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February 2012

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Juilliard Dance

Published: February 27, 2012
Category: review

Les Ballets Monte Carlo's Stylistic Evolution

By Rachel Straus

NEW YORK — Back in 1996, when Les Ballets Monte Carlo made its U.S. debut, its artistic director Jean-Christophe Maillot was perceived as having the most American looking of European ballet companies. New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff described BMC’s offerings as “neoclassical.” This was code for Balanchine, whose work the 11-year-old company performed. Times, however, have changed. As viewed in its Joyce Theater debut February 14-19, Maillot’s BMC aesthetic is now firmly in the European school. In his works “Altro Canto I” (2006) and “Opus 40” (2000), viewed Feb. 18 at the matinee, expressionism rather than neoclassicism reigns.

"Opus 40" by Jean-Chrisophe Maillot

Maillot’s Monaco-based troupe was founded in 1985 by Princess Caroline of Hanover, acting on her late mother’s wish to establish a permanent ballet ensemble in the land of casinos and beaches. The Princess continues to be its primary underwriter. Meanwhile Maillot’s work bears resemblance to the late European choreographer Maurice Béjart, whose works were highly accessible. Like Béjart, Maillot commissions artists to create elaborate costumes and set designs. Like Bejart, Maillot mixes the ballet d’école with modern dance idioms to make statements about contemporary life.

Maillot, who was born in France and was a soloist with the Hamburg Ballet, came of age in the wake of the sexual revolution. In “Altro Canto I” (2006) his subject is the amorphousness of gender. Maillot states, “The music of Monteverdi… creates harmony by juxtaposing opposites, bringing to mind the masculine/feminine duality which makes up every person.” Maillot plays with notions of maleness and femaleness through Karl Lagerfeld’s stylish costumes. The dancers who wear silver corsets and jeans appear to be more male than female, regardless of their sex. The dancers who wear silver mini tutus appear to be more female. When two bald, muscular dancers (Giovanni Mongelli and Gaétan Morlotti) perform headstands dressed in Lagerfeld’s tutus, Maillot literally stands gender normalcy on its head.

With shorn red hair, in jeans and a corset, the featured principal (Bernice Coppieters) in “Altro Canto I” flies through the air like a flame (thanks to the support of two men). Aloft, she doesn’t pose in a typical ballet position, like an arabesque, but makes her spine undulate like a dolphin, or a modern dancer. Though she is a muse to ten men, she is not an object of their desire. Experienced in the aural context of (a taped performance of) Monteverdi’s “Vespro della Beata Vergine,” she is a religious icon as she looms high above the stage, and as the men prostrate themselves in front of her. Coppieters’ character comes down to earth when she smiles wryly and purses her lips, blowing a spout of air onto a hunched-over dancer (Giovanni Mongelli). This action revives him, and together they trace the circumference of the darkened stage, alternatively adjusting each other’s bodies in plays of power.

If “Altro Canto I” is more modern dance than ballet, “Opus 40” leans more toward ballet. It’s a rather bland piece: the women dance softly and at a moderate pace; the men dance with greater force and at moderate pace. While ballet choreographers are making dancers move faster and faster, stylistically, Maillot appears to be in no hurry. “Opus” is a pièce d’occasion, made by Maillot to mark his 40th birthday and his 40th work for BMC. The music of Meredith Monk and the costumes and sets of George Condo are its saving graces. In taped excerpts of “Turtle Dreams,” “Dolmen Music,” “Do You Be,” “Volcano Songs” and “Books of Days,” Monk’s chameleon voice brings to mind Muslim wedding ululations, parrot calls and monkey shrieks. Designer Condo also channels nature in his backdrop and costumes. The women, in well-fitted short dresses of pink and purple, look like flowers. Meanwhile the men, in brown slacks and shirts, represent the earth’s soil that nourishes them, while the five lead dancers in yellow must symbolize the sun.

Bernice Coppieters in "Opus 40"

The theme of “Opus,” according to Maillot’s program notes, is youth. Its presentation feels rather sallow, since the featured dancer was, once again, Bernice Coppieters. She is a marvelous performer, but she is no spring chicken. Here she is the muse to three men who appear to represent, in triplicate, Maillot. They place her limbs in various positions and then step back to consider their handiwork. She is delighted and then, when her breast is handled, she’s annoyed. When Coppieters walks off the stage in a huff, the ballet abruptly ends. The end of youth, Maillot implies, occurs with the end of innocence.

Besides Maillot’s quasi-narrative expressionist style, Ballets Monte Carlo’s strength resides with its connection to history. In the 1910s, the newly formed Ballets Russes astonished Monte Carlo audiences. In the 1920s, its choreographers devised a number of masterpieces (like “Les Noces” and “Apollo”) in Monte Carlo’s opera house studios. BMC could use a masterpiece, if (as they indicate on their website) they represent the artistic continuation of Diaghilev’s company. Watching classically trained, beautifully-costumed dancers interpret an array of music around a recognizable theme is enjoyable. The experience is pleasant; it’s just not that masterful.


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