Paris Opera Ballet
Fall River Legend, Miss Julie
Paris, Palais Garnier
6 March 2014
The Double Bill of Fall River Legend and Miss Julie, one of the last programmes to be presented by outgoing director of the Paris Opera Ballet, Brigitte Lefèvre, is an unusual choice. Unusual firstly as the work of two women choreographers, and secondly in that it gives audiences a rare chance to see ballets from the extremely interesting and creative period of the 1940’s and 1950’s, now sadly neglected. During these post-war years ballet flourished across Europe and in the USA. A new, freer way of using the classical ballet technique led to the creation of neo-realistic works, narrative ballets, about real people, often highly dramatic and always strongly theatrical. By 1940 Ashton, Helpman and de Valois were already active at the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, soon to be joined by Walter Gore and André Howard at Ballet Rambert, while in Paris Roland Petit was part of an exceptional team which brought to life the Ballets des Champs-Elysées in 1945, and his ballets Carmen, Le Loup, Le Jeune Homme et la Mort are but a few from a unique repertoire. The German teacher and choreographer, Kurt Joos, was another prolific choreographer and had already stunned European audiences in 1932 creating ballets with strong political themes such as The Green Table and The Big City and in Sweden Birgit Cullberg emerged as a choreographer and company director. Across the Atlantic, George Balanchine and Martha Graham were defining their unique and individual styles which were to influence dance across the world. Antony Tudor, who had created some of the most important ballets of this period including Lilac Garden and Dark Elegies for Ballet Rambert, was now resident choreographer for Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre) and continued to produce powerful dramatic works. Of the new choreographers emerging in America in the 1940’s were, notably, Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins. Robbins, as associate director of New York City Ballet, produced a series of highly theatrical ballets including The Cage, The Age of Anxiety and The Concert, all contrasting works to Balanchine’s neo-classical abstract ballets. Agnes de Mille had studied in London with Rambert and became a member of Ballet Rambert where she formed a close association with Tudor. Returning to the USA, she choreographed for Ballet Theatre, Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo and Ballet Joos, creating Fall River Legend for Ballet Theatre in 1948.
Fall River Legend was a landmark work for de Mille and for Ballet Theatre, becoming an immediate success and proving to be one of the most durable ballets of that era. The story is a real one of Lizzie Borden, a frustrated spinster in small-town America, whose life is wrecked by her mother’s early death and her subsequent domination by a cruel step-mother and her father’s disinterest. Driven to desperation, she murders both brutally with an axe, but responding to pleas from the local villagers, she is acquitted after a trial. De Mille took liberties with the storyline, leaving Lizzie guilty and to be hung. Apparently she was persuaded to do this by her chosen composer, Morton Gould who over a conversation in the Russian Tea Room in New York, said he only knew how to compose hanging music, not acquittal music, and that she should have Lizzie ‘killed off’. The ballet opens with the gallows centre stage in front of which Lizzie and a group of villagers hear the sentence being read out to her. The following ballet is a series of flashbacks commencing with Lizzie as a young girl and the death of her mother. Choreographically de Mille is surely influenced by Tudor and possibly by Martha Graham. Fluttering hand movements, rolling hips and pirouettes which end in a heap on the floor are still arresting and the choreography is constantly used to tell the story and is never separate from it.
At the performance I saw in Paris, Alice Renavand danced the role of ‘The Accused” as she is called in the ballet. Renavand has a beautifully supple and expressive body and responded well to the challenges of this unfamiliar style without ever reaching the depths of the character and her torment. Stéphanie Romberg and Christophe Duquenne as the step-mother and father seemed too young or too lightweight for their important roles, as did Vincent Chaillet as The Pasteur. This character attempts to befriend Lizzie, bringing her to his revivalist Christian meetings, a friendship which is thwarted by the step-mother. In the original version John Kriza, a stalwart member of Ballet Theatre, created this all-important role and Lucia Chase, Ballet Theatre’s director, often performed the role of the step-mother, bringing the necessary counterweight to Lizzie’s imbalance and frustrations. De Mille always excels at group scenes, as she illustrated in the earlier ballet Rodeo, and was to show over and over again in the musicals for which she became famous, Oklahoma, Carousel, Brigadoon and others. In Fall River Legend these lively dance scenes with the villagers separate the dramatic scenes and the company put their heart into these, producing convincing all-American barn dances. The ballet is danced against Oliver Messel’s effective backdrops, a stormy blue-grey for the early scenes against which the family house, a stylised skeleton of a building, features the all-important three chairs in which the family gather. For the final scene the background is a huge expanse of a desolate, empty American landscape streaked with red and when Lizzie emerges from the house her white dress is spattered with blood. I was a teenager when I saw Nora Kaye, Ballet Theatre’s ballerina and acclaimed dance-actress, in Fall River Legend but the impression she made upon me has never faded. Her ice-cold fury as she decides she will murder and the long walk across the stage to take the axe were quite terrifying. Others have danced this role but I doubt if she has been equaled.
Apart from the short-lived Ballet Suedois of the 1920’s, little is known about dance and ballet in Sweden in spite of the fact that the Royal Swedish Ballet dates from the 18th century. It was therefore surprising when Swedish-born Birgit Cullberg’s ballet Miss Julie attracted worldwide attention after its premiere in 1950 for her Swedish Dance Theatre. Based on a play of the same name by August Strindberg, the story is of another woman trapped in a family ruled by social conventions from which she cannot free herself. Her aristocratic father, a count, provides her with a fiancée she makes fun of, and refuses. She takes part in dances at the servants’ midsummer party but remains arrogant and proud, while showing her interest in Jean, the head butler. A battle of power, of domination and submission ensues. The ballet cannot reproduce the subtle and gradual transfer of power in Strindberg’s play from the arrogant aristocrat to the opportunist servant. In flirting and teasing Jean, who normally acknowledges her with a formal bow, Miss Julie goads him ever further sexually to the central scene of the ballet, which takes place in the kitchen, where Jean is polishing the count’s boots. Seeing the possible advantages of a liaison, Jean gradually takes control of the situation while Miss Julie submits to his ever more forceful advances, allowing the inevitable to happen, albeit in a neighbouring room. This became a ‘cause célèbre’ at the time, the overt sex scenes being a shock for many, but winning the ballet a certain fame. However, one cannot but compare it with a similar scene, the bedroom scene of Petit’s Carmen, which was considered equally scandalous in 1949, but where Jeanmaire and Petit burned with desire while remaining true to the music and the choreography. Culberg’s Miss Julie posturing on the kitchen table looks more like a Page 3 girl and where in Fall River Legend de Mille’s choreography is totally integrated into the narrative, in Culberg’s ballet pirouettes, jetés and even a circle of brisés constantly get in the way of the story.
The role of Miss Julie was originally created for Elsa Marianne van Rosen, herself of an aristocratic Swedish family and who was ideally cast for the role. In Paris the role was danced by Eleonora Abbagnato, an attractive dancer and a steely technician. I missed seeing Nicholas Le Riche in the role of Jean, but Stéphane Buillion was well cast and impressed with an easy technique and exceptional elevation. What was missing in this Miss Julie was the dancers’ ability to create believable character and, above all, to allow the choreography to serve the story. Polished and even perfect technique abounded, but it was not being used as a means to an end. However, Culberg’s group scenes with the members of the household and the peasants, including three old crones, were extremely good, the characters looking as if they had come out of a Breughel painting. It was perhaps only here that one could see the results of her years of work with Kurt Joos.
As with most ballets of this period, the set design is all important, and Sven Xiet Erikson’s set for the count’s house is an impressive expressionistic one with sloping walls of light, in which the final scene takes place when Miss Julie has decided that death is her only way out. She pulls Jean’s hand over her own, holding a knife, and stabs herself fatally. She is left lying in a shaft of light, while he races out of the house abandoning a battle no one has won.
These two ballets do show that works from this period, which produced so many prolific and versatile choreographers, are worth reviving and keeping alive. They were part of an era rich in artistic expression and they form a vital link between the magical and often fantastical repertoire of the Ballets Russes and the more abstract, physical dance works of today.