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Les Enfants Terribles

Posted on February 7, 2017

Literature and dance are age-old partners. Challenged by the weave in words of plot, character, atmosphere, emotion, time and place, choreographers reinvent the textual elements that most appeal to them, fully aware and possibly frightened that they can’t realise them all.

José Limón’s The Moor’s Pavane, Robert Helpmann’s Hamlet, and Frederick Ashton’s The Dream capture the essence of their respective sources in a single act. John Cranko’s Onegin responds to the surroundings and manners of Pushkin’s characters as well as their inner turmoil. Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles, an eerie tale of a young brother and sister obsessed with each other, seems ideal for a transformation from the page to the stage, but Javier De Frutos is apparently the wrong person to make that happen. A talented artist with a fascination for life’s seamy side and a proven gift for expressing it, he has combined in this production Royal Ballet dancers, contemporary dancers, and three singers from The Royal Opera’s Jette Parker Young Artists programme, expanding Philip Glass’ “dance opera” beyond the tightly structured events and macabre tone that inspired it. Produced at the Barbican Theatre in honour of Glass’ 80th birthday, this elaborate show stretched over a tedious two hours and missed the boat entirely.

I don’t mean there’s only one way to interpret Cocteau’s 1929 novel; I mean that this interpretation so often ran counter to its style and subject. Dissipating the crucial intensity of the siblings’ twisted emotional involvement, three or four people enacted each character, singers as well as dancers weakening the dramatic impact of many scenes with insistent simultaneous echoes.

Left to right: Thomas Whitehead, Kristen McNally, Zenaida Yanowsky (obscured) Edward Watson, Paul Curievici, Emily Edmonds, Gyula Nagy, Clemmie Sveass, Jennifer Davis, Jonathan Goddard, Gemma Nixon, Thomasin Gülgeç

You can’t blame the performers for destroying the narrative’s claustrophobic tension; they also had to rotate the walls of the set and push the furniture around. And run up and down the short staircases fixed to those walls. And struggle to be noticed against projections of wallpaper and snow and their own bodies. The three pianists in the pit lost out too as the wheels of two iron bedsteads rumbled over their efforts, and the singers’ clumsy French rendered the lyrics unintelligible.

And what about the creepy relationship between brother and sister that lies at the heart of their passionate story? In 1957 – that’s 60 years ago – Herbert Ross created a ballet for American Ballet Theatre based on Jean Genet’s play The Maids. Following Genet’s suggestion, Ross cast men as the women in this fantasy of sado-masochism, and the result was deemed “as powerful as it is disturbing and to disturb is one of the perilous and great functions of art.” Next month at The Lowry, members of Northern Ballet will present Paradis, Carlos Pons Guerra’s new version of the same play.

Now that every nuance of sexual behaviour is open to discussion and graphic dramatisation, why would any dancemaker shy from the erotic undertones of Les Enfants Terribles? De Frutos has handled more outrageous encounters before, yet this time he depicts the siblings’ cherished isolation and the “Game” they develop privately without any choreographic acknowledgment of gender, leaving that vital distinction to the costumes.

In the second section of Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works, entitled Becomings and prompted by Virginia Woolf’s short novel Orlando, the interchangeable vocabulary of the cross-dressing dancers suits her study of sexual identity right down to the ground. While the two surrounding portions of that ballet connect less effectively with the novels from which they’re supposedly drawn, the movement in this central section links us directly to the teasing ambiguity that defines its source’s characters.

What was De Frutos hoping to do if not bring us closer, somehow, to the defining nature of Cocteau’s novel and Glass’ score?

 

Photographs: Bill Cooper, courtesy of the Royal Opera House

Barbara Newman is dance critic for Country Life, a frequent contributor to numerous periodicals and reference works, and the author of a number of books about ballet which include a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance; a children’s book, The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories; and Grace Under Pressure.

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