Marie Antoinette

The Wiener Staatsballett under its new director Manuel Legris: almost brilliant

On The Town | Alec Kinnear | December 2010 / January 2011

The first original production of the Wiener Staatsballett under new Parisian director Manuel Legris enjoys a wonderful pedigree. Patrick de Bana the choreographer and creator danced for years with Béjart and for a decade was one of Nacho Dueto’s brightest stars at Compania Nacional de Danza. de Bana is a handsome and strong man who still dances himself. Costume designer and contributor to the concept Agnès Letestu is a danseuse étoile at the Opera de Paris and an exquisitely beautiful woman of charm and intellect. Olga Esina is the extraordinarily talented and gorgeous leading ballerina of Wiener Stattballett poached from the Marinsky Theater. Esina is just hitting her prime and still seeking the definitive role to build a legend of her own. Manuel Legris is a Parisian legend in dance and Marie Antoinette is his first original production.

And what a subject: Marie Antoinette is one of history’s larger than life figures, the frivolous queen who brought on the French revolution with her casual not-so-bon mot about the starving mob, "Let them eat cake." Albeit, that quotation turns out to be apocryphal and actually originated 100 years earlier, from Marie Therese, the wife of Louis XIV.

I’m totally sold on the concept and I’m rooting for the protagonists. Nothing would have made me happier than to write that dance history was made in Vienna on 20 November, a date like the premiere of The Stone Flower by Grigorovich in Moscow, a brilliant choreographer coming into his own with his first full length ballet.

Not in the cards. What went wrong?

First we have to go back in time at little bit. De Bana’s Marie Antoinette originated in an eponymous pas de deux he put together with Agnès Letestu two years ago. The two mature artists wanted to create dance together. The original was a mood piece lightly themed on Marie Antoinette – a starting point, a context and baroque music.

Alas for an evening-length ballet, a mood is not enough. The real Marie Antoinette had been queen of the French for 15 years before the revolution. In the ancien regime, she was a voice of relative moderation, admonishing the king to think of the people. She came to France when she was 14 and had three children as Queen. de Bana tries to treat Marie Antoinette’s life like a Bildungsroman with a few key episodes: betrothal, arrival in France life at the Trianon, the attack on Versailles, attempted flight, life in prison.

But there is no real continuity. So to hold the ballet together, de Bana added Fate and a shadow of Marie Antoinette, who pursue and torment the princess and queen throughout her life. An interesting theory, but as regards fate, Marie Antoinette is a poor example. She was not pursuing a destiny nor was destiny pursuing her. Another fifty kilometers down the road, and at worst Louis and Marie would have lived on in exile in Austria. So rather than fate, Marie Antoinette just faced plain old bad luck.

Grand historic ballets can succeed. Yuri Grigorovich’s Spartacus is a triumph of the senses and of the mind.  But de Bana did not choose a story cut from the same solid cloth. The Parisian mob are not a single personality easily characterised by dance. Nor did Marie Antoinette or her husband shape their own destiny. The ancien regime  fell to massive and the unwillingness of the nobility to share the tax burden. de Bana would have been better served to focus on one small episode in Marie Antoinette’s life.

What else went wrong?

No live music. The composers are mainly baroque: Telemann, Vivaldi, Mozart, J.C. Bach, Rameau, Jean-Féry Rebel, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Bridge music and atmosphere soundscape come from arranger Luis Miguel Cobo. There’s no reason on earth apart from misplaced economies not to have a small orchestra in to play the baroque pieces. The atmospheric synthesizer elements could be piped in and mixed.

Set design. The set is made up of about ten stubby glass columns that look something like downmarket versions of skyscrapers. Not elegant, not attractive. If the columns extended above the visible stage ceiling, that would be impressive. Instead at about five metres height they look oversized Ikea cupboards. Tedious. Not versatile. Do something with lights and cloth or projection.

Costumes. I’d forgive the bewitching Agnès Letestu almost anything but these costumes. In recreating one of the dressiest courts ever, Letestu instead gives us kings and queens running around in lingerie. Don’t misunderstand me: Olga Esina, Elisabeth Golibina, Ketevan Papava all look great in lingerie and Roman Lazik and Kamil Pavelka are also not too bad with their trousers off. But somehow these costumes rarely persuade except in the case of Dagmar Kronberger as Marie Antoinette’s mother Maria Theresa.

What did go right?  The dancing and some of the choreography.

Kirill Kourlaev wears the role of Fate like a glove. His peculiar and somewhat dangerous looking facial features serve in his favour. de Bana gave Kourlaev some very tricky dancing well outside the classic tradition. With the exception of some shaky moonwalking at the beginning of the evening, Kourlaev steps up to the challenge and shudders and rolls and lifts with fierce intensity. This role has opened up new roads for Kourlaev into modern dance and one hopes he will follow some of them. His performance and adaptability here are an inspiration to the rest of the company.

Elisabeth Golibina follows Kourlaev well into the dark side as Marie Antoinette’s shadow. While she doesn’t have the substantial solo work of Kourlaev, she abandons herself to the difficult lifts fearlessly and doesn’t hesitate in her unaccustomed floor work.

Roman Lazik reminded me of Manuel Legris on stage and the Opera de Paris male dancers. With his classic good looks and long limbs, no wonder he has found favor with them. Yet his bearing did not seem adequate to a king, even a diffident one, seeming to drift emotionally on stage.

On the other hand, Dagmar Kronberger was a revelation as the Austrian Empress Maria Theresia. In what could be a throwaway role she dominates the stage, tall and regal. And of all the roles, Maria Theresia is the one who is given garments to match her station.

As queen’s sister and Marie Antoinette’s closest companion, the long-limbed Ketevan Papava seemed to have found a perfect role, she is delightful and solicitous of both Louis and Marie. In her duet with Kourlaev at the end before she is ravished and sundered by the crowd, she makes us feel real emotion and panic.

De Bana has told the world that he has never had the opportunity to work with as amazing a dancer as Olga Esina. Yet somehow much of their natural sympathy and synergy got lost somewhere on the way to the stage. Esina was good but anything but extraordinary. I’m not quite sure what went wrong that evening but perhaps it was just an off night. But she didn’t make us care enough through most of the evening.

Next time de Bana takes on an evening length productions, he should pay more attention to the dramaturgy. The faults of his Marie Antoinette, he brought with him before he ever entered the rehearsal room. Like Louis XVI’s France, the many fine choreographic moments de Bana created in rehearsal could not repay its earlier dramaturgic debts.

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