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Ballets de Monte-Carlo and Juanita Amaya Company

Posted on January 2, 2008

Ballets de Monte-Carlo, Grimaldi Forum, Monaco – January, 2, 2008

Juanita Amaya and Company, Theatre de Grasse – November 17, 2007

Following the mixed bag of offerings at the Cannes Dance Festival, I had been looking forward to the new season by the Ballets de Monte-Carlo. I have been impressed over the past three years by the company’s consistently high standard and the interesting juxtaposition of a neo-classical dance technique and original contemporary ideas. In 2007 Jean-Christophe Maillot was invited to mount a new production of Gounod’s opera Faust for the Staatstheater in Wiesbaden, Germany. No doubt this experience inspired him to translate the eternal themes of good and evil, youth and ageing as described in Goethe’s famous play of 1808, as a ballet for his own Ballets de Monte-Carlo’s Christmas season. His collaborator in Wiesbaden, the designer, Rolf Sachs, has provided a series of striking stage sets in the fashion of today’s post-modern opera design – a huge open stage with a brilliantly lit cyclorama, backcloths and panels which constantly descend and rise, an outsize armchair, a huge cross, an oversize bed, a suspended upside-down tree and enough chairs to fill a furniture shop. The set and the costumes, by Maillot’s usual designer in Monte-Carlo, Philippe Guilloche, are in strikingly contrasted blacks and whites slashed with scarlet.

Alas, Maillot has lumbered himself with the heavy, melodramatic Faust Symphony by Franz Liszt, which appears to be at odds with his very fluid choreographic style and despite excellent performances by all the principals, scene follows scene with little impact. Bernice Coppieters, as a ghostly charcoal grey clad Death is given full range to exploit her exceptional physical and dramatic talents and Jerome Marchand is a powerfully evil, homoerotic Mephisto. But both artists were given very similar choreography in Maillot’s The Dream leaving the first act with little choreographically to excite one and only partially successful in holding one’s interest in a rather convoluted plot.

The second act, apart from a best-forgotten Walpurgis Night romp, is of more interest. Mimoza Koike as a touchingly innocent Marguerite has a long, expressive solo, a duet with Coppieters and the final scene together with Marchand and the impressive Asier Uriagereka as Faust has depths lacking in much of the ballet. As with so many new works today, Maillot appears to have relied on the visual elements (which also include multiple video and photographic images), decorative posing from his dancers and constantly changing lighting effects to produce an impressively theatrical work at the cost of his choreographic language. I shall look forward to seeing again his successful production of The Dream in the Company’s summer season in Monte Carlo.

Interestingly, the most enjoyable performance so far this season, has also been the simplest. Juana Amaya is considered by some to be the most charismatic and virtuoso female Flamenco dancer today and she appeared with her company at the Theatre de Grasse for two performances as part of that theatre’s regular programme of Flamenco dance. The performance opens with Amaya, her dancer daughter and the three singers seated at a long black table. Fingers are clicking, fists are knocking, pounding on the table top as if summoning up the “Duende”, the dark, creative and magical force of Flamenco. Garcia Lorca writes of it as “a force surging up through the soles of the feet”. Finally Amaya mounts on to the tabletop, heels clacking, drumming to a climax and then “Black Out”.

The musicians and singers of Amaya’s ensemble, all of whom come, as she does, from traditional gypsy families from the region around Seville, have no resemblance to those of earlier Flamenco performers; gone are the high waisted trousers and the bolero jackets, the slicked back hair; these youngish men are in loose black shirts and trousers and have probably been trained in the best music academies. Gone also are those elderly Flamenco singers, their croaking voices transporting us to the sun-baked plains and their cave-dwellings in Andalucia. These voices, still rough and plaintive, seem to come from a time further back, recalling the Moorish roots of the music and this is further embellished by a set of North African drums played by the percussionist. Juana Amaya is also in black, sometimes with black and white polka dots and finally in a flounced, layered, floor-length dress, which she dramatically discards, layer by layer, the shawl, the scarf, the bolero, leaving her rounded, sensuous body encased in black lace.

The programme is built around her prolific technique and powerful personality. She struts and stamps, the feet beating impossibly fast and complicated rhythms while snarling and scowling at the audience; playing with her skirts, she twirls and twists her hands with impossibly long, supple fingers swirling like sea anemones, rewarding us only at the end of each scene with a wide, glowing smile. Despite all the excitement, my favourite moment is the encore, with the full company joining in to dance; the percussionist and the singers, despite short, thick legs and tubby waistlines, show their inborn ability to bring this dance to life; their necks and shoulders proud and elegant, their feet and legs naturally beating out the rhythms, unexpectedly one of the group whips around with a pirouette and together they exit, as a group, dancing, playing, singing as they go.

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