Ballet Proust, Roland Petit’s “Proust, or: the Intermitencies of the Heart”

I came to this DVD expecting a narrative ballet, perhaps “A la recherche du temps perdu” in miniature, a million words squashed down into just under two hours of ballet and, though this isn’t what this ballet was, I didn’t feel cheated by what I saw.

If anything it showed how fertile Proust’s complex edifice is, and how enduring are its characters and moments in the memory of those who have read his novel. And yes, sadly, I really think it is those who have read the novel who’ll get the most from this ballet, but for those who haven’t read it, there’s beautiful dancing, fantastic music sensitively performed and its all well shot and recorded.


The piece is constructed from precisely those important moments just mentioned. Petit’s ballet is a melange of these key scenes, loosely following the core of the book’s plot.

The work is presented as a diptych. Act 1: “Scenes from a Proustian Paradise” consists of lighter themes. The second – “Scenes From a Proustian Hell” – violence. (So far, this accords well with the structure of the novel.) Thus in the first half we get the little band of girls, Albertine and Andree in a brief duet, Swan and Odette, Charlus falling for Morel and Morel seducing Charlus.
The second half is itself mainly concerned to show Charlus in love. Thereafter there’s a slightly odd Morel and Saint-Loup pas de deux called “combat of the angels” and the entire work ends with a section from the end of Time Regained, the scene which in fact ends the novel.

With the exception of Charlus, little time is given to character development. The ballet might better be thought of as Ten Dances on the Theme of Proust.

I enjoyed the first half more than the second. This is really down to the fact that the first half is all quite fey, quite standard modern ballet danced very well, and the scenes danced ally closely with the scenes from the novel. A stand-out is the Narrator/Albertine pas de deux, of which more below.

Albertine and Andree’s duet was sensitively performed and cleverly choreographed but slightly brief. To go on longer would have meant probably each girl undressing! The Swan/Odette pas de deux goes off well, the cattleya present as expected, and Swan’s ultimate despair neatly encapsulated in the sequence.

The “scene of “Mr Charlus facing the impossible” is noteworthy by having Mathieu Ganio’s Morel naked throughout, first under an extremely handsome dressing gown, and later, posed classically (almost to suggest Michelangelo’s Adam) on a bed. No wonder the ancients sculpted the male form, is all I’ll say.

Naked Charlie (leeched w.o. permission)

No wonder Charlus falls for Charlie.

Here is a link, with the above dance and the scene after:

If anything these scenes show just how modern were Proust’s concerns about sexuality. Morel and Saint-Loup bisexual, Charlus a sadomasochistic homosexual, Albertine Lesbian. In the galaxy of Proust’s human actors just about everyone is homosexual and more, there’s little of the milk of human kindness – Proust spends a lot of his time showing how mean we are to one another, how friendships are worthless and how romantic love is merely misdirected obsession. A ballet can’t show this all, nor could Petit have time to show the Narrator’s sexual peccadilloes, the greatest of which is terrible sexual jealousy, paranoia and destructive possession.

My viewing of the whole ballet wasn’t without quibbles. These were chiefly with choreography and not the dancing, which – some wobbles and nerves in the first tableau aside – was secure and indeed pretty much faultless throughout.

Chief quibble was Petit’s Charlus who for me was a little too “nervous” in his choreography. I would have appreciated more subtlety. His Vouge-ing hand gestures, were for me, de trop, his implacable puppy-eyed infatuation with Morel speaking a desperation which Charlus surely felt, but never showed in the novel. Certainly I don’t recall him given over to such “public displays of affection”. Fits of pique, yes, but hotfooted hand-flapping, no.

If Charlus was too overwrought in that scene, his dancing at the male brothel worked much better, by which I mean, seemed more true to the novel. You can watch it at the link posted above. I hadn’t appreciated how comparatively slight Legris was until he was partnered by three rough stevedores/military men in a whirling violent dance or erotic homosexuality. But then, there may have been selected some tall dancers to make it appear so.

Though here Charlus is not chained (which wouldn’t quite work, a static arrest in a medium based on movement) he does undergo a narrative of violence, not least to his pysche – the goal of most masochists, perhaps? Petit succeeds better here because the dance is a confrontation with a subject, rather than dancer as a subject alone. (There is also far less hand flapping here which helps.)

Choreographing Charlus would always be a tough task. He is one of the most complex characters in Western literature, one of the most human and affecting. He is deeply flawed. He loves and suffers for it, comes across as a frightful snob but then later shrinks to a desiccated shadow of his former Titanic self. The masque drops and the man, such as he has become, remains. He rivals Hamlet in his depths and richness and as a written character he is one of the truest that words have created. Dance could only ever approximate this. On film, Alain Delon and John Malkovitch could only approximate it.  Charlus is his own multitude. Petit’s is a Charlus in his prime, just one facet of Proust’s creature which, cut by his masterly craftsmanship both dazzles and dissembles on the surface and refracts our gaze as we look to its core. Thus Charlus, the inscrutable. Back to ballet.

I said I’d offer more on Albertine and the Narrator’s dance. As Part One proceeded through books one and two, my opinion was still ill-formed: I began to think of the ballet as a kind of hagiography, a we-love-Proust!-fest without balance or dissention, and still a semi-narrative affair. This changed when Tableau seven began, “La regarder dormir, ou la réalité ennemie” (“Watching her sleeping, or, the enemy reality”) the solo and then pas des deux featuring Narrator and Albertine.

