’Alban Beng’ at the CNSM
22 May 2005
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Danses de Mai, End of term performance
Conservatoire national supérieur de musique (CNSM) (May 21st 2005)
That a recording by the Alban Berg quartet, playing one of Beethoven’s three Razumovsky quartets, appear on the CNSM programme notes last night as "Alban Beng" and "Rasumousky", would make one smile, save that the CNSM is the top music school in this country, and one of the best in the world. The programme notes were doubtless read by five or six people in the Dance Department before being sent up to the printers. Either they know nothing of music, or else, they give not a hoot. Judging by the level of the performances we have been seeing for some time now, hootless in Gaza seems a likelier explanation.
Anyway, in the merry, merry month of May, every year, the CNSM invites other major academies to present alongside the CNSM’s final year students, two public performances.
This year, the invited schools were CNSMD of Lyons (modern dance), the Ecole supérieure de danse contemporaine of Angers (modern dance), and the Ecole supérieure de Cannes (Rosella Hightower), now headed by Monique Loudières. I was unable to attend the Friday, the first night, and therefore did not see the Angers crowd.
Suite en Blanc
On the Saturday May 21st, the first item on the programme was Serge Lifar’s Suite en Blanc, danced by the final-year CNSM students in the classical section.
Lifar, as is well known, was head of the Paris Opera for roughly twenty years. He died in 1986, a mere 18 years ago. Many of his interpreters are still around, and could be consulted. But you would not guess as much from this performance.
Yes, the "Flute" variation was splendidly brought off by a young lady whose name I do not know, while Miss Watanabe gave a technically very tidy, if dull rendition of the "Cigarette". Although, here and there, a youth or maid shewed a glimmer of ability, the ensemble, overall, is markedly below the level of the ABT studio company (made up of 16 and 17 year olds, so the comparison is perfectly fair).
What was wrong ? Well, the list is long, and might one stress, that one is not blaming these youths or maids. The blame has got to go somewhere nonetheless, and it must lie a/ with the selection process, i.e. Management itself and b/ with the professors, who seem to be pretty demoralised at this point.
1/ No stagecraft:
These are not children, but 17 year olds who are about to enter a troupe (assuming the modern dance lot hasn’t hoovered away all the jobs and all the money, which is one whopper of an assumption).
Whither artistic tension ? Does one stand casually about on stage, as though loitering in class, facial muscles comfortably slumped ? Does one distinguish between the atmosphere of the class or rehearsal, and the tension of a theatrical performance ?
Expressionless. Does one allow one’s face to go blank, ever ?
2/ No body makeup:
Can it be agreeable to see a girl’s face made-up in white greasepaint, with the neck, shoulders and bosom in the natural skin shade ?
3/ Appalling choice of partners:
Does one cast a pas de trois with two lads about five foot six, and a girl who, on pointe, is just under six foot tall ? Who put that lot together ? Was someone attempting, consciously or unconsciously, to humiliate the dancers ?
One also wonders whether a youth of 17, who is shorter than most Japanese or Corean youths today, will find work anywhere outside Asia. Perhaps not even in Asia, because the technical standard in Asian schools now is far higher than the CNSM.
In practice, theatrical practice, one knows little about Lifar, because his works are rarely performed. However, watching this thing, all the charm, all the details, all the delicacy, were gone, replaced by mannered arm and hand movements divorced from all context.
An apparently simple thing like an arabesque penchée performed by three dancers at once, becomes three different, awkward and ungainly things. One girl does the splits, the next wings the foot, and the third hesitates, unsure as to whether Lifar would have wanted a yawning arabesque after all ? If that happened once or twice, fine. They are students, after all. But as a regular buzz, like tooth-ache ?
It is essential to stress that the CNSM was considered, until about a decade ago, an academy no lesser than the Opera School itself, and in fact, it provided the Opera with some very notable elements, such as Elisabeth Platel, not to name a name.
What is going on here ?
The next item on the programme was a pas de deux by Claude Brumachon, danced by two lads from the Cannes School.
Claude Brumachon is amongst those countless nonentities of the modern dance lobby, who are persuaded that giving a vacuous non-dance item a title like "Crows landing on the Southbound motorway (sic)" may Add Interest. He is wrong. Nor do his painfully autobiographical programme notes Add Interest. Nor does his choreography, if that is the word, Add Interest.
The work was called Ressemblances, and is intended, no doubt, to be homoerotic. That is a bore, because in art, anything that obvious cannot be anything but a bore. Also, I have noticed that although "choreographers", if that is the word, are allowed to get low down and graphic with their dancers, if one dare to get low down and graphic explaining what it is they did, one is denounced as a "fascist", or "right wing", although in this writer’s case, nothing could be further from the truth. And so, one is expected to pretend that one hasn’t seen what Roland Petit gets up to in his Clavigo, or Neumeier in Act One of his Sylvia, and so forth. All very strange.
But I shall get low down and graphic, just for once.
First, the lads are only about 17. They are classical dancers, not acrobats or butcher’s apprentices, and their skeleton is not fully grown. Accordingly, for the sake of their spinal column, they should not be doing acrobatic lifts. And they are not lifting a lovely little girl. They are lifting another 17 year old man.
Secondly, what lifts ? Well, since the late unlamented Kasian Goleizovski, partnering has tended to involve rather closer proximity with one’s colleagues’ anatomy than one would automatically enjoy, Kenneth Macmillan’s pas de deux being amongst the worst offenders. But a man, putting his arm between the legs of another man, and then lifting him straight up ? I ask you !
But we are supposed to pretend that it was all hunkie-dorie, and the audience went wild and applauded heartily, as I booed.
Robert North’s "Tempo" was then danced, to Vivaldi and to great effect, by the CNSMD of Lyons. The work is fast, difficult and challenging for the students. One should probably call the piece "modern dance", although it is step-based, because the actual execution of the steps is designed to be blurred and imprecise. It lacks the absolute of the classical, and therefore, cannot move the soul. That being said, North’s use of the music is skillful, the students clearly enjoyed dancing it, and they presented it to the public as a theatrical piece, not an on-stage rehearsal. There is one lad in the troupe, a black lad, who may have the potential to be a classical dancer. If so, one hopes his professors will not discourage him.
To conclude: the situation at the Paris CNSM is cause for concern.
After ten years of rule by Quentin Rouiller and now by Daniel Agesilas, friendly and charming as they are, I believe the Dance Division of the CNSM should be split.
M. Agesilas can keep the modern bit. Plainly that is where his interest lies, and that is where his sole responsibilities should be.
As Athanassoff will retire fairly shortly, Claude de Vulpian or Christa Charmolu should be put in charge of the classical division, as Plenipotentiary. Dictator. On artistic matters, answerable to no-one. Full powers to reform the curriculum. Get all the professors in, brainstorm, and do whatever is needed to save the joint. And the rest of us out there, must be enlisted to support them.