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Arts, Theatre

Another year, another story ballet from Les Grands Ballets

Posted by Amelia / October 20, 2009

20091020r+j.jpgLes Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal has been on something of a story ballet kick in recent years. But the company isn't doing story ballets the way you would expect - with lavish productions of Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, or Giselle. Instead, Les Grands is filling their repertoire with avant-garde re-imaginings of classic tales. First, in 2001, there was Kim Brandstrup's The Queen of Spades. In 2003 the company commissioned Belgian choreographer Stijn Celis to create a new version of Cinderella for its dancers. In 2004 they staged Jean-Christophe Maillot's Romeo and Juliet, and the next year came Kader Belarbi's La Bête et la Belle. Maillot's R & J was restaged in 2006, and is being performed again this year throughout October. Which doesn't necessarily surprise me, but it is, at least for me, disappointing.

Why? Because other than an adherence to a fairy-tale narrative, these new and improved story ballets have something else in common: they're not great. They're all characterized by the same things: spare, abstract set pieces, women clothed in shapeless dresses, plotlines that are hard to recognize, and, most sadly, a shortage of compelling choreography.

Now Maillot's work is better than the rest - even this writer, a self-proclaimed dance lover, had a hard time sticking it out through Cinderella and La Bête et la Belle in years past. Though I found Maillot's movement vocabulary throughout Romeo and Juliet a bit repetitive, there were some noteworthy choreographic moments, particularly for the men of the corps de ballet. But the plot moves slowly, and is often overly abstract. Even those who know Shakespeare's tale backwards and forwards will have trouble following the action in Maillot's ballet - I found myself constantly guessing which famous moment the dancers onstage were trying to portray. This feeling of narrative vagueness is compounded by the fact that the ballet has been taken out of it's usual setting - all sense of place and time are removed. The stage is marked by large, geometric set pieces, and the dancers clad in fluid, modern, black and white garments. Of course, Prokofiev's wonderful score remains, and often serves as the only marker to help the audience dissect the ballet's action.

Following this, it's hard to understand why Les Grands is so set on presenting these story ballets, when each of them effectively strips the story out of the ballet. If the goal is to challenge the company's dancers, and its audience, with fresh, contemporary movement, why approach this in the form of a story ballet? Many of the choreographers listed above have created really great non-fairy-tale works for Les Grands - Celis's Les Noces comes to mind immediately - which says to me that perhaps it's the long, narrative form of the story ballet that's the culprit. After all, Maillot's choreographic strength is evident - just look at Vers un Pays Sage, for one.

Perhaps the reason that Les Grands keeps on presenting story ballets like Romeo and Juliet is that they're more accessible for those who are less familiar with dance. You be the judge. Maillot's Romeo and Juliet is playing at Place des Arts through October 30, so there are many opportunities to go and see for yourself.

Photo by John Hall, courtesy of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal.



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TWO LITTLE GIRLS IN TWO RELIGIOUS MOVIESAt this year's turning-point, peolpe with different faiths are celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa etc. Two very religious films coincide with this holiday season: “Bee Season” and “The Chronicles of Narnia.” In these two films, two little girls pluck up the courage to save their worlds, to stand out, being different from other beings around them. Respectively, they are young actress Flora Cross, who is Eliza in “Bee Season” in a Jewish family; and Georgie Henley, who is Lucy in “The Chronicles of Narnia,” based on C. S. Lewis’ Christian allegory.The prelude for the audience in “Bee Season” presents an ostensibly harmonious family riding in a car, that moves around on the smooth road The music’s movements are as the waves in the ocean. Eliza is watching outside through the vehicle’s windows. Only she pays attention to a big “A” which is hung outside of a helicopter. This plane flies in search of the destination for “A.” Finally we see the letter “A” being inserted in the landmark sign “OAKL ND;” however, this story goes beyond spelling contests.Saul Naumann (Richard Gere) is the father of this upper crust family. Saul is not only teaching Jewish theology, but also a true follower of Kabbalah, which makes him believe that words create the reality. He pursues spiritual perfection. When he finds that his younger daughter is able to exist with words, not by memorizing, but by seeing them, he decides to “train” Eliza to the highest religious level.Now the Naumann family collapses because of this tension. His son is being put aside by Saul instead of playing an instrument with his father formerly, he is recruited by another religion group. Following an illusion, the mother feels that she is repairing the world when she actually is stealing inexpensive jewelry. Saul is so focused on his prodigy daughter, that he does not notice any change in the family.Eliza observes subtle elements, senses that she might have altered the steadiness of her home. She wins the championship from the bottom to the toughest competition. On the evening before the big challenge, she encounters the experiment that the ordinary peolpe cannot reach all the “words” circle her until she is struck on the floor. Awakening next morning, she makes her own decision. When she confronts the last competitor, she gives the wrong answer. In the end she and her brother embrace their father who cries in public immaturely.C. S. Lewis liked to instill Christianity into his writings, he also interpreted theology within his stories. Little Lucy is a good example, Lucy is the youngest one among her four siblings. Without Lucy’s entrance to the backdrop of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” nobody could enter the significant episodes to witness all the touching experiences. Certainly the repentance, the sacrifice, and redemption is not possible to occur.Lucy is honest, innocent, kind of too naive to recognize the insidious mankind. When playing the game of hide and seek, Lucy accidentally falls into a forbidden “wardrobe,” she meets a faun Mr. Tumnus. Her gentle nature makes her forget keeping a distance from this stranger. Lucy accepts Mr. Tumnus’ invitation to his house for tea. In fact, a witch has ordered this faun to turn in all humans. Mr. Tumnus appreciates Lucy’s friendship, decides not to obey his master, hence he tells Lucy to leave.Another plot point is when the symbol of the Christ, the lion, dies on a big rock, Lucy is extremely heartbroken, she weeps and does not escape to abandon her friend, although she does not understand why the lion has died for her brother. This scene matches the description about Jesus’ death in the New Testament. Lucy’s deeds fits two verses in the Book of Matthew as well “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”Presently our earth is divided: Being holy or secular, being sanctified or commercialized, pro or con war, celebrating or disdaining Halloween, even to supporting or attacking “Harry Potter.” Many members in different groups insist on their own principles. Arguments are above discussion. Youngsters suffer from adults’ disputes. The behaviors of Eliza and Lucy’s can stimulate us, the grown-ups to think deeper about how we should act in our own lives.
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