The really striking thing about Roland Petit's "Notre Dame de Paris," which had its American premiere at the Kennedy Center Opera House last night, is that this is a ballet that is truly different, vastly different, from the kinds of ballet to which we are mostly accustomed. The difference is the glory of the opus, and, some might add, also its liability. But in any case, it's unmistakable, it slams you in the face.
Ballet as we know it from the repertories of our major domestic troupes, as well as from the British, Danish and Russian companies that are all part of the same larger domain, can be divided into two broad categories--the traditional and the modern (which began with Diaghilev). But even these two classes can be reduced to a single encompassing ideal--a quest for beautiful or expressively designed forms of movement. Movement is the crux of choreographic creation, at least from this sweepingly general, and of course, vastly oversimplified, viewpoint.
Petit started out from this same territory--his background was altogether traditional--but he has deliberately stepped outside it, like one other contemporary Frenchman whose work seems to occupy its own universe, namely, Maurice Bejart.
For Petit, movement is but a means to an end, one of a number of resources upon which to call, and not at all necessarily central to a ballet. Petit is "a man of the theater"; his interest lies in grand effects, shock, melodrama and spectacle. He's not above indulging in the lurid or the sensational, and sexuality is ever a prime concern, yet he's also a man of taste, and he never descends to the sleazy. If he wasn't making ballets, one feels, he'd be making operas, grand operas, or movies, epic, superstereophonic movies.
"Notre Dame de Paris," based on the celebrated Victor Hugo novel, was created in 1965 to music by Maurice Jarre (known here mostly for his film scores), with sets by Rene Allio and costumes by Yves Saint Laurent, the first he ever designed for the stage.
It was performed last night by the impressive Ballet National de Marseille, making its Washington debut with this appearance--it's a company Petit founded in 1972 and directs to this day. The cast was headed by the troupe's prima ballerina, Dominique Khalfouni, as the gypsy girl Esmeralda; guest artist Richard Cragun as Quasimodo, the hunchbacked bell-ringer of Notre Dame; Jean-Charles Gil as the villainous archdeacon Frollo, and Denys Ganio as the dashing Captain Phoebus.
The difference was evident from the start, as Jarre's vaguely mysterious overture led to the curtain-raising image--a frieze of lords and ladies in elaborately stylized medieval attire, with extravagant headdress, stretched across the front of the stage in half light.
As the highborn figures processed slowly out both wings, one saw an array of commoners massed on a series of broad steps, dressed in bright jerkins and tights; an enormous fretwork representing the facade of Notre Dame lowered itself from the heights as the ensemble worked itself into a frenzy of rigid, slicing movement--arms beating, legs vibrating, mouths opening in soundless yells, the whole crowd tumbling into swirling runs, finally to reveal, at stage center, the pitiful sight of Quasimodo. No stuffed hump bloated his back; Quasimodo's deformity is suggested entirely by Cragun's stance, his up-crooked shoulder and dangling forearm, just as his terror is indicated by the dancer's woe-stricken eyes and gaping mouth.
The exposition of the story is swift and clear. Each major personnage is introduced in turn, each with a characterizing solo--a tortured, cringing dance for Quasimodo; a tense, menacing, spear-like one for Frollo, wracked by his lust for Esmeralda; a sexily insinuating number for the heroine; and a bit later, a regulation display of macho heroics for Phoebus. The ensemble appears in various guises, as nobles, whores, soldiers, riffraff, ghouls; as far as dance is concerned, they are seen in diverse types of mob calisthenics, with lots of acrobatics, floor work, and grotesque tics.
The story unfolds with equal rapidity and clarity. The jealous Frollo kills Esmeralda's love, Phoebus; Quasimodo saves her from Frollo's death decree by carrying her to his bell tower, but Frollo pursues, ravishes the girl and has her hanged, whereupon Quasimodo strangles his nemesis, and wanders into the mist with Esmeralda's lifeless body. The choreographic high point is a poignant duet for Quasimodo and Esmeralda in the tower, but each of the principals has ample chance to demonstrate skills. Cragun's hunchback and Gil's explosive Frollo rather steal the palm, but Khalfouni and Ganio are splendid in their more stereotyped roles. The ensemble dancing is razor sharp and blazing with conviction. Allio's sets roll out one eye-popper after another, the colossal, ominous bell tower being the summit. Saint Laurent's costumes are both dramatically apt and visually exciting. Jarre's music, in a Shostakovich vein, is effective if unmemorable.
The downside is that there's scarcely any emotional payoff to all this--the characters are like horror-story caricatures, and, except for isolated passages involving Quasimodo's gratitude for Esmeralda's tenderness and Frollo's passionate obsession, it's hard to get involved in the turmoil. "Notre Dame de Paris" remains a spectacle--an awesome, brilliantly theatrical, at times rivetting spectacle, but not more; something one regards at a distance, with admiration but little affect.