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Ballets Français
Broadcast 1955-65
Video: 4:3 / monochrome
Audio: mono
Region code: 0 (all regions) / NTSC
VAI DVD 4583 [65:00]

In the earliest years of radio - and long before the advent of television for all but the elite few - the BBC's first Director General, Lord Reith, defined its aim as being to "inform, educate, entertain", a mantra that was subsequently adopted by many other broadcasters throughout the world. Information and education were identified as the top priorities. Not until the profound social upheavals of the 1960s did the media transfer their main focus to mass entertainment.

Thus television viewers in the 1950s and at least the first half of the 1960s enjoyed access to far more highbrow culture on mainstream channels than we are used to today and a small but regular and notable part of that output consisted of ballet performances. In Britain, BBC producer – and ex-dancer - Margaret Dale masterminded a series of important relays, thanks to which, to take just a single instance, we are fortunate enough still to be able to enjoy Ashton’s La fille mal gardée as performed by its original cast (ICA Classics DVD ICAD 5088). Meanwhile, in the USA a few enlightened commercial sponsors ensured that ballet was also broadcast to a mass audience and, thanks to DVD, we can still watch, for instance, the complete Bell Telephone Hour programmes in which Rudolf Nureyev and Erik Bruhn performed with various partners between 1961 and 1967 (VAI 4221). The release under consideration here demonstrates that Canadian television too was in on the act.

Although this is a short disc, barely more than an hour in length, and its contents were filmed entirely in black-and-white, it is nonetheless of great historical importance. Fortunately, it is also hugely enjoyable.

Like many other viewers, I consider that ballet is enhanced when it tells a story. “Pure” dance – from Les sylphides onwards – has, it goes without saying, a very worthwhile purpose of its own and deserves at least equal exposure. Nevertheless, to my mind the addition of a narrative element enhances the overall experience of ballet for general, non-specialist audiences - and not every story needs to be as detailed or complex as, say, The sleeping beauty or Raymonda. In fact, even the flimsiest and least substantial of tales can offer ballet-goers genuinely valuable focus and insights and a narrative storyline - or even simply the emotional atmosphere engendered by one - will often unlock the “meaning” of choreography that can otherwise be sometimes rather opaque.

Three of the five ballets presented here are story-based and they were the ones I most enjoyed. The first, Mademoiselle Fifi, was choreographed by Zachary Solov to some attractive if admittedly not terribly sophisticated music by the 19th century part-time composer Théodore de Lajarte. It showcases the talents of Russian émigré dancer Alexandra Danilova who, at the time of its recording may well have been in her early 50s. I only hesitate to be more exact than that because although this release gives us the dates of these five films' original TV broadcast - and, as was common practice in that period, the performances were probably transmitted live - there is always an outside chance that they had been recorded earlier at some unspecified date. Further information on that point from VAI would have been useful.

Madame Danilova takes the part of the eponymous heroine, a gold-digging dancer who, retiring to her dressing room after an on-stage performance, is courted by a young fan and accepts his engagement ring. At that point, his outraged father appears and, shades of La Traviata, forbids the match. After the distraught son leaves the scene, however, and in comic contrast to Verdi's operatic scenario, the father himself declares his love for Fifi. She, after a brief show of reluctance, discards the son's engagement ring for the far larger one proffered by the amorous older man - and are we being too cynical when we suspect that her eagerness to do so might also be due to the fact that he has a rather dicky heart? The reappearance of the son leads to a concluding bout of fisticuffs between the two men, at the conclusion of which they exit the stage along with the exuberant Fifi who is ultimately the real and triumphant victor in a supposedly male-dominated world.

It might be thought that Danilova - who, as made up here, bears a striking resemblance to Agnes Moorhead - was too old for the role of Fifi. Nonetheless, we rapidly forget any misgivings that we may have had on that score. In the first place, the story, such as it is, makes perfect sense even if the heroine is a much older woman. After all, the father's opposition to his son’s proposed union might believably be based on it being a May/September match. But secondly and more importantly, Danilova's obvious charisma, immense enthusiasm, winningly comic overacting - appropriately matched by the two male dancers - and her secure technique soon render her real age an issue of negligible significance. As the authoritative Wall Street Journal critic Robert Greskovic wrote of this performance, "there is more beguiling animation, academic dance geometry, and vivid characterization here from La Danilova than from many 'serious' and lengthy ballets of the late twentieth century" (Robert Greskovic Ballet: a complete guide [London, 2000], p. 537). Apart, too, from the obvious enjoyment that this brief, 12 minutes long performance conveys, it has a unique importance in ballet history as the only remaining record of a single and complete Danilova performance.

Balance à trois, choreographed by star dancer Jean Babilée, is set to an eclectic but effectively written score by Jean-Michel Damase that ranges from moments reminiscent of Rhapsody in Blue to others recalling nothing so much as the anodyne music that accompanied those Look at life travelogues that you had to sit through in the 1960s before the main cinema feature began.

The theme of Babilée's ballet is, oddly enough, somewhat similar to that of Mademoiselle Fifi. A girl - this time a genuinely young one danced by Gerda Baum - exercises alone in a gymnasium. She is joined first of all by a preening, self-aware and self-confident young gymnast in the shape of Jean Babilée himself. Their growing mutual interest is interrupted by the arrival of Adolfo Andrade, portraying a somewhat arrogant and thuggish young boxer, a piece of beefcake straight out of the pages of Tom of Finland. In competition for the girl's attention, the boys attempt to outdo each other in an escalating series of gymnastic exercises. Ultimately, however, she intervenes to restore harmony and the three of them exit the stage, wreathed in smiles, in a spirit described by a narrator’s voice as "camaraderie". That innocent interpretation was only to be expected in 1965. We of the cynical 21st century are more likely to assume that this Balance à trois was all too likely to have become a full-blown off-stage ménage à trois.

The ballet gets off to a somewhat sluggish start in the section where the girl is alone in the gym. She remains until the end rather a passive character - not much more than a blandly sweet and physically unimposing bobby-soxer. Here, this time in contrast to Mademoiselle Fifi, the primary choreographic interest lies in the two men, for it is their arrival that sets up the dramatic interaction between the three characters and soon begins to create a compelling narrative sweep. Fortunately, both Babilée and Andrade are charismatic dancers who hold our attention even when they are simply standing motionless and watching each other perform. Balance à trois is something of a period piece – rather reminiscent of a balletic West side story with Babilée a clean cut Jet and Andrade’s darker Latin looks marking him out as a Shark. Sadly, it hasn't demonstrated the same ability to survive as Bernstein's musical, but it is good to see it here all the same.

The DVD's final track offers us the third story-based ballet. These days we expect to see Romeo and Juliet danced to Prokofiev's masterly score and performances typically to last somewhat more than a couple of hours. Anyone watching this 1958 version, on the other hand, will need to be already briefed with the story's details, for choreographer Serge Lifar attempts to convey the whole Shakespearean tragedy in just 20 minutes - the timing of Tchaikovsky's overture-fantasy to which his ballet is set - and with just two dancers. Not only is this a version of Romeo and Juliet on amphetamines, but it also requires several huge suspensions of disbelief as the balcony scene flashes by in a few seconds, Romeo repeatedly and at length clashes swords with invisible enemies and Juliet takes her poison for no apparent reason at all. Its most unexpected feature is that the hero and heroine are actually resurrected at the end to be reunited in the afterlife - though that particular oddity can't match Diaghilev's utterly bonkers production of 1926, in which Lifar himself, as Romeo, having undergone a similar unexpected resuscitation, climbed into an aviator's suit and flew off into eternity with Juliet in an aeroplane.

Please don't, however, be put off by my description. This Romeo and Juliet is actually a complete triumph thanks to the committed and completely convincing performances of its stars Violette Verdy and Scott Douglas. While both follow a long-established tradition by being rather too old for their characters, their dramatic intensity will soon make you forget that they are certainly not teenagers. From the very opening moments, Verdy and Douglas inhabit their roles completely and convey the widest range of emotions with huge conviction. The climax, when Ms Verdy dances herself into an anguished frenzy before coming to a sudden stop and throwing her arms wildly into the air as she catches sight of Romeo's corpse, is utterly overpowering. At that one moment, all doubt about the practicality of utilising Tchaikovsky's score to produce thereby this necessarily abbreviated version is completely removed.

The remaining two performances, Préludes and Adagio, date from 1965 when they were broadcast as part of a triple bill with Balances à trois. Both are examples of abstract dance and are also comparatively short, presumably because television executives thought that story-less performances needed to be kept brief for easily distracted or bored audiences. Clair Sombert, a dancer noted throughout her distinguished career for artistic sensitivity rather than virtuosity, makes a fine and assured soloist in Préludes. She dances partly at the barre, offering her the necessary physical support for part of the action, as well as on the floor, while the contrasting music of each Bach piece offers plenty of scope for interpretative variety. Ms Sombert is well partnered by Adolfo Andrade in Adagio - the ubiquitous one that's usually, as on this occasion, described as being "by" Albinoni but is more accurately attributed to its so-called arranger Remo Giazotto. Dancing to music of such a consistently slow tempo can easily expose any technical shortcomings and it would be misleading to say that this is a flawless performance. It is, nonetheless, a fine, elegantly executed and accomplished one.

Given that the filming of these various performances took place over a decade during which television technology advanced considerably, it should come as no surprise that the standard of presentation varies considerably from one broadcast to another. The weakest is the earliest, Mademoiselle Fifi, where we find several instances of the cameraman missing important parts of the often fast-moving action. At one point, for instance, the heroine dances completely out of shot when we really need to see her continuing interaction with the two suitors. By 1965 more care seems to have been taken with Balance à trois and the picture quality certainly benefits from better technical standards. The most successful of the films is, however, the 1958 Romeo and Juliet where imaginative and creative use of close-ups and more varied camera angles produce a much more visually sophisticated end result.

One consistent feature worth noting is that Canadian TV didn't, in the 1950s and 1960s, spend a great deal of money on making its sets entirely fit for purpose. That for Mademoiselle Fifi has a floor so slippery, for example, that dancer Michael Maule actually falls over on his first entrance - which might suggest, incidentally, that this was a live broadcast rather than a recording where the mishap could have been edited out. Props and scenery are also very basic, not to say positively bizarre at times, as when we note that the admittedly man-mad Fifi's dressing room has several large painted phalluses decorating its wall. Three years later, the scenery for Romeo and Juliet has become less sexually explicit but also rather more complex, arranged on several levels and incorporating the expected balcony: nevertheless, there's a memorable moment when a supposedly solid section of the palace "masonry" exhibits a distinct wobble as Juliet takes hold of it. While the set for the 1965 recording of Balance à trois appears to have been built rather more sturdily, those for the contemporary recordings of Préludes and Adagio consist entirely of plain floor-to-ceiling drapes - but unadorned and timeless sets are probably, after all, the most effective option for displays of abstract dance.

The presentation of this disc is also rather spare, as is typical of VAI productions. There are no extra features on the DVD itself, and the simple paper insert consists of a couple of pages of information that focuses primarily on the artists. It would have been interesting to have learned something about the provenance of the material, but there is nothing on that.

As I write this, the ongoing controversy about the whole future of public service broadcasting in the U.K. continues unabated. It's worth noting, however, that the current BBC boss Lord Hall has expressed a wish to raise the profile of the arts in its output, indicating, perhaps, that a reorientation of programme makers' priorities back in a Reithian direction might be in the offing. He could, I'd suggest, do a lot worse than commission a few more ballet productions and, if budgeting's a problem, the success of these old Canadian TV productions surely demonstrates that they needn't necessarily be on the most ambitious scale. Ballet superstar Natalia Osipova, currently based in London, has demonstrated a natural flair for comedy with expertly honed performances in, among others, Don Quixote, Coppélia and La fille mal gardée - and I, for one, would love to see her take on the role of Mademoiselle Fifi. In the meantime, though, this reminder of the great Alexandra Danilova - and of the other artists in this delightful and historically valuable DVD - will do pretty well instead.

Rob Maynard

Mademoiselle Fifi [12 :30]
Music by Théodore de Lajarte (1826-1890)
Choreography by Zachary Solov
Balance à Trois [19 :09]
Music by Jean-Michel Damase (1928-2013)
Choreography by Jean Babilée
Préludes nos. 8 and 20 [5:20]
Music by J.S. Bach (1685-1750)
Choreography by Janine Charrat
Adagio - Pas de deux [7 :20]
Music by Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1751), arr. Remo Giazotto
Choreography by Gérard Ohn
Romeo and Juliet [20:00]
Music by Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Choreography by Serge Lifar
Alexandra Danilova, Roman Jasinsky and Michael Maule (Mademoiselle Fifi)
Jean Babilée, Gerda Daum and Adolfo Andrade (Balance à trois)
Claire Sombert (Préludes)
Claire Sombert and Adolfo Andrade (Adagio)
Violette Verdy and Scott Douglas (Romeo and Juliet)
Orchestre de Radio-Canada/Désiré Defauw (Mademoiselle Fifi)
Orchestre de Radio-Canada/Alexander Brott (Balance à Trois, Préludes and Adagio)
Orchestre de Radio-Canada/Jacques Beaudry (Romeo and Juliet)
rec. unspecified venues and dates; televised 27 January 1955 (Mademoiselle Fifi), 23 October 1958 (Romeo and Juliet) and 10 January 1965 (Balance à trois, Préludes and Adagio)


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