Roland Petit is perplexing. A choreographer capable of conjuring fine shadings of mood, meaning and --yes--movement, he also resorts to tricks and routines. Yet at times it is the very reliance on formula that gives his work rank in balletic tradition. This weekend at the Kennedy Center, the Ballet National de Marseille's performances continued to be a kaleidoscope of Petit's contrary aspects.
In "The Young Man and Death," Luigi Bonino alternated with Patrick Dupond as the Young Man. In Bonino's characterization, the young man's fate in his love affair with death is never in doubt. A character dancer of virtuoso caliber, Bonino tensed as soon as he had risen from the mussed bed in the garret cell. He built the whole role as a single crescendo. Dupond, a classical danseur in the grand mold, knew how to relax following a climax. This gave the Young Man the appearance of having a choice before tackling a new challenge.
Dupond's version played on the ballet's closeness to Greek tragedy. Bonino's brought to the fore its existentialism and its roots in Parisian cabarets with their sadomasochistic Apache dance acts. Dupond's partner, Florence Faure, achieved the vacant stare of a skullhead even before she donned the death mask for the ballet's apotheosis on the rooftops of Paris. Pascale Doye, who danced with Bonino, was not dispassionate enough in toying with him to seem more than a mortal woman. Both renditions make this early work of Petit's seem out of the ordinary.
The repertory find of the season is Petit's "L'Arle'sienne." Mixing the archetypal chain dances of Nijinska's "Les Noces" and the very private hysterias of Tudor's "Lilac Garden" did not end in disaster because Petit knows that if you scratch a bourgeois, there's a peasant hiding inside. Even bolder was his use of the atmospheric Bizet music for so stark a tale of impotence. Denys Ganio proved to be a noble actor in the bridegroom's part, although not as seamless a dancer as Jean-Charles Gil, with whom he alternated. Pascale Leroy, as the bride, was a touch simpler and warmer than the complex, superbly articulated Dominique Khalfouni, who danced with Gil.
The French, by being well centered and always bringing an extended hand or leg precisely back to the body, establish their place on the stage with clarity. This quality seemed the topic of the lively technique dances in Petit's "Soire'e Debussy." Its motion choirs, though more sensational than the group work in "Notre Dame de Paris," again dehumanized the performers by using them as scenery.