Vivaldi and Deep Thoughts- The French Are On a Spree

Question: What’s an hour and a half long (without intermission), driven by Concept and set to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons?

Answer: Either of two ballets that have just had their Paris premieres.

Nicolas Le Riche’s Caligula, in fact, has just had its world premiere—though I doubt it’s going to see much of the world beyond the Paris Opéra.

You might think it was either a daring idea or a crackpot idea to set a ballet about Caligula to Vivaldi, but it’s neither: We’re just too accustomed, in our post-Balanchine world, to ballets that are motored by their music. As it turns out, The Four Seasons are there for an historical reason. You see, Caligula reigned for almost four years, and each year gets a Season of its own—his inevitable death coincides with darkest winter. Otherwise, the music is of minor relevance: Yes, it keeps things going, but like the set and the costumes, it’s an extra—subordinate to the Big Idea.

And what is that Big Idea? It’s that Caligula was not just your ordinary young psychopathic tyrant, murderous, treacherous, caring only for the sublime mime Mnester and the horse Incitatus (who had his own palace and may even have been made a Senator); no, he was a kind of poet. “The Caligula who interests me,” says M. Le Riche, “is the creator who pursues his dream to its utmost limit.” In other words, he’s a French intellectual.

The very extensive, informative program notes bear this out. Suetonius is on hand to provide a few hard facts, but the big guns are Roland Barthes and Nietzsche. And Racine: Guillaume Gallienne, the dramaturge, explains that Caligula is structured like a Racinian tragedy, obeying the fundamental rules of the classical stage: the unities of time, place and action. Caligula, you see, is a tragic hero—“He is fundamentally alone.”

There’s no disputing the intelligence at work in all this, but it’s all in the head. On the stage is an ordinary, thin spectacle, undistinguished by any choreographic originality and conveying nothing. There are eight Senators in Planet of the Apes get-up (two of them are women, a touch that doesn’t come from Suetonius), and eight female “followers,” two of whom are men. When Caligula comes slowly, slowly down a giant set of stairs in his tight, brief red costume with white markings on the front, you can tell there’s something wrong. Everyone’s scared, and you would be, too, if your Emperor were making horrible faces at you and pushing you around.

Caligula was performed by a handsome young dancer named Jérémie Bélingard, and he’s as delicious a Roman tidbit as we’ve encountered since Tony Curtis in Kubrick’s Spartacus. (He should be careful, though: Hunky can quickly turn to chunky.) Most of his long role is taken up with gesturing, posturing and emoting, punctuated by extended off-center balances, a few bursts of explosive movement and several intimate pas de deux with La Lune (The Moon, to you), who invades Caligula’s imagination and “stands for his vision of inaccessible love.” She’s danced convincingly by Clairemarie Osta, but there’s not much for her to do except tangle with him on the floor and be wafted on high in a few ballet lifts that are so standard they’re beyond banal. Steps are not M. Le Riche’s strong point.

The scene with the horse (Gil Isoart) has some charm, as Caligula tenderly leads him around the stage at the end of a long ribbon (there’s a metal bit in his mouth). At one point, Caligula drags the two female Senators up the stairs and out of sight, and when he brings them back, they’re much the worse for wear—now we understand why Le Riche has planted women in the Senate. One of the Senators is casually murdered and left lying on the stage for quite a while. You don’t know why until you read in the program notes that Caligula, when he killed people, liked to smell the odors of their dying—he’d only let their bodies be carted off when the air around them grew suffocating. Oh, those poets!

Eventually, the Emperor himself is assassinated, though even here the drama is dissipated. A lot of people stab him upstage and run away, and after standing there apparently unscathed, he staggers downstage and collapses. Blackout. Curtain.

The group dances are dance-by-numbers; the solos are oy-vey. Most interesting are the extended passages for Mnester, all in white, who comes on with other mysterious figures in the breaks between the four seasons (to some “ création électroacoustique” by Louis Dandrel) and performs very deliberate and slow gestures, interrupted by a single, sudden double air turn—who knows why?

Because Mnester is performed by the Opéra’s finest dancer, Laurent Hilaire, your attention is held. This is an artist of the first rank—slim, elegant, focused, intense; there’s a little Anthony Dowell in him, a little Peter Boal, but the sharp mind is his own. Under the inexplicable rules of the Opéra, Hilaire has “officially” retired now that he’s 42. Luckily, he’s already working as a ballet master, and we can hope that he’ll be able to pass along to the next generation his exemplary dedication and comportment.

It’s easy to poke fun at all this overthink and underdance, but credit should be given where it’s due. Caligula is without value, but it’s not vulgar Eurotrash; its creators just mistake intelligence for talent and concepts for ballets. But where would someone like Le Riche—he’s a popular young star of the company, and this is his first work of substance—have learned otherwise? There’s no recent choreographic tradition here to build on—no Balanchine, no Ashton, not even a Robbins, a Tudor or a MacMillan. And so the Opéra alternates between this kind of expensive, efficient, meaningless story-concept ballet and the predictable imports: Forsythe, Trisha Brown and, like just about every serious ballet company in the world today, Balanchine. A revival of Jewels premieres this week.

As for the second new ballet to The Four Seasons, at the Théâtre de la Ville, it’s by Angelin Preljocaj, and it’s actually called The Four Seasons. It’s also far more interesting and alive than its rival. Preljocaj is an experienced choreographer, and although he also lives and dies by The Concept, his current work doesn’t rest on an intellectual concept but a visual one. For more than 90 minutes, a succession of outré costumes and objects come into view—most of them surprising and many of them witty. There’s a hail of sponges from above, and a weird pair of dancers got up as porcupines—or are they hedgehogs? There are two fellows in cellophane, and a group covered from head to toe in Kermit green. (“Hi, Greenie,” one of them says—in English, “it’s me.” “Oh, you’re so green! You’re the greenest!”) There’s a pair of black stiletto pumps that falls to earth, and Spongeman, and a couple in white masks that are attached to each at the nose, and a girl in a bikini—you get the picture.

None of this would be more than decoration if Preljocaj wasn’t also demonstrating a growing gift for actual choreography, for meaningful encounter through expressive movement. Again and again, people confront each other, sometimes in naked antagonism, plucking at each other’s flesh, sometimes in amity. The dancers have strong, individual looks and personalities—like Mark Morris’, say. You get interested in them. There’s not much sense of structure to this Four Seasons, but moment to moment, even when things get complicated, they don’t get confused. And good old Vivaldi seems to be on hand for a reason: Preljocaj isn’t the most musical choreographer of our day, but he’s listening. As for his chief collaborator, Fabrice Hyber, who provides the “ chaosgraphie” as well as the décor and most of the costumes and props, he has an inventive mind and a goofy sense of fun.

Preljocaj, at least in this work, and in the context of French ballet as a whole, is a solid plus. And he’s come a long way. The Opéra has just been showing his well-known piece from the early 90’s, Le Parc (it’s been seen in New York), and it’s in the Caligula tradition: no rotting corpses or Senatorial horses, no Vivaldi (it was Mozart’s turn), but intellectual concept all the way. It’s handsome, it’s suggestive, but it’s dull, dull, dull—again, Laurent Hilaire saved the day, to the extent that it was savable. The fact that Preljocaj has grown more interested in movement and less in thinking is the healthiest thing I can tell you about the state of ballet in Paris today. Vivaldi and Deep Thoughts- The French Are On a Spree