Dominic Walsh Revisits Ballets Russes
By JOHN DeMERS
The much-anticipated Dominic Walsh tribute to Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes on that company’s 100th birthday – with three out of the four pieces being world premieres – has come and gone, and it must be accorded a success by any means of measurement. The Saturday night audience alone, swelled to sellout status by playing centerpiece to a black-tie fundraiser, included Walsh’s former Houston Ballet mentor Ben Stevenson and several dancers from his years with that company. All turned out to show their support, of course, and also to see Walsh’s sure-to-be personal take on some of the most iconic ballet moments of the entire 20th century.
There was considerable variation in style among the three pieces rolled out before intermission, so preference for one over the others tended toward the subjective. For my money, L’Apres-midi d’un Faun – originally associated with Nijinsky but also performed to acclaim by Nureyev late in his career – was by far the strongest thing in Act I. La Mort du Cygne (the showy performance piece known in English as The Dying Swan) remained the evening’s weakest. And the single creation that was not a world premiere, another Nijinsky signature called Le Spectre de la Rose, fell somewhere in between.
Afternoon of a Faun, featuring the typical shiveringly beautiful music of Debussy, made for a stageful of lithe, slender young bodies, male and female, all involved in a kind of graceful romp through the perfection of nature. With Walsh himself as The Creator, the Faun (beautifully danced by Ty Parmenter) and the so-called Orefaun (strikingly embodied by the almost unnaturally tall, thin Randolph Ward) found new and beautiful ways to use their bodies while, particularly in the case of the Faun, evoking the handful of Japanese-influenced silhouette poses made part of our culture by early photographs of Nijinsky. Wisely, Walsh saved Afternoon to send audiences out to intermission impressed indeed.
Spectre is a much simpler story with a much smaller cast. A young woman falls asleep in a chair after returning from a ball, presumably her first. As she sleeps, the spirit of the rose she wore rises up, dances around her dramatically and eventually takes her out of the chair to dance with him. It is a striking call to full womanhood, to a romantic and clearly sexual awakening, danced knowingly but also with restraint and tenderness by DWDT’s Domenico Luciano as the Spectre and Felicia McBride as the Young Woman. The only false note was the piece’s ending – which involved the girl enjoying a kind of back-arching orgasm on the floor at the close of her dream. Ironically, in the original from the early 1900s, it was the Faun who got to enjoy a solitary orgasm in his then-scandalous final moments. In Walsh’s variation, it was as though the orgasm transferred itself from one ballet to the other.
Really, not much needs to be said about The Dying Swan. Intended to forget the feathers and tell the story of a woman facing her mortality, it came off as little more than Noel Coward gone maudlin. We see a woman done up in 1930s elegance (her hair, makeup and costume provided by Houston’s own Ceron), smoking a cigarette and sipping a martini. Then, as though left alone to her thoughts, we watch her body go through a series of awkward spasms that only begin to make sense whenever they resemble a bird flapping its wings. Finally, just to drive the meaninglessness of all this home, the woman seems to return to herself and her martini. In truth, The Dying Swan was always a very slight excuse for some great ballerinas to show off their ability to be gracefully bird-like. Stripped by Walsh of that single illusion, there really wasn’t much left.
The evening’s showpiece was the world premiere of Walsh’s Firebird, set to Stravinsky’s soul-stopping music and starring Marie-Agnes Gillot of the Paris Opera Ballet as The Woman and Luciano as Her Husband. These brief, noncommittal ID’s speak to the ambiguity that haunts this lengthy, physical and at times wildly acrobatic piece – and that in its best moments, makes it so haunting. The story is presented as a kind of flashback, showing a comfortably lifeless couple caught in middle age (except for their high level of dancing, that is). They are trapped in a long, drawn-out, silent recrimination over an affair the man suspects his wife once indulged in, perhaps many years earlier. The ballet relives their story, from first love to the affair to the very brink of violent revenge, many of the moves overtly sexual and, in the case of Gillot, most performed in black bra and panties.
In taking what is traditionally an exotic story filled with bright, cascading red costumes from some ancient kingdom far away and turning it into a contemporary domestic drama, Walsh seems to be speaking to not only the secrets we all carry but the dark dramas that roil beneath our oh-so-calm surfaces. The ballet culminates with a courageous decision to come clean and seek absolution, and a mature vow to love one another older, wiser and perhaps truly for the first time. Strangely, if you tried to think of one scene from your own life that might merit the type of timpani-rolling, brass-crazed fanfares Stravinsky gives to these final moments, it would surely have to be a scene akin to this.
Whatever else can be said about this Firebird as choreography, Gillot and Luciano were incredible in it. She in particular brought her long legs to wrap sensually around anything and everything in sight, and alternately to spread, stretch and rise up suggestively from floor, table, even more than once from Luciano’s back as she rolled across him. Sex was everywhere in this piece, breaking free of all repression. Considering the revolutionary work done by the choreographic, musical and design talent unleashed by the Ballets Russes on one unsuspecting new century, this sexuality seemed entirely apropos to an even newer one.
Photo: Luciano and Gillot in Walsh’s new Firebird.