writers on dancing


History Mystery
Paris Opera Ballet
Opera Garnier, Paris
October 21 – November 14, 2005
by John Percival
copyright ©2005 by John Percival

“Little booties” they called him (“Caligula” in Latin), after his preferred footwear when a child keen on the military life; more formally he was Caius Julius Caesar Germanicus, Emperor of Rome from AD37, when he was 25, until his assassination four years later. Nicolas Le Riche, star dancer of the Paris Opera Ballet, has been bold (or do I mean misguided?) enough to make a 90-minute ballet about him, in collaboration with Guillaume Gallienne as dramaturg, a friend who has acted at the Comedie-Francaise ever since graduating from the Conservatoire National seven years ago and was this year appointed a Societaire. In a programme note Le Riche explains that he became fascinated by Caligula some six years ago when reading “The Lives of Twelve Caesars” by the Latin writer Suetonius. He did not at that time think of making a ballet but did ask Roland Petit (who was then creating “Clavigo” for him) to think about perhaps making a solo. Petit turned this down and suggested Le Riche should tackle the subject himself, which after long consideration, and encouraged by ballet director Brigitte Lefèvre, he has now done.

What interested Le Riche and Gallienne, it appears, were the contradictions in Caligula’s character: generous but a tyrant, poetic but cruel; perhaps too that so little is known about the facts of his life, and certainly that we do know he was fascinated by theatre and greatly admired the mime actor Mnester. To give the ballet shape, they took for their model the rules of tragic drama as defined in Roland Barthes’ essay on Racine. This resulted in five Acts, which they have set to Vivaldi’s celebrated suite of violin concertos known as The Four Seasons. (Five Acts, Four Seasons? Yes, we’ll get to that.) And between the Acts come four interludes for Mnester and three supporters, to electro-acoustic music by Louis Dandrel.

 So we are given:
Act I. Spring. The lonely emperor, insomniac and epileptic, confronts the senators led by Chaerea.
Act II. Summer. Caligula falls in love with the Moon. He rages at the senators for hating him.
Act III. Autumn. Confrontation continues; Chaerea expresses his dream.
Act IV. Winter. The Moon escapes from Caligula. Caligula parades his horse, Incitatus. Caligula kills the Moon.
Act V. After watching a private performance by Mnester, Caligula is stabbed to death by Chaerea and senators.

The four scenes of Act V are performed to repeats of the first movements of the previous four sections. Not, I felt, a satisfactory solution (it’s not as if the later action in any way parallels the earlier). But anyway I didn’t find this score apt to the ballet. Guillaume Gallienne writes that its rigorous construction, baroque polyphony and its fantasy allowed them to give their work a rhythm and cadence equivalent to alexandrines in a verse tragedy; he also relates four seasons to the emperor’s four-year rule, with a progession to Winter = Death. That’s as may be, but the music’s wonderful 18th century style clashes, to my mind, both with the 1st century history and the 21st century relevance the creators wanted. (Does everything have to be subordinated to contemporeanity? Seems fashionable but I don’t find it essential.)

The ballet looks handsome enough in Daniel Jeanneteau’s setting of pillars on either side and steep steps behind – meant, I think, to suggest a temple. There is a curved ceiling on which videos of skyscapes are projected. Caligula wears red; the Moon and the mimes are white, all others dark.

This is 33-year-old Le Riche’s first long ballet and his first at the Opera (he made a short work for 12 dancers of the Lorraine Ballet in 2001). The movement demonstrates confidence from its inexperienced creator: simple steps (I seem to recall an emphasis on stamping and many small gestures), clear patterns, variety of texture and numbers, good use of the steps for entrances and exits. I’m not sure however that I felt the differences in mood that the synopsis suggests were intended for the duets with the Moon, nor that the production clarified Caligula’s nature for me: the madness and/or illness that made him want what he could not have (hence, seeking love from the Moon), his involvement with actors, his concern for his horse. We are told in the programme notes that the ballet does not seek to show why Caligula was assassinated but how he advanced towards death under a quest for perfection.

Le Riche won good performances from his cast. The title role was given to Jérémie Bélingard, a 30-year-old premier danseur, with Mathieu Ganio, only 21 but already an étoile, in alternation. I saw the latter; a handsome young man and fairly tall. With two former star dancers (Dominique Khalfouni and Denys Ganio) for parents, he has inherited a strong stage presence and a gift for expressive movement.   This part doesn’t tell much about his technique, apart from brilliantly fast, high tours en l’air, but he does command the action and suddenly reveals powerful facial acting at the end.   (The ballet’s finale is his very protracted death after multiple stabbing, justified by the emperor’s alleged final words when fatally attacked: “I am still alive”.)            

Chaerea, an older man, is shown as leader of the senators in their opposition to Caligula. Wilfried Romoli plays him; a member of the company since 1979, a premier danseur since 1989, but only this year, at 42, promoted to étoile. Experienced in creating second leads for many choreographers, he brings a quiet steadiness to this one.

Laurent Hilaire, a year older, has actually now taken his official retirement and become a ballet master, but plays Mnester. Promoted young by Nureyev, he has been a pillar of the company for two full decades and still brings unmatched authority to his roles (as we saw in “Le Parc” last month). He has brief moments in “Caligula” of strong, smooth dance but this is basically an acting role which he delivers commandingly, although exactly what his entries were meant to say escapes me (Destiny, I think Gallienne is indicating).

Clairemarie Osta, slight and dark, plays the Moon with sensitive assurance (Le Riche’s wife, she has been only three years an étoile but had many leads before that in ballets by Forsythe, Neumeier, Petit etc, and the classics). The oddest role is that of the emperor’s favourite horse, Incitatus; reputedly given a marble stable, an ivory stall, crimson coverings, and people said Caligula wanted to declare him a consul (but perhaps that was just to insult the senators – “My horse is more intelligent than you”). He represents pure love, absolute devotion and fidelity. Gil Isoart, a soloist, plays him beautifully, entering with a bit in his mouth, a rope attached to it by which Caligula parades him round and round the stage; his twisted walking steps hint cleverly at those of a real horse.

You will gather that there was plenty of interest in the ballet, but not, for me, real satisfaction. You can make a play about Caligula (Albert Camus did in 1945, with much success), but the topic is too complex, too recondite, for a ballet. That, at any rate, is what I thought in advance, and seeing the finished piece did not convince me otherwise.

Volume 3, No. 41
November 7, 2005

copyright ©2005 John Percival



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last updated on November 7, 2005