SUSPENSION OF BELIEF: Ballet presents Romantic-era tale of love and death
From a purely visual point of view, Lady of the Camellias is one of the most appealing full-length works in the current repertory of the Kansas City Ballet, which in recent years has focused much attention on more “family-oriented” stories. Val Caniparoli’s choreography for this retelling of a semi-autobiographical Alexandre Dumas fils tale will delight the balletomane for its mixture of gorgeous classical ballet with what is essentially a modernist outlook. Fans of La traviata will have fun comparing this recounting of the real-life tragedy of the “courtesan” Marguerite (a.k.a. Violetta) with that told in Verdi’s opera. (It is loosely based on the brief life of Marie Duplessis, an actual lover of the younger Dumas, who died purportedly of tuberculosis at the age of 23.) This is decidedly an “adult” ballet, however, not in the sense that it is openly scandalous per se, but in that its theme of “high-end prostitution in decent Parisian society” is at best, well, controversial.
The sheer look of Val’s ballet, which opened on February 15th at the Kauffman Center and runs through the 24th, is deliciously stunning throughout: not just because of the savvy, meticulously etched dance but because of the sets and costume designs and the continually compelling lighting by Trad A Burns—which plays such a critical role in the “look” of the piece that it almost becomes a character unto itself. (The brilliantine orange-lit drop of Act II, for example, provides a sort of hopeful “horizon,” a perfect if unexpected setting for spring frolic: Yet this grows increasingly dingy-grey to reflect the sad events of the latter part of the Act.)
David Gano’s starkly ornate set designs (with tall, narrow panels sculpted with metallic-looking filigree serving as walls, doors, and wings) create a sense of decadent glamour for Acts I and III, and Robert de La Rose’s simple bucolic look for Act II (and his costume designs throughout) show attention to the difference between central and secondary characters. When Marguerite appears in Act III, for instance, desolate at having to renounce her love for Armand, she alone is dressed in the charcoal-grey of the wall-panels, while the other women are in tastefully muted colors. We can literally feel a sense of the walls closing in on Marguerite, who has been asked by Armand’s father to “save his family’s reputation.”
Val grabs our hearts right away in Act I, as the lovely drawing-room ladies are being courted by the oh-so-elegant gentlemen. Among the denizens of this world are courtesans and playboys such as the debauched roué St. Gaudins (Dillon Malinski) with his fetching mistress, Olympe (Danielle Bausinger); the young lover Gustave (Cameron Thomas on opening night) and his fiancée, Nichette (the lovely Taryn Mejia); and even the brash, madame-like older courtesan, Prudence (Grace Holmes), sporting prominently red hair à la Belle Watling.
But our attention is immediately drawn to the dashing if haughtily muscular Baron de Varville (Liang Fu), who is stiffly courting Marguerite (Emily Mistretta) and finding her rather difficult to woo. She reluctantly agrees to a pas de deux with the Baron, but it is a dance of wariness and resistance. Happily, she has another, less officious courtier, Armand Duval (Lamin Pereira dos Santos), whose dance with her is tender and gentle: As they perform the first of three increasingly passionate pas de deux, we have the sense not so much of conquest as of Marguerite’s irrepressible joy at having found “true love” at last. (Two casts alternate through the course of the run.) She rewards him with her trademark camellia and an invitation to visit her later that evening—in the form of a key to her boudoir.
Armand returns, and both principals are brilliant here in conveying a sense of complete abandon: For the first time, perhaps, she has given not just her body but her heart to a man, and this finds demure but quite passionate display toward the end of the scene. It is here that we become acutely aware of just how pertinent Chopin’s music for piano and orchestra is for this ballet: Its hyper-Romanticism captures not only the spirit but also the time-frame being evoked (it was, in fact, composed at roughly the same time as the action of Dumas’ tale). Large portions of Chopin were performed live in the pit by two pianists and the Kansas City Symphony, and details such as little “peals” of pianistic filigree served ideally for Marguerite’s tender coughing fits. (Nearly all of Chopin’s demanding piano-orchestral music was used, but sadly neither pianist was quite up to the task.)
Chopin’s Variations on Mozart’s “Là ci darem” served as an ideal premise for the “variations” of Act II: What’s a ballet without a moment of repose, where everyone relaxes and dances a series of light ensembles? Most of these were quite fetching, though I was more convinced by the precise male ensembles than by the pas de cinque in which the ladies were dragged along the floor: playfully, perhaps, but rather awkwardly, in a row. The fun was interrupted by the Baron, who entered to face off with Armand, and in the ensuing trio, Marguerite attempted to come between them but saw that the problem was larger than she imagined. Fu’s movement was not simply hard-nosed, it contained a peculiar sort of chivalrous artifice, in striking contrast to Lamin’s more limpid, Chopin-esque gracefulness.
We all know where Marguerite’s heart lies, but alas Armand’s father enters (Dmitry Trubchanov). Here we encounter what is perhaps the strangest scene in the ballet: Unlike Germond and Violetta’s parallel moment in Traviata, in which both are rather standoffish, here the two actually dance. True, characters in ballet sometimes have to partner in order to communicate, and to be sure Duval Sr.’s movements are stolid and (generally) chaste. But at one point (when Marguerite discovers that she’s being asked to break off her relationship with Armand), she grows so desperate she falls prostrate and then climbs up onto the guy, curled up into a ball, in a scene reminiscent of Balanchine’s Prodigal Son. Yet she agrees to the bargain: We wouldn’t want the Duval name tarnished by the likes of her, after all!
At the scene’s climax, Robert Gibby Brand is heard singing an achingly mournful Chopin song from the pit, in quite decent Polish. “All that I love for is faded and gone. / I wander here in anguish, lonely and sad. / The sun has gone from my heaven. / And I must languish here in this loveless place.” And in the heartbreaking final strain: “ ‘Sing,’ cries my heart, ‘for we shall soon be leaving.’ ” It was some of the finest singing I’ve heard from Robert, who is not just one of Kansas City’s best actors but an extraordinarily accomplished singer as well. (The song was sung again in Act III, as Marguerite is dying, and mezzo-soprano Sarah Kathryn Curtis’ rendering took on a different feel: the mood having shifted from something less dark, perhaps, and more steeped with resigned melancholy.)
Armand sulks when he learns of his father’s devil’s bargain with Marguerite, yet he too seems to recognize that “it’s for the best.” Despite our conflicted feelings about the Duval Sr.’s patrician demands, we are struck by the tenderness of the father-son duet. Haltingly, Armand indicates that he still loves Dad, warts and all.
Act III begins with a sort of forced mirth: We’re in Olympe’s ballroom this time (more chandeliers!), and the gentlemen are in formal wear. The stage is filled with skillfully choreographed couples. But then bang: We are horrified as Armand “rejects” the bewildered Marguerite. All dance to the Grande Polonaise, until the male rivals engage in “dueling pirouettes”: Armand humiliates his beloved, and the Baron challenges him to an actual duel.
The final scene, accompanied by birdsong and a mysterious woman crossing silently upstage, features Marguerite in the throes of dementia. Is she witnessing the duel, or is it a vision? In any event we see the Baron shot squarely, while Armand falls backward into darkness: It doesn’t take a genius to realize he has survived (though Marguerite possibly doesn’t think so).
Instead she imagines a sort of Swan Lake-like apotheosis, in which a couple representing her and Armand dance upstage, in midnight-blue darkness. After a final, other-worldly pas de deux (Chopin’s Andante Spianato is perfect for the moment), in a touching final moment Marguerite suppresses her coughs long enough to find the dress she wore the night they met. “In death,” so reads the synopsis, “she relives the passion of her love and rediscovers her innocence.” Her resigned tears suggest that this is indeed a redemption story, after all. But as in many 19th-century tragedies, the woman is redeemed through sacrifice and death, while the man is redeemed—well, through her death. Fair? Absolutely not.
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