Forget Freedom Fries-French ‘Concepts’ Trash Ballet

The French have a lot to answer for, and I’m not talking about Iraq. Despite the rigid classicism of the famous Paris Opéra school and company, the French have done more than their share to unmoor la Danse from its traditions and standards. Indeed, it was the Opéra, under Nureyev, that unleashed Sylvie Guillem on European ballet, a dancer with the fatal combination of tremendous ability, a ruthless determination to do it her way and a total lack of sensibility. I hate to think of the number of ballerinas whose classicism has been corrupted by her extravagant ways.

We can also thank France for Maurice Béjart, now 76 and still churning out grandiose works that strain for significance without achieving any. Béjart is one of the prime begetters of dance Eurotrash, that facile blend of lofty concept and overexcited, narcissistic movement. In the early 1970’s, when Suzanne Farrell was in exile from New York City Ballet, Béjart gave her a home, and Farrell loyalists would troop off to see her in works like Bolero . It was a cruel test of loyalty. Since then, I’ve found the temptation to avoid Béjart fairly irresistible, but recently, in Paris, some self-destructive impulse suckered me into attending an uninterrupted two-hour jamboree called Le Presbytère -or to give it its full name, Le Presbytère n’a Rien Perdu de Son Charme, Ni le Jardin de Son Eclat . Béjart reminds us in the program book that this title-in English, “The Presbytery has lost none of its charm, nor the garden its brilliance”-is a famous line from Gaston Leroux’s novel The Mystery of the Yellow Room . “It has no special connection to the content of my ballet,” he assures us; “I like it, that’s all.”

If you know your Béjart, you will not be surprised to hear that Le P. is about Life, Death and AIDS; that the costumes are by Versace; and that the music is by Queen, except when it’s by Mozart. It begins with a gust of wind, a thunderclap and a lot of dancers lying flat on their backs under white sheets. Eventually they sit up. Then they’re back down. Then they turn, rise and toss their sheets up in the air. Then they walk forward together, stretch, spasm, and hop up and down while their mouths open and shut. Then they stare upwards into the beyond ….

Much of the ballet takes place on the floor, everyone rolling around, crawling, swimming-down there, you don’t have to perform a lot of pesky steps. One original interlude involves two couples on hospital trolleys being wheeled around by nurses while interacting romantically. At another point, a bunch of guys mix it up in a see-though cube that looks like a big shower (are we in the Baths?) Suddenly there’s a huge screen filled with up-close sweaty images of Béjart’s early muse, Jorge Donn, agonizing in clown drag and make-up (you’d be sweaty, too, if you were being crucified). And need I point out how many naked male torsos are on exhibit? Eventually, one young woman strips to her waist-a moment of equal-opportunity toplessness-but no one seems to care. After well over an hour and a half, toute la compagnie , 33 strong, is down under those sheets again, only to rise for a final solemn procession downstage, hands linked, to the inspiring sounds of “The Show Must Go On.”

The Béjart company has had many names-Ballets de l’Etoile, Ballet-Théatre de Paris, Ballet du XXe Siècle-and various homes: Brussels for many years, currently, Lausanne. But it’s the French who have canonized Béjart and who love his company under any name. At the vast Palais des Congrès, multitudes stood and shouted, as if they were at a rock concert. And, of course, they were.

Meanwhile, over at the Palais Garnier, the Ballet de l’Opéra National de Paris was premiering La Petite Danseuse de Degas , a full-evening work by the former “Etoile” Patrice Bart. In the last few years, the life of the 14-year-old girl who was apparently the model for Degas’ famous statue has been researched, and her history is not a pretty one. She was Marie Van Goethem, and her mother, a poor laundress, managed to install her and her sisters in the Opéra’s ballet school, where the girls not only learned to dance, but how to accommodate artists by posing-and other discerning gentlemen by other means. One of the Van Goethem sisters went on to a distinguished career, but Marie was unlucky and passed into oblivion … until now.

We see her first in her Degas pose and tutu, enclosed in a museum vitrine. The two acts of the ballet take us back through her sad progress, first as an aspirant dancer filled with fantasies of becoming a ballerina; then in the artist’s studio; then dismissal from the Opéra and a stretch in jail for stealing a gentleman’s wallet; then sinking to the dreary life of a washerwoman; and finally, transmuted into art, ascending to glory as Degas’ La Petite Danseuse . It’s a good subject for a ballet: Dance itself triggers the action; the landscape is the dance world; and the story offers a number of strong roles-the girl herself, of course, but also the ballerina, the balletmaster and a dance mother from hell. The libretto makes enough sense, the original score (by Denis Levaillant) is overexcited but danceable, the elaborate costumes (by Sylvie Skinazi) are a complete success. And the Opéra has gone all out in casting, assigning the leading roles to four of its most important dancers-at the performance I attended, Laëtitia Pujol was the petite danseuse, Agnès Letestu the ballerina, Jean-Guillaume Bart (no relation to Patrice) the balletmaster and veteran Elisabeth Maurin the mother. No one of them projects a thrilling individuality, although Maurin is virulently effective, but all display the careful training and stage smarts the Opéra is famous for.

Most important, there’s an idea here, rather than a self-congratulatory Concept. Nor is La Petite Danseuse a reductive Masterpiece Theatre –like version of a familiar story-the kind of thing we’ve seen at its best from MacMillan and at its worst from Cranko. So why, in the end, is this ballet no more than tastefully professional? Patrice Bart knows how to organize a dance, but the way he puts steps together is generic, in much the same way that the Opéra dancers seem generic. We see the result of the Opéra’s history: It’s had strong leaders like Lifar and Nureyev, but no choreographer of genius-no Ashton, no Balanchine, to stamp the company with a style of its own. And the big scenes are correspondingly predictable: the bustling street (flower sellers, prostitutes, soldiers); the dance studio (glamorous ballerina entrance, overextended solo for the dancemaster, hovering mothers); the ball (red draperies and ominous music-a pastiche of Ravel’s, and Balanchine’s, La Valse ); the cabaret complete with can-can. There’s a sinister figure in black-is he a stalker? Degas? Fate? You can see it all coming, and there’s much too much of it: If La Petite had been compressed into one lean act instead of two bloated ones, Bart would have had a more effective work. Still, by virtue of its institutional competence, you can sit through this piece without suffering.

Which is more than you can say for the excrescence I took in at B.A.M. the night I got back from Paris. It was the Ballets de Monte-Carlo’s Cinderella , directed and choreographed by Jean-Christophe Maillot, whose works, we’re told, have been performed in London, Rome, Madrid, Paris, Brussels, Lisbon, Cairo, Mexico, Rio de Janeiro, São Paolo, Hong Kong, Seoul, Manila, Tokyo, Brisbane, Beijing, Shanghai “and more.” Not every plague, apparently, can be contained by the World Health Organization.

There have been a number of ballets made to Prokofiev’s popular score, and those I’ve seen previously have been content to tell the story. This one has a Concept: Cinderella’s late mother comes back as the Fairy and is temporarily reunited with her husband, while preparing Cinderella for the ball and the True Path of humility and virtue. The Fairy doesn’t provide a glass slipper-or, for that matter, any slipper. Instead, as the program helpfully explains, she arranges things so that “the young girl’s foot, covered with sequins, emerges from her lentil dish.” I’ll spare you the petulant prince and his rowdy buddies, the fussy “Pleasure Superintendents,” the red and yellow “Exotics,” the rhapsodic swirlings of the love duets. Everything was fatuous; everything was Dada by way of Disney.

I gather that the Monte-Carlo company-and the resident company in Toulouse as well-does a good job with Balanchine. The Opéra ballet, too, is turning more and more to Balanchine-a heavy stroke of irony, considering how Lifar stole the Opéra job away from him in the early 30’s, and how the French critical apparatus and the Paris audience have never really taken to Balanchine (they’ve notoriously preferred Robbins whenever City Ballet has hit Paris). In 1947, Mr. B. created Le Palais de Cristal ( Symphony in C ) for the Opéra, and at last, after more than half a century, the French are catching on. Obviously, Balanchine isn’t the answer to everything that’s wrong with French ballet, but he’s a start.