Dracula does Paris

Nosferatu (choreography by Jean-Claude Gallotta)
Paris Opera Ballet
Théâtre de la Bastille,

May 6, 2006

by Marc Haegeman
copyright ©2006, Marc Maegeman

“Nosferatu sinks his teeth into the flesh of the Opera. An attempt to let blood flow through dance… not as in war but as in life… and to see if the vampire’s kiss brings any part of us back to life.” With these ominous lines French choreographer Jean-Claude Gallotta introduces his “Nosferatu”, created for the Paris Opera in 2001 following a commission by dance director Brigitte Lefèvre, and given a second run at the Théâtre de la Bastille this season.

Dracula and his fellow-creatures of darkness haven’t been terrorizing the French dance-world as much as they did in the UK or the US. The subject is after all, as the French like to remind us, quintessentially Anglo-Saxon, and quite alien to the Gallic rationalism and cool. It comes as no surprise then that this Parisian "Nosferatu" has as much in common with the original story and F.W. Murnau’s character as Gallotta has with classical ballet. Instead Gallotta counters with the next thematic hijack, covered up by the obligatory pseudo-intellectual talk in the program book, promising a lot, but actually delivering little on stage.

Jean-Claude Gallotta, who is casually introduced as the “amiable philosopher and will o’ the wisp of French dance”, received no formal dance education but came to dance by way of fine arts. He was already experimenting in his hometown of Grenoble with multidisciplinary performances before, so the legend goes, he came to see the light when watching Merce Cunningham in New York in the late 1970’s. He subsequently founded a choreographic centre in his hometown and has proven quite a prolific dance-maker, film director, and author. “Variations d’Ulysse”, which he staged for the Paris Opera in 1995, was an adaptation of one his earliest creations, all about brightness, light and hope. Times had changed by the advent of the new millennium, and when Brigitte Lefèvre asked him for a new piece, it needed to be its grey counterpart.

“Nosferatu” is set in a contemporary, dim underground world: a space limited on three sides by massive concrete girders and topped by a stone cupola from where sparse light descends. The impressive set design by Daniel Jeanneteau and Laure Deratte, which obviously must have cost a fortune, all but dwarfs the stage action. A group of nondescript people in everyday clothes gather for a sort of dance ritual, preceded by a master of ceremony (Nosferatu), whose coiling and reeling is repeated and developed by others, apparently contaminated. Allegedly, all social differences disappear when all join in a chaotic rave-party.

Gallotta quickly drains the blood out of his “Nosferatu” by repeating ad infinitum the same handful of movement patterns. His limited tape loop choreography of the tested run, pull, push, coil, and fall-type is a total no-brainer which reveals all its secrets during the first fifteen minutes. Unfortunately there is hardly anything to save the remaining sixty — not even that bare chest contest between Nosferatu and another guy. Unable to choose between narrative and plotless evocation, what is left of a storyline is so clumsily told one hardly cares for it. Dancers come on in groups, in duos, trios, quartets, while the rhythm only subsides for some encounters, which are reportedly about the vampire’s craving for love but actually never succeed in transcending the overall glum air of the piece. And how many times can you have a group of dancers run on and off a stage? Far too many in this case, if one has to judge by the loud yawning and frantic watch-checking of members of the audience around me.

José Martinez, unrecognisable with a long greasy wig, looked more a stoned seventies rock star than a creature thirsting for love. In spite of his frequent changes of costume, his manner was far too detached and monotonous to bring anything to life. The always excellent Miteki Kudo and the remarkable Juliette Gernez were some of the girls who had to fall under his spell. The ensemble of some 40 dancers was well-rehearsed and characteristically gave it their admirable all.

The choreography was initially set on the dancers without the music, but the subsequent splicing of movement and score left a total disconnection, even incompatibility between the two. Dancers keep moving in between the four parts of the score and choreographic and dramatic possibilities offered by the music are mostly left untouched. “Nosferatu” uses four pieces for orchestra by French composer Pascal Dusapin - Extenso, Watt, Celo and Apex. The composer admits he never imagined that one day these works would be danced — I didn’t, either. In spite of its technical difficulties the music remains accessible, if hardly ever original, ranging from growling brass sounds to ear-splitting tutti. The Orchestra of the Paris Opera splendidly rose to the occasion under Bernhard Kontarsky. The two main orchestral soloists, trombone and cello, deservedly gathered most cheers of all at the curtain calls. Why Gallotta needed a live orchestra, though, is beyond me.

In spite of all the talent and means of the Paris Opera involved, crippled by its limited choreographic vocabulary, the structural weakness, and buried beneath its pseudo-intellectual intentions, “Nosferatu” never achieves the emotional resonance it aims for. If one really needs to stick to the image of the dance of the vampire contaminating classical ballet, then, sad to say, Gallotta’s “Nosferatu” couldn’t have been more apt.

Photos of José Martinez by Icare.

Volume 4, No. 19
May 15, 2006

copyright ©2006 Marc Haegeman



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