August 2014

Rodin & Mapplethorpe - Millepied & Balanchine | reviewed by Catherine Conway Honig - Scene4 Magazine August 2014 -

Catherine Conway Honig

American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe was quoted on the walls of the Grand Palais in Paris saying: "If I were born 200 or even 100 years ago, I would have been a sculptor. Photography is an easier way of making sculpture." In a second Paris exhibition of his work, at the Musée Rodin (through September 21), the sculptural qualities of his photographs are beautifully displayed alongside the sculptures of Auguste Rodin. The similarities in subject matter, contrast of light and shadow, reflection and density, obsession with precise details especially of the human form and musculature are among the qualities explored by the thoughtful and thought-provoking exhibition.


Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) became widely known in the United States when an exhibition of his work featuring nudes and some sado-masochistic imagery caused a huge uproar by conservative members of Congress. This exhibit, scheduled for the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C., was partially funded through the National Endowment for the Arts. The Gallery bowed to the pressure from Congress and the large crowds who gathered to protest the so-called obscene images and cancelled the exhibition. Mapplethorpe's fame was forever sealed and his reputation has since grown to international stature. Sadly, he had passed away of HIV-related complications four months before the Corcoran exhibition was to have opened.


The two exhibitions seen in Paris in June betrayed no controversy except for a small sign at the entrance to the Grand Palais exhibit advising that the images may not be appropriate for people under 18. Neither exhibit particularly focused on his sexual imagery, though. His subjects are far more varied and the quality of his work merits his fame regardless of how it came to be.




Mapplethorpe's process involved obsessive staging, lighting and the creation of his vision of perfection. Rodin was obsessed with capturing a moment and bringing as much life to his material as possible to reflect emotion, motion and spontaneity. Both found endless inspiration in the contours of the human body, both male and female. They each worked with their models to create positions that hid or obscured the complete form therefore emphasizing an unusual angle and revealing unique lines and curves. Both were known to use textiles to visually obscure or reveal. The exhibition at Musée Rodin featured several representations of individual body parts by both artists including the images below of hands and feet. The beautiful circular motion captured in the Mapplethorpe photograph of the two hands is a fitting homage to their disembodied owner: American modern dance choreographer Lucinda Childs.






While Rodin's sculptures seem to absorb infinite amounts of light into their dense material form, Mapplethorpe used light to create sculptural dimensionality and texture. From any angle, a Mapplethorpe photograph portrays the same carefully conceived and constructed vision of its creator.




Mapplethorpe is also quoted saying:"I love my photographs of flowers. I love them more that the actual flowers."


Perhaps Mapplethorpe's obsession with perfection and stasis developed as he and many of his subjects/friends/lovers were dying of the mysterious combination of debilitating and deforming maladies eventually known as AIDS. Unable to stop or even fully understand this devastation, he compensated by creating works of art that betrayed no trace of decay. Rodin, who by contrast lived a full life, depicts the decay inherent to the aging process in many of his human forms. He once said, "Sculpture reveals the progressive unfolding of a gesture (…) for in reality time does not stop."


Suffering and decrepitude are especially present in his enormous masterpiece, "The Gates of Hell." Hundreds of disfigured human beings are shown in various postures of grotesque suffering as they enter the realm of eternal fire. One can almost hear the cries coming from their contorted forms.




BALLET de L'OPERA de PARIS - Millepied and Balanchine


Benjamin Millepied is a French-born ballet dancer but, until now, he was considered more of an outsider by the French artistic establishment. He left France in his teens after winning the prestigious Prix du Lausane, one of the greatest achievements in ballet, and began his long career at New York City Ballet. While in New York he became a favorite protégé of Jerome Robbins and rose quickly through the ranks to become a principal dancer who received enormous attention for the power and artistry of his dancing and his developing skill as a choreographer.


Meanwhile, back in Paris, the oldest ballet company in the world and the place where ballet was originally codified in the 17th century quietly began a search for a new artistic director. Brigitte Lefévre would finally give up her reign of the Ballet de l'Opéra de Paris after decades. Her final season was to be 2014 and the centerpiece of that season would be a spectacular world premiere star-studded collaboration on "Daphnis et Chloé" with choreography by Benjamin Millepied.


Having retired from New York City Ballet, Millepied's career expanded to include high-profile gigs such a modeling for Yves Saint Laurent and Air France as well as consulting on-set and creating the choreography for Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan." Millepied subsequently married and had a child with the film's star, American actress Natalie Portman.    


As inspiration for the highly-anticipated world premiere, Millepied chose the 1912 creation by Michel Fokine, commissioned by Serge Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes. Fokine's "Daphnis et Chloé" was originally proposed to the Imperial Theater in Moscow where Fokine promised a complete break with tradition. Gone would be the patchwork of scenes alternating between pantomime and show-offy dance numbers. Fokine's idea was to create a unified concept of music, sets and dance all in service of the Greek mythology attributed to the 2nd century writer, Longus. Though the Imperial Theater declined Fokine, he found an enthusiastic reception chez Diaghilev. The most daring impresario of the 20th century, if not all time, not only commissioned the original choreography from Fokine but a full score, including an expansive chorus, from Maurice Ravel.


Millepied began work on assembling an artistic team that included set design by the contemporary artist Daniel Buren who is très branché for his use of alternating black and white stripes. The young and energetic orchestral conductor Philippe Jordan would act as musical director, Holly Hynes would create the costumes, and Madjid Hakimi would unify the visuals with his lighting design. And, of course, the two hundred beautifully trained dancers of the Ballet de l'Opéra de Paris would be at the choreographer's disposal.


No sooner had word begun to spread throughout Paris about the upcoming, sold-out world première performances of this extravagant collaboration when another delicious rumor began to circulate. Millepied was among the finalists for the much coveted position of Artistic Director of Ballet de l'Opéra de Paris, the position held by Brigitte Lefèvre since 1995.


In May when Millepied's "Daphnis et Chloé" received its debut in the contemporary architecture of the Opéra Bastille, news of Lefèvre's successor was widely celebrated: the handsome Frenchman would return to France in one of the most powerful positions in the world of dance. But, how would the public receive his "Daphnis et Chloé"?


To his credit, Millepied simplified the centuries old Greek mythology, into a simple story about two naïve lovers who must overcome numerous obstacles before finally falling tenderly and triumphantly into each other's arms for eternity. Millepied's choreographic approach is also spare. He gives the dancers beautiful movement that is not overly taxing and doesn't take them out of their comfort zone. He is no William Forsythe but instead plays it safe with movement reminiscent of mid-20th century modern dance from Graham to Limon to Lubovich.




Daniel Buren's imagery opens the piece even before the stage is revealed. Using the closed curtain as a screen, Buren's brightly colored geometric shapes were projected then made to morph into one another. In alternating blue, green, orange, yellow and red, each shape is framed by the signature black and white stripes that have made Buren a prominent figure in the contemporary art world. A horizontal rectangle morphs into a square which in turn morphs into a vertical rectangle, back to a square then a diamond whose edges soften to make a circle. The orchestra, under the highly physical direction of Philippe Jordan and including a chorus of fifty people who were led by Allessandro de Stefano, built to the first of many crescendos and the curtain rises to reveal ten couples frolicking happily under a giant yellow circle.


The costumes were comfortable off-white dresses, the skirts cut on the bias, for the women and loose fitting pants and tops for the men. Like the movement, everything seems designed to accentuate curves and circles, swoops and swirls. Millepied describes the movement style as "moderne en pointe" and so it is. The influence of Jerome Robbins, one of his early mentors at New York City Ballet, is evident in both the movement style and in the sometimes corny and melodramatic staging.


After much frolicking by the large ensemble including the two principals (the magnificent Aurélie Dupont and Hervé Moreau on the night I attended), the group is confronted by black-clad pirates. The music here reaches yet another huge climax. One of the greatest challenges of the music is that it includes far too many crescendos and climaxes for the choreographer to match or even sustain tension. However, the choreography for the all-male ensemble is the most interesting of the entire piece. They jump and leap and compete in various gymnastic feats all beautifully muscular and musical. Bryaxis, the demon leader of the pirates (performed with heart-stopping power, technique and menace by François Alu) kidnaps Chloé and terrorizes her with ferocity and venom, not to mention his endless pirouettes.


Aurélie Dupont as Chloé was magnificent. Innocent and pliable when dancing with Daphnis, she remains malleable with the evil Bryaxis but when he pushes her too far she fights back like a trapped feral cat. Her acting is not so much in her face but in her complete command of all aspects of her physicality. In this, her final season, with the Opéra de Paris, she may have danced her greatest role. Millepied was frequently quoted in the Paris press saying that she was his inspiration. 


While Chloé and Daphnis are separated the seductrice Lycénion inducts Daphnis into the world of mature love. Here the choreography became crisper with the sharp edges of cynicism and manipulation.  Eleonora Abbagnato gave this cougar a hypnotizing gaze that eventually broke down Daphnis' resistance. Her seemingly endless arms and legs wrapped around him from all angles like an aggressive octopus in pointe shoes.


Daphnis escapes after learning a few good tricks from Lycénion and he and Chloé are reunited for the final celebratory scenes. In the original myth, the god Pan intervenes to ensure their reunion but Millepied avoided any literal deity intervention except changes in set and lighting. The full corps and all the soloist couples return to the stage in brightly colored costumes (the same red, green, blue and orange of Buren's set), their hair has been let down and the dancing is joyous. In the final scene, Daphnis lifts Chloé to his shoulder and the dancers mimic a giant wave of movement with their arms and upper bodies swaying in a staggered canon across the stage. Finally, they fall to the ground as Daphnis and Chloé reach toward the heavens.




Anyone who has been to a performance in Paris would hardly call the audiences easy to please. In this instance, the response was shockingly exuberant. The curtain calls went on and on and on until the dancers began to look fatigued and their costumes soaked in perspiration. Three thousand happy Parisians is an event so unique it may end up in the history books.




They were a discerning crowd, however, because their response to the opening piece, "Le Palais de Cristal" was decidedly cooler. And for good reason. Though the new costumes by Christian Lacroix were opulent and over-the-top, the dancing was not.


Balanchine's 1947 choreography could fairly be called sadistic insofar as the tempo and technical difficulty. He reworked this choreography about ten years after its creation and it became the often performed "Jewels." While "Le Palais de Cristal" was originally set to Bizet; "Jewels" is set to music by Fauré , Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. The decision to move away from the original Bizet may have been because it was impossible for the dancers to keep up.


The Paris dancers are exquisite in the carriage of their arms and shoulders; their épaulement is elegant and rich. Like the Russians, who originally learned it from French teachers summoned by the Imperial Theatre, their upper bodies are pliant, flexible and always seem to be spiraling upward and outward. However, this requires a certain relaxation that could not be maintained while keeping up with Balanchine and Bizet. The sheer weight of the bejeweled Lacroix costumes may have also been a factor. The effort required by the dancers was apparent as they locked their faces in forced smiles. Their footwork was clean and honest—they did not cheat on their landings as many American dancers do by not dropping their heels. However, their legs did not seem strong enough nor did they have the stamina to keep up with the demands of the choreography. The men were frequently required to right their partners as the women threw themselves off balance into turns hoping to make up a bit of time and land on cue. 


In Brigitte Lefèvre's final season as curator of the Ballet de l'Opéra de Paris, Millepied's "Daphnis et Chloé" will long be celebrated as a great success. Balanchine's "Le Palais de Cristal" will be forgotten as quickly as possible. Especially by those gorgeous dancers who did not deserve to be embarrassed in that way.


Photo credits: Rodin/Mapplethorpe Agence Observatoire

Balanchine/Millepied: La Libération,L'Express, Boursorama

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Scene4 Magazine - Catherine Conway Honig
Catherine Conway Honig is a writer in the San Francisco Bay Area
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