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O Fim duma Viagem

Lose your mind at le Ballet d'Or

FRANCE | Thursday, 8 October 2015 | Views [333]

On Thursday, I had a ticket to Opera Garnier for the dance spectacle Boris Chamatz. It was one of the cultural activities for the program, and I hadn't really paid any more attention to it than that. Which, I realised at about the point I was standing in line, was a mistake.

You can go see a play without any more knowledge than "it's a play!" and will probably be able to follow it just fine, especially if it's in your native language. You might find yourself asking dumb questions like "is it over yet?" at intermission, but you certainly shouldn't need to be familiar with the plot to enjoy a play.

Opera is a little tougher. Even if you speak the language, it's harder to understand songs being such for their musical attraction than it is to understand speeches actors are delivering for the sole purpose of being understood. Supertitles help, as does being familiar with the outline of the plot.

Dance has even less understandable lines than opera. Specifically, the characters never speak. If the performance has a plot that you're not familiar with, it's going to take some extraordinary acting from the dancers, and probably also some very good guesses on your part, to be able to figure it out from context. I’d not looked anything up, so the evening was full of surprises.

Beginning when I looked at my ticket to see where I was sitting. “Espace publique.” What was that supposed to mean?

Answers and more surprises came once my ticket was checked and I was inside. It was not yet 18:00 (the time listed on my ticket for the performance) but there was a sizeable crowd around a dancer. I saw Stephanie and Maija, went over to join them, and we watched the dancer. Occasionally he’d call out things, but I wasn’t sure whether they were merely statements of what he was doing (turning!) or if he was trying to give us insight into his character.

Sure wish I knew what he was doing, apart from dancing and jumping around a lot. He was smiling though, and the music was upbeat, so it was probably a happy dance.

When he finished, Stephanie asked us (several other people from the program had also found and joined us) if we wanted to go see the other dancers.

Other dancers?

Yes, there were twenty of them in total, all over the Opera Garnier. I vaguely remembered seeing ads about “twenty dancers. Collectors value to watch them all!”, and now that was making a bit more sense. So we went up some stairs to go see other people.

I very quickly got separated from everyone else, because I thought that some of the costumes up on display were gorgeous and needed to stop to admire them. No one else shared this compulsion. I saw people for scattered bits for the rest of the evening, but our interests must have been different, because I don’t think we ever watched the entirety of the same dance.

Dresses

 

It took me about 20 minutes to get a decent handle of what was going on. There were twenty dancers in a little over ten different locations. Typically, one dancer would start, a crowd would gather around, they’d finish, the crowd would disperse, and a second dancer would start a new dance. When she was done, the first dancer would take over again, and so on. The trick was to arrive right at the tail-end of one of the dances so that you could be one of the first audience members. And then to try to guess what the dancer would be doing, which wasn’t always easy.

I believe all of the dances were 20th century (that was one of the points) but there’s a lot of variety within that. Some seemed much more classical and grounded in ballet, and others seemed very modern or folksy. Some were very clearly supposed to be telling a story, others seemed more technical, like one dancer who repeated the same movement for the entire length of a room.

I got to see a lot of pieces I didn’t get the name of, “Danse de la sorcière”,two “Malaise de Louise”s, and a nice amount of the Opera Garnier. Although it sounds odd to complain about getting tired watching other people dance, there was something about needing to move around and constantly decide who I was going to watch and how I could do so comfortably that was unusually tiring.

All of the dancers that I saw had a very good awareness of the space, though the same could not be said about their awareness of the audience. For instance, the first person who I saw finished his dance by leaping out of the circle and stopping centimeters away from a vase. However, he’d needed to start by asking people to move out of the way, and the people who had come late didn’t hear his request. For the most part, the audience was expected to be very aware of the dancers, and be prepared to move immediately. There was another dancer whose performance consisted of walking backwards, turning a corner, and then running back the way he’d just come. Great, except that every time he did this (he repeated it three times) inquisitive audience members would step into his path to see where he’d gone, and then need to scamper out of his way quickly. Even when they weren’t almost running into the audience, some of the dancers seemed not as aware of us as they should have been. Like the people who would perform the entire dance facing one lucky section of the circle that had gathered around them while the rest of us watched their backs.

I imagine it would have been more interesting if I’d known more about dance. Not so much the specific pieces, but the kind of general knowledge that comes from having seen a number of performances (or, better yet, having danced myself.) Especially things like watching two different dancers perform the same piece. Without the right background, I’m unable to talk about differences in the two interpretations of “Malaise de Louise” I saw, and the most defining characteristic of dancers was what they were wearing on their feet. (This wasn’t entirely superficial: typically, the dancers who were barefoot would be doing more classical, graceful, spinning movements, and the dancers wearing shoes [typically sneakers, or something like them] would be doing more jumps and energetic moves.)

Dancer

That last observation turned out to serve me very well. I was trying to decide where to go next when I noticed the dancer of the second “Malaise de Louise” putting on pointe shoes. This was notable, since she was the first dancer I’d seen with them. So I hung out in the same room, watching the nearby dances and keeping an eye on her to make sure she didn’t go anywhere.

Nothing to worry about on that front. She put on the shoes, stretched, broke them in a little, and went to the middle of the hallway to start dancing. I stopped watching the flapper girl I’d been looking at and went over to her for the last dance of the evening.

I was not disappointed. I’d liked her in the previous dance I’d seen, the dance en pointe was a clear winner in my mind for the best one I’d seen that evening. For the entire performance, she was holding an electric candle (I suspect the original score calls for a real one. Even if the audience was pretty good at moving out of her way, it’s probably best they didn’t use one.) There were two main movements- standing flat on one foot with the other leg stretched out behind her while she turned around, and getting straight up onto her toes and practically floating across the “stage.” All this from a dancer close enough that, at times, you could almost hear her breathing.

It had not been what I’d been expecting, but it had still been a lovely experience.

Tags: ballet, culture, dance, opera garnier

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