Posted on October 2, 2019
It’s strange where you find yourself watching ballets. I was in Melbourne during the summer and through good fortune finally got to see Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo after years of admiring its dancers from afar. Directed by Jean-Christophe Maillot, the company exuded glamour in my mind. Alluringly feline in its movements, the company stretches the look of classical ballet to quicksilver brilliance, mingling a Gallic remoteness with the heft of central European expressionism. It is interesting for the fact the company embodies the synergistic way dancers and dance-makers trade ideas through the act of rehearsing and performing. Maillot himself alludes to the responsibility he has as director-choreographer: ”You have dancers around you that you choose and who choose you”.
Rosella Hightower, one of Maillot’s teachers, said: “Dance is very diverse, and nobody is right or wrong”, and Maillot’s LAC left me with more questions than answers. I don’t think that’s such a bad thing, particularly when there are such proficient dancers in front of you. The ballet’s introductory notes suggest audiences can be lazy when watching versions of Swan Lake. Maillot presents you with an opportunity to change your perspective, asserting: “I am interested in speaking to people who don’t know about dance.” A clue to your experience as a spectator comes just from the way the title is presented. Always capitalised, LAC looks like the initials of some sort of digital or artificial intelligence system. Contracting the title, and stripping it of its romantic association with swans, gives immediacy to the ambiguous message Maillot promotes in the ballet. What could “lake” mean? The most striking point of the evening – the one friends and I all commented on – is Maillot’s conclusion. The “lac” consumes the whole stage in a mass of inky, swirling fabric that hangs from the heavens. It had an unexpected reverberence in Melbourne: an exhibition of Alexander Calder mobiles was taking place in the National Gallery of Victoria, just behind the State Theatre where the performance occurred. Calder’s mobiles attempted to show sculpture redefining its own space through movement, a pertinent comment for a choreographer looking to redefine a classic of the ballet repertoire.
The cerebral introductory notes explained that Act II, one of the most famous “ballet blancs”, pivots on its own type of abstraction because we as audience members abandon ourselves to the pure, white aesthetics of the lakeside scene. We no longer interpret the narrative action because we are content to forget ourselves in our observation. I think this might miss the poetic message of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s conception, but this certainly explains why Maillot’s swans are more feral and violent, grabbing your attention with movements that sweep through space and cut across our psyche. Costume designer Philippe Guillotel talks about “an antagonism between the world of the castle and that of the forest” permeating the ballet. It brings out the Romantic elements of the ballets themes, and asserts the 19th century’s nascent curiosity about subconscious desire.
Guillotel made astute comments about the hands of the swan maidens: “If one thing defines us as human beings, it is our hands and the opposition between the thumb and four fingers.” So much of ballet is defined by hands. I’ve often thought about it in my own dancing; the difference between a European hand and a Balanchine-inspired one. Hands are what reflect our will as people for intimacy. They feed us, literally and figuratively. The feathered gloves the swans wear in Maillot’s LAC delineate their strangeness. They’re immediately removed from us; worn at the ends of the arms, they resemble Alexander McQueen’s famous Armadillo boot that was absorbed into contemporary cultural references thanks to Lady Gaga. The strange, art-house style video that plays before the overture further establishes an-off kilter, Jungian facet to Maillot’s ballet and reveals the message that it is desire that “defines [us] from our first cry”.
The ideas Maillot investigates overtook the central matter of a ballet: the dancing. What Maillot did well was evoke a sort of Marcel Duchamp flavour. What you were looking at wasn’t really what you thought, so-to-speak. I support this aim, because it links to one way of viewing classical ballet that I subscribe to. Luke Jennings wrote inspiringly that ballet is metaphysical: an arabesque isn’t just a leg lifted behind you. The line speaks of flight; of transcendence; of ultimate freedom. Maillot’s protagonists never reach that apotheosis in LAC. The choreographer himself asserts he is “too classical for the classicists and too classic for the contemporaries”.
Photographs: Dancers of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo in LAC. Photographs by Alice Blangero.