a Prima Ballerina, but destiny chose otherwise. For those brief dilemma years I had an almost insider’s view of the Ballet scene in Lisbon. Felt like being in the maternity ward, in the building at least, when this “Companhia Nacional de Bailado”, CNB, was born.

CNB is visiting Madrid with a “Swan Lake” that pays justice to the continuing tradition of classical ballet in my hometown. (Curiously enough there’s no equivalent to the CNB in Spain). The art direction and the clothes were refreshingly unstuffy, the average level of dancing seemed to me highly commendable and the very first roles were superbly performed. Ana Lacerda has arms as long as Cyd Charisse’s legs and her Odette has an incredible, almost street-wise, sex-appeal. She doesn’t die in this version and that has robbed one from a moment one looks forward to. (After the performance, I congratulated Ana Lacerda but, apologizing, I told her I truly regretted that she didn’t die. )

Ana Lacerda at top form...

Prince Sigfried, on loan from the Royal Ballet, was Carlos Acosta who has an athleticism and all-round technique up there with the very best in today’s Barishnikov-free ballet world. I particularly liked Filipa Castro dancing the flamenco-like bits in Petipa choreography with a stilized trajo de luces, to the evident delight of the madrileño audience.

And that brings me to Marius Petipa, the foremost choreographer of the Imperial Ballet of St Petersburg whose colourful biography well deserves some space in this blog. In fact, Marseilles-born Petipa actually lived in Spain for four years working as a dancer (like his brother and their father before their time) and studying Spanish (flamenco) dance. He both choreographed and danced at the time flamenco-inspired pieces with titles like “La Perle de Seville” or “La Fleur de Grenade”. He left hastily Madrid upon being challenged to a duel by the Marquis of Chateaubriand, a diplomat at the French Embassy, who suspected, rightly, that his wife was having a pas-de-deux “de trop” with Marius.

Petipa went to Petersburg in 1847, first assumed choreographic responsibilities in 1849 and finally took charge of the Marynsky in 1869. (The same Marynsky who was known as the Kirov during Bolchevik times.). Almost as an ironical illustration of the well known phrase of Pushkin (“Petersburg is my beloved wife but Moscow is my mistress”), Marius married first a prima ballerina of St Petersburg and later a Lubova (“Love”) from the Moscow Ballet.

A last delicious - and typically Russian – piece of gossip on “The Swan Lake”. The first Odette should have been the foremost female dancer at the time, Anna Sobeschanskaya, but the pressures from high office prevented it. Anna had accepted jewels, and presumably love declarations too, from the Governor-General of Moscow, but married a dancer, Stanislav Gillert, instead. Gillert promptly sold the jewels for cash and the Governor-General was not amused. In a final twist, the very first Prince Siegfried was Gillert himself!

I wish this kind of stuff could be read in a nice programme or leaflet handed over before swans and princes started to dance, maybe sponsored by the Ornithological Society and the Monarchist League….


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