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Sunday, July 11, 2004

A French kiss from Monte Carlo ballet

Special to The Japan Times

The annual archipelago-length steamroll tour by New York's famous all-male classic ballet parody troupe, Les Ballets Trocadero de Monte-Carlo, which is in the middle of its 20th visit to these shores right now, has probably stolen some of the limelight from its namesake, Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, which is also coming here this month and performing two pieces, "Romeo and Juliet" and "La Belle."

News photo
Dancers of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo perform Jean-Christophe Maillot's version of "La Belle."

The Trocks' appropriation of "Monte Carlo" isn't a complete fluke. Sergei Diaghilev, the Russian impressario credited with the synthesis of dance, music and art that became a model for a wholly new style of narrative ballet in the 20th century, made a base for his Ballets Russes in Monte Carlo in 1911. Though the current Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo was established in 1985, its lineage can be traced back directly to Diaghilev's ground-breaking troupe through a number of related ballet companies attached to the city.

The current company was established by the Princess of Hanover, who is the daughter of the late Princess Grace of Monaco. At first, the troupe simply carried on the traditions of the Ballets Russes, but in 1993, the 33-year-old choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot became the company's artistic director and has subsequently helped it evolve from a regional company charged with upholding a tradition to a European contender with a unique vision and style.

The tradition that Maillot has mostly maintained is the narrative style that Diaghilev pioneered. Many mid-century choreographers, like George Balanchine, who was a product of the Ballets Russes, tried to make modern ballet purer, as movement set to music with no overt story to tell. Maillot not only connects everything on stage to the story, he makes the story his own in ways that traditionalists may find alarming.

His version of "Romeo & Juliet," which uses the Prokofiev score, downplays the social and political ramifications that most 20th-century choreographers have interpreted in Shakespeare's play and concentrates on the emotional violence inherent in adolescent sexuality. These two teenage lovers are doomed not because of families' feud, but because their obsessive love blinds them to the self-destructive road they are on.

With "La Belle," Maillot has tried to revive the essence of the original fairy tale of "The Sleeping Beauty" by Charles Perrault, which has been softened and sentimentalized over the years by both the Marius Petipa-Tchaikovsky ballet and the Disney movie version (which supposedly was based on Petipa, not on Perrault). The original story is in fact a barely concealed allegory of carnal lust deferred -- the "sleeping beauty" retains her chastity (and her good looks) until her one true love finally finds her. Maillot essentially puts the sex back into the story.

European critics have noted the Oedipal undercurrents in Maillot's version: The naive, somewhat unmanly Prince has a mother, who is in reality a man-eating ogre. Thanks to Philippe Guillotel's androgynous costumes, the Queen's ambisexual nature is always apparent. Moreover, Beauty, with her short hair and boyish figure, is not the demure maiden envisioned by Petipa and Disney. She's something of a tomboy.

As in "Romeo & Juliet," there's a lot of kissing going on in "La Belle," and Maillot himself has said he may be the first choreographer who has ever fashioned pas de deux for partners with locked lips.

Some critics have played up this aspect of Maillot's art as if it were a gimmick, but it's simply one of the more distinctive features of his choreography. Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo has helped put honest sensuality back into classical dance.

"Romeo & Juliet": July 17-19 at 3 p.m.; "La Belle": July 22, 23 at 7 p.m. and July 24, 25 at 3 p.m. All performances are at Orchard Hall, Shibuya, Tokyo. Tickets are 5,000 yen and 8,500 yen. For more information call Koransha at (03) 3943-9999.

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