This section was exquisite, and beautifully danced by Christophe Duquenne and Petit’s favourite Eleonora Abbagnato to Franck”s Psyche. There’s about three minutes of Duquenne solo, before their pas de deux begins, of which a few moments in particular took my breath away.

The only thing on stage during this tableau is a lone shimmeringly ruggated curtain, with Albertine supine in attitude of sleep at base. The Narrator approaches after his solo where he has sung in movement of his love/obsession. He moves to her and steps to bend down, his face by her shoulder (one imagines this is perhaps where the famous scene of contemplating her shifting visage takes place.) With his hand supporting her neck, Albertine rises up, stiff and straight – so as to preserve the line, but perhaps also to suggest her fate or the doll-like quality in which the Narrator holds her?

From, used without permission

Once standing she sways as if sleepy, the Narrator circling her, and there is a moment of quiet repose in action and music. He takes a deep breath as if savouring his love, holds his arms open as if to release that feeling, and Albertine, eyes closed and as if responding to some thamaturgical command, rises up slowly en pointe, falling back into the Narrator’s arms – where their dance begins. What follows is ten minutes of wonderful choreography, never once feeling overlong or off the boil. There’s much to describe here and much to admire (this section is worth the price of the disc alone) yet I can’t set down it all. Suffice to say the scene ends with Albertine asleep once more, the shimmering curtain falling onto her, which one astute blogger likened to a shroud. (Well done, Petit.) Credit too to Duquenne for dancing what looks like a piece that’s pretty tiring with grace and focus.

There were some curious moments in this section (some floor-work was “interesting” and it is no coincidence that here the audience resumed sporadic coughing, always an indicator of loss of attention) but on the whole: good. I had some reservations about the piece, but these disappeared on the second viewing. I had first thought it romanticised a very poisonous relationships between Albertine and Narrator, and that it elided this. In actuality it does hint at the terrible jealousy and possession displayed in the book. The Narrator bars Albertine’s escape, forcibly abducts almost, before they seem to reconcile (just as Psyche’s theme begins again.) I had missed these elements because on first viewing I had thought Albertine here more akin to a fairytale creature. She is all-woman, perhaps overstatedly so. I thought her more dancer-on-stage than Albertine, though Abbagnato characterises the Albertine she has been given well.

One could say this is merely the intimation of Albertine’s veiled sexuality. Too, one could say it is a function of Abbagnato being a model, and a dancer. (Truly, how does one know the dancer from the dance?) Ballet enchants partly by mesmerising, dismantling our resistance to objection, and ingratiating itself through pure beauty. This demands beautiful bodies doing (usually) beautiful things and there are many beautiful bodies and things on display in many ballet companies, not least here.

Which brings me to the most curious scene in this 10 scene work: the semi-abstract “Chance Encounter in the Dark” played in silhouette featuring topless dancers (three men and one woman.) I admit I was perplexed by the inclusion of this. As above, I don’t mind watching human bodies in balletic motion but they need not be naked. I rather think this was included mainly because it could be. The French attitude to nudity is more relaxed than in Anglo Saxon countries, and more often in evidence in adverts, creative undertakings and the like. I should probably watch it again, but I can say they made some nice shapes. Maybe it abstracts the whole Odette/Albertine (woman) vs. man dynamic, where women are objects to be possessed. If so, this section would enjoy an ancestry with Manon – Odette is really a Manon who has read Manon – happily living in a society which had gone all “don’t ask don’t tell” about the demi-monde.

I was also left cold by the “Battle of the Angels” sequence, which I see was given a performance last year in the various dancers’ vanity project at the Coli. Yes, Saint-Loup and Morel probably frolicked in a few glades together but for me this dance didn’t work. You may watch here and make your own judgements.

The end scene, Time Regained finds the corps dressed in 1920s-ish attire and frankly, dancing like a corps animated by voodoo magick. Not for nothing did another blogger liken them to zombies. Thriller, by way of extremely fin de siecle France.

It reminded me a little of Bausch, and the Wuppertal dance group’s sillier moments. Throughout the jerky cavorting and rictus coming and goings, there sits stage left front, someone dressed very much like Blanche”s famous Portrait of Proust complete with spray of orchid and small moustache. He sits implacable and unmoving: one imagines either remembering or discovering these moments – or rather, creating them, as this is Proust ecrivan, not his silent shade who haunts the novel, named openly only a few times, and often confused as a straight cipher for recollection. As the music of Wagner’s Rienzi Overture swells his only gesture is to raise his hands, and spread them palm upward as gesture almost of magnanimity, a bestowing of a gift – the gift of his rich and moving novel.

Petit’s ballet does a marvellous job of bringing characters dancing from the page into life. Costumes by Liuisa Spinatelli are beautiful and evoke their respective eras very well and the whole thing is a pleasure to watch. Proust fans would find this well worth tracking down.

I leave you with a trailer.

UPDATE 04/03/15:

This video contains the entire “Albertine Sleeping” sequence, as mentioned above. This version features Natalia Makarova. Pressing play will start the video directly from that sequence.


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