By now we should be used to hype in show business and alert to the allowances one must make. But the Paris Opera Ballet is an especially unfortunate instance. It is not the company's fault that its merits have been so vastly inflated by advance reports.
So you don't think I'm making it up, let me quote one example -- by a well-known critic writing about the recent Metropolitan Opera gala in which the Paris troupe made its return to this country after an absence of 38 years. "This French company is simply amazing -- a visiting assembly of dancers of a quality of technique, style and expressiveness we have not seen since the Russians."
It would be a mockery of all standards in ballet esthetics to try to match up such fairly typical encomiums with what one saw last night at the Kennedy Center Opera House, where the Paris Opera Ballet presented the first of seven performances of "Swan Lake" in the recent version by the troupe's artistic director, Rudolph Nureyev. The more so after just having seen the Kirov Ballet in "Swan Lake," whatever its flaws. One must also ask where this leaves the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, not to mention quite a few other companies on either side of the Seine.
I hate sounding like an ingrate, and the Kennedy Center engagement really is a wonderful opportunity to make or renew acquaintance with a fine ballet company from abroad, one that may well have made admirable progress over the past several decades. What's called for here is a sense of perspective.
At the Met gala, what stood out about the Paris troupe were the numbers of individual dancers of obvious polish and appeal. The most spectacular of them, Patrick Dupond (who's been seen in Washington before), doesn't dance "Swan Lake" and so is not appearing with the company at Kennedy Center, where this is the only ballet being offered. But the Met is a deceptive place anyhow. The Kennedy Center Opera House, with its far more conducive intimacy, is also a much more revealing site for dance. The proximity, however, didn't work to the advantage of the Parisians last night.
Another of the impressive performers at the Met was 21-year-old Sylvie Guillem, who was last night's Odette-Odile, and she is, to be sure, a lovely dancer with extraordinary leg extension, a sturdy technique and very considerable promise. But unless you measure the success of a ballerina by the number of fouettes she executes in the "Black Swan" coda, Guillem left the role a pale semblance of its possibilities.
Guillem started out as a gymnast; her celebrated leg reach and her rather overarched feet are not really the advantages, in a classical context, they might at first seem. Nevertheless her glamor and technique lent a certain brilliance to her Odile. But her Odette seemed lethargic and emotionally blank. Much of the blame for this isn't hers, but belongs rather with the callow Prince Siegfried of Laurent Hilaire and Nureyev's disastrously ill-conceived production.
Hilaire, 24, is a handsome youth with occasionally impressive elevation but, like most of the other men and some of the women on stage, conspicuously weak pirouettes and other technical blemishes. More to the point, he was hopelessly out of his depth dramatically, projecting no sense of Siegfried's poetic inclinations, romantic longings or tragic anguish.
Nureyev's tinkerings with "Swan Lake" were still more deleterious in effect. His intention was to reinterpret the ballet along modern psychological lines, making the whole encounter with Odette-Odile into a dream, and identifying the Tutor with the evil sorcerer, Rothbart. The result, though, is a travesty -- "Swan Lake" with obfuscatory and ungainly gimmicks, interpolations and rearrangements that all but destroy the work. Ezio Frigerio's sets, moreover, put all the fabled white scenes with the swans against the background of a cream-colored, gilt-trimmed, rectangularly paneled palace interior that kills whatever romantic magic is left by Nureyev's choreography. In the dream episodes, the rear wall divides to reveal a tackily painted backcloth of the lakeside. There are trees, water and a cloudless sky, but nary a hint of doom -- it could be Central Park Pond on a balmy spring day.
As for Nureyev's own performance in the role of the Tutor-Rothbart, it would be a disservice to his many years of unsurpassable artistry to take it seriously. Yes, we know he's a man obsessed by dancing; yes, it's amazing some of the things he can get himself through at age 48, and yes, many people will resonate to his superstar image (which, sad to say, he strives to milk). But no amount of discounting can turn his understandable shortcomings, at this point, into artistic virtues.
Certainly the company has many positive sides that are being slighted here, including effervescent youngsters like Elizabeth Maurin and Manuel Legris in the "Neapolitan Dance," a lively, if noisy-footed corps de ballet, and, in general, remarkably articulate feet and legs (not so the arms, hands and upper torsos). New castings to come during the week's run may also give a better slant on this "Swan Lake." All in all, though, disappointment was the prevailing residue of opening